College Football's starship Enterprise wheezed to a halt in the Orange Bowl last Thursday night. Houston's high-powered run-and-shoot offense, designed to go where no offense has gone before, encountered an impregnable force field—a Miami defense with superior athletes at every position. The Cougars' eight first-half possessions ended thus: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal, safety, halftime. By then the score was 30-3, and the game, which ended at 40-10, was over.
Someday, predicts Houston coach John Jenkins, one of his quarterbacks will throw for 1,000 yards in a game. Someday, he says, the Cougars will score 100 points. Heck, someday Houston may even beat a Top 10 team. However, until Jenkins can close the talent gap between his title pretenders and title contenders like Miami, the Cougars will have to settle for gutting the SMUs, Eastern Washingtons and Louisiana Techs of the world.
You could say that Houston's ballyhooed Multiple Adjusting Passing Offense had gotten Miami's attention. Starting last spring Hurricane coach Dennis Erickson and his defensive staff began consulting with NFL coaches familiar with the run-and-shoot. For the first time in Erickson's three-year tenure at Miami, a nickel defense—in which an extra defensive back enters the game and a linebacker comes out—was installed.
Miami defensive coordinator Sonny Lubick was stunned after watching the video of Houston's season-opening 73-3 win over Louisiana Tech, in which Cougar quarterback David Klingler threw nine touchdowns. So Lubick came up with a plan: Take away Klingler's first two options—"make him look for three and four, and by that time maybe we'll have somebody in his face."
September 22, 1991
It worked to a tee. Particularly overmatched against the Hurricanes were Houston's callow offensive linemen, who yielded five sacks and, with all their desperate clutching and grabbing, generally resembled ninth-graders at an unchaperoned mixer. Afterward Klingler put his team's primary shortcoming succinctly: "This game still comes down to personnel. A bunch of Cub Scouts aren't going to beat the 49ers just because they line up in the run-and-shoot."
"Kling-who?" said Miami wide receiver Lamar Thomas, who had six catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. "I heard so much about Houston's offense this week, I forgot we even had an offense."
Hurricane quarterback Gino Torretta appreciated the publicity vacuum. "They thought they were going to stomp us," he said. "I wanted to go into the game as underrated as possible." That has not been a problem for Torretta at Miami. After reporting last week that the fourth-year junior was from Pinola, Calif., the Associated Press corrected itself, saying the quarterback actually hailed from Pinhole. Still not right. Torretta is from Pinole. Moments before the Houston game, the Orange Bowl's public-address announcer introduced him as Geoff Torretta; Geoff, Gino's older brother, was a career backup at Miami behind Vinny Testaverde.
In the spring of '89, Gino, too, had seemed destined to play out his remaining seasons doing mop-up duty; high school All-America quarterback Bryan Fortay had just signed with the Hurricanes. Fortay's father, Peter, is said to have demanded—and received—a letter from Miami promising that Fortay would be the only quarterback the team recruited that year. But Fortay could not unseat Torretta last spring or this fall. Shortly after being told by Erickson that Torretta had won the job, Fortay transferred to Rutgers.
Although sluggish afoot and with only a mediocre throwing arm, Torretta—with his consistency and savvy—impressed Erickson. Two of his four touchdown passes against Houston came on audibles. Thomas, Kevin Williams and the rest of Miami's splendid receiving corps were the beneficiaries of Torretta's poise and the Cougars' dice-rolling defense. Blitzing on nearly every down, Houston left its cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage. The result was an evening of mismatches. Said Thomas, "After a while we just started licking our lips."
For the second straight game—Miami beat Arkansas 31-3 in its opener—the Hurricanes were models of decorum. Gone are the taunting, triumphal dances of recent years. After Miami racked up 202 yards in penalties, many for unsportsmanlike conduct and personal fouls, in its 46-3 rout of Texas in last January's Cotton Bowl, the NCAA Football Rules Committee cracked down on such celebrations. It distributed to officials a video detailing forbidden behavior. "The first 11 examples were of our team," says defensive end Rusty Medearis. "That shocked us."
Not everyone got the message. Long past midnight Jenkins called a double timeout to enable Klingler to throw a window-dressing, seven-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Grant with three seconds to play. Apparently more concerned with his own pale glory than with his team's crushing defeat, Grant launched himself into a celebratory boogie that made Miami's touchdown antics seem positively subdued. Then, at game's end, the two teams came together at midfield and several Cougars tried to pick fights with Miami players. The Hurricanes only laughed. Said one, "Yo, man, the game's over. Read the scoreboard."