The Miami Hurricanes seem to have gotten this college football business down to a science. They use a simple formula: If you wear the wrong colors, the 'Canes hate you and the horse you rode in on. They don't mind if you hate them back. In fact, they encourage it. Then they go and get your hopes up by appearing to struggle against the likes of Toledo and Virginia Tech. Then they play you at their place, the Orange Bowl, and beat your brains in.
Saturday's hostile takeover involved Notre Dame, which had gone 8-2 through a killer schedule under wonderworker Lou Holtz. The Fighting Irish were looking to spoil undefeated and unconcerned Miami's hopes for another shot at the national title, against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl game on Jan. 1. There was also the matter of a 58-7 tattoo the Hurricanes put on Notre Dame two years ago. That debacle was Gerry Faust's last game as Irish coach. The 'Canes had been tried and convicted of running up the score in that one. And we all know that what goes around comes around. Well, sooner or later it does.
In this case, it's going to be later. Miami went out and viced, sliced, diced and iced Notre Dame 24-0. With a little more concentration and stickum, it could have been 50-0. Or worse. "But that would have been a sin," said Hurricane wide receiver Michael Irvin. Miami lost three fumbles in Irish territory, twice in the shadow of the Notre Dame goalposts. But the 'Canes' defense surrendered a mere 169 total yards. Notre Dame was never in it.
"We knew after the first series that they couldn't play with us," said Miami defensive end Daniel Stubbs, who, along with linebacker George Mira Jr. (17 tackles) and assorted accomplices, had pounded the Irish backfield. Notre Dame had come in with revenge on its mind. It left with its offense a ruin. "Their offensive line was big and strong, but Florida State's is better at pass protection," said Stubbs. "And don't even mention Oklahoma's. South Carolina [which Miami plays Saturday] will be a bigger threat than Notre Dame was."
December 7, 1987
The Irish arrived at the Orange Bowl averaging 269 yards rushing per game. On their first series, fullback Anthony Johnson burst between the tackles—supposedly Miami's soft spot—for 12 yards. This turned out to be Notre Dame's offensive highlight for the game. Johnson was tackled by senior safety Bennie Blades, who slammed Johnson down and then offered some sage advice. "I told him, 'Look here, punk, you're in my backyard now, and you have to answer to us,' " said Blades. The Irish ended up rushing for only 82 yards. "Figuratively speaking," said Blades, "we did what we are paid to do."
Miami didn't even have the decency to provide cause for moral outrage. Not on the scoreboard, anyway. The 24-0 final didn't quite make the game seem like a rout. But.... "Oklahoma has a more precise wishbone than Notre Dame," said Blades. "This was easy."
Earlier in the week, Holtz had said that Notre Dame's 21-20 loss to Penn State the previous Saturday had been "as disappointing as any I've ever been associated with." Now, perhaps, he has another opinion. Better to die a heroic death than to be dominated, humiliated and then pointed at on the way out of town. "They're as talented as any team I've seen," said a somber Holtz after the Hurricanes hit. "On a given day, they're probably the best team in the country. We got beat by a better football team." He had forsworn the revenge motive before the game. "You can't get ahead of someone if you're trying to get even with them," he had said, and, "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord." But the look on Holtz's face during the postgame interview indicated that perhaps he would have the good fathers check with the Lord about that vengeance clause in years to come.
Holtz had been working around some deficiencies in his offense all season. The Irish lost starting quarterback Terry Andrysiak with a broken collarbone in the fourth game of the season, and had averaged just 133 passing yards per game coming into Miami. But his defense had been solid. "Lou's an offensive coach smart enough to hire a defensive one [Foge Fazio]," says Gil Brandt, chief scout of the Dallas Cowboys. Even Holtz had said, "I know greatness starts with a dominating defense." Miami coach Jimmy Johnson couldn't argue with that. "I don't look at my team as one that peaks," he said. "Great defensive teams don't have to."
The Hurricanes made Tim Brown, the horse the Irish rode in on, look like an ordinary football player, holding him to a total of 95 yards' worth of receptions, rushes and kick returns. He had been averaging 175 yards a game in total offense and, with a Dec. 4 deadline for Heisman Trophy ballots, was considered the front-runner for the prize—until Saturday. Notre Dame's open-field flash learned that against Miami's defense there simply is no open field. Somebody's always there with a finger in your face or a helmet in your sternum. Brown was shut down from the opening kickoff, when defensive end Randy Bethel tried to plant him under the 20-yard line after a mere 12-yard return.
It only got worse for Brown, who dropped three passes while being shadowed and lectured to by cornerback Bubba McDowell and safety Darrell Fullington. "By the third quarter, I could see Brown had folded up his tent for the day," said Blades. By the end of the game, Brown was reduced to tongue-wagging with Miami's secondary. He couldn't win that contest, either.
"If they taunt you and talk about your mama, hey, I guess that's the way they play," said Brown. "They play with no class. But that's the way they feel the game should be played."
"I told Brown he was a punk," said Blades. "If I can hit my brother [Miami receiver Brian] in the mouth in practice, I can hit Tim Brown. You're not supposed to let a defense intimidate you. That's exactly what happened to him."
"We knew we had to shake him up, make him nervous," said McDowell. "I was surprised that it worked, that he dropped balls. We knew we had to shut him down. Yeah, we talked."
Because Miami hasn't suffered any recent blowouts—in fact, it has won 31 straight regular-season games—and its gridiron lore features no Gippers, it has to improvise its motivational techniques. Defensive backfield coach David Campo told his guys last week that Brown had said USC's secondary was tougher than Miami's. Whether Brown actually said it or not didn't seem to matter to the Hurricane coaches; gross insult, it appears, is the way to make a 'Cane play his best. "Tim was a nice guy about it afterward," said McDowell. "As soon as the game was over we told him, 'Nice game.' He just asked to meet Michael Irvin. I hope he's changed his mind about our defensive backs."
Earlier in the week, Holtz had said that the Hurricane players "aren't afraid of the FBI, the police or the opposition." Somehow, according to Blades, this comment was translated in type on the scouting reports given to the Hurricanes as: "Miami is a team of plantation boys, white trash and criminals." Those 'Canes sure can take umbrage out of thin air. "When guys come to your backyard and say things like that, you don't let 'em out," said Blades. "I congratulated Brown after the game, but I didn't bow down like he was lord and master."
No, humility is not a Hurricane trait, though Johnson did take a stab at it. "This was supposed to be a down year for us," he said. "We lost people like Jerome Brown, Alonzo Highsmith, Vinny Testaverde." And the 'Canes still have nearly as many first-round NFL picks as the Los Angeles Rams. "Miami has three high first-round draft picks next year, and that's only among the seniors," says Brandt. "Blades, Stubbs and Bratton, for sure." It was fullback Melvin Bratton who scored twice on short runs in the second and third quarters. A 5'9", 170-pound freshman gnatback named Leonard Conley added the coup de grace on a six-yard run in the fourth period. Conley also scooted for eight yards and a first down from the blocking back position in a fake punt that led to the 'Canes' second-quarter field goal. "Jimmy's a defensive coach who was smart enough to keep [quarterback coach and offensive coordinator] Gary Stevens around," says Brandt.
Johnson's 4-3 defense seemed to transfix Notre Dame, and it didn't help the Irish that the Orange Bowl crowd of 76,640 was in full throat. Notre Dame's sophomore quarterback Tony Rice was held to seven completions in 19 attempts for 84 yards. "I wanted to check off sometimes, but no one could hear me," said Rice. Notre Dame center Chuck Lanza said, "Some guys were running audibles that other guys didn't hear."
Meanwhile, Johnson had to pull backup quarterback Craig Erickson to the sideline to tell him to stop calling pass plays as the 'Canes were running out the clock. "No need asking for trouble," said a beaming Johnson.
Much has been made of the Hurricanes' propensity for "running it up," yet when they lay off the Toledos of the world—Miami beat the Rockets by only a 24-14 score on Nov. 21—everybody says the 'Canes are suspect. When they play well and score, they're too mean. But it is a fact that John Heisman, for whom the hallowed trophy is named, once beat Cumberland 222-0 when he was coaching Georgia Tech. The milk of human kindness has little to do with football, especially at Miami.
Take starting quarterback Steve Walsh, a third-year sophomore. Walsh waited behind Bernie Kosar and Testaverde, took over this year and has merely guided Miami to another undefeated season. Saturday, Walsh completed 13 of 22 passes for 196 yards. He made only one bad mistake all day, when the Irish bluffed him into thinking they would blitz and Walsh checked off and threw an interception. Yet, even if Walsh guides Miami to the national title, freshman Erickson may start next year. He's that good. Pressure from the bench can move a quarterback to aim for high double figures on the scoreboard.
If the Hurricanes get any better at the college football business, they'll have to stencil warning labels on their uniforms: THIS TEAM IS A THREAT TO YOUR HEALTH AND SENSIBILITIES. NOT TO MENTION YOUR WON-LOST RECORD. The Irish hadn't been shut out since Miami did it in 1983. "I want to see if they can play like that two weeks in a row," said Holtz.
"Like I said, South Carolina is a bigger threat than Notre Dame," said Stubbs, who sat dressed but barefoot in the Miami locker room long after the game. In the frenzy of the postgame celebration, someone had stolen his shoes. If Johnson is smart, he will blame the theft on the South Carolina quarterback.