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Schizophrenic 'Canes are still tough to beat

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2002

MIAMI -- At times, they are unstoppable. At others, unexplainable.

There are times the Hurricanes are a rolling ball of barbed wire, streaking past opponents and through the record books with equal speed. There are times Miami looks every bit as powerful as last year's team, which was every bit as powerful as any team ever has been.

Then there are the other vacant moments when the Hurricanes appear to grow bored in mid stride, moments when they seem to stop to admire the skyline in the distance.

And it is those moments, those moments of scattered focus, that whisper one word to Ohio State.


For the Buckeyes, the victims-elect of next month's national championship game at the Fiesta Bowl, this is their shot. Maybe, just maybe, they can catch the 'Canes in one of those periods of mental walkabout. Maybe, just maybe, they can count on UM to lose its concentration and, eventually, its coronation.

It happened again Saturday. One moment, the Hurricanes were moving along, flexing their muscles, showing off every weapon in the huddle. Then came the mental reflux that has plagued this team throughout the year, and suddenly, it was a range war. Miami won 56-45, but Ohio State isn't likely to be discussing an off-the-field settlement.

If there is a weak spot to the Hurricanes, it is this. All season, Miami has seemed to lack the ruthlessness of its predecessors. At times, the 'Canes play as if losing is so distant in their memory they no longer accept the possibility. It's as if the 'Canes mind-set fades in and out like an AM signal on an old radio.

This time, Miami spent most of this game showing why it should beat Ohio State in the title game. Then it showed a few moments why it might not.

It started with a decision which, if you check the NCAA record book, you will discover the Dumbest Playcall in History. The Hurricanes led 49-21 and they had first and goal at the 1. A touchdown, and the game was over. Besides, Willis McGahee had six touchdowns. Who was going to stop him?

Instead, the 'Canes had a mental hiccup and called a throwback from Jarrett Payton, the backup tailback, to quarterback Ken Dorsey. It was as if the Hurricanes lost interest in the game and started thinking of providing highlights to SportsCenter. UM center Brent Romberg called it "a Heisman Play," suggesting that maybe the Hurricanes wanted to show that, like Nebraska's Eric Crouch, Dorsey could catch touchdowns, too.

Instead, Tech's Willie Pile intercepted and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown, and by the end of the third quarter, it was 49-37. Miami won, but don't you think Ohio State took a little heart from it all?

"It's a little stressful, a little disappointing," Miami guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli said. "We've had at least three games where we could have put people away, and we haven't. We have to fix it. We have to learn to step on people's necks."

Despite it all, Miami figures to be a heavy favorite in the Fiesta. And why not? No one can match its firepower. If the 'Canes keep the pedal to the floor for an entire game, they should win big.

"If we ever do that," Romberg said, "it's going to be disgusting to watch. The other team will never score, and we'll score so much they'll need new lights for the scoreboard."

As a program, the Hurricanes have been here before. This team is much in the same situation of the '92 Hurricanes. They, too, were defending a championship. They, too, were quarterbacked by an underappreciated overachiever (Gino Torretta). They, too, were heavy favorites over a team that had trouble passing. Yet, Alabama won that game 34-13.

So, could Miami lose to Ohio State?

"Sure we could," Haji-Rasouli said. "We nearly lost to Rutgers."

Let's be honest. If Miami's head is in the game, it doesn't happen. The Hurricanes are simply too fast, too good. If they don't get lost in the lights, they'll win.

Do not take for granted what the Hurricanes have done. They have won 34 straight, a staggering number. Bear Bryant never did that, or Knute Rockne or Joe Paterno or Woody Hayes or Tom Osborne or Barry Switzer or Bobby Bowden. Only Oklahoma (with 47) and Toledo (with 35) have matched it in the past 80 years.

It's an amazing streak, the span of a senior's career, and it comes at a time when winning has never been more difficult in college football. Upsets have never been more common because of scholarship limits, early entries into the NFL, short weeks because of television and, yes, players who lose focus from time to time.

There are worse afflictions, of course, than wandering minds. For the 'Canes, however, it's the biggest thing standing in the way of another title.

If they focus, the title is theirs.

If they do not, Ohio State has a puncher's chance.

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