The familiar voice of the TV analyst posed the inane question: "If you're Washington head coach Don James, do you go for two here?"
Every head in the press box turned to glare at the boob. Of course James would go for two—for a win over Miami, rather than a tie. That was the entire raison d'‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢tre of this dream game in the desert: to unsplit the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN polls and to crown one true champion for the 1991 season.
And the Huskies won it like champions, 18-17, with a courageous, outrageous play call on the goal line as time ran out. "The game was everything I would have imagined," said Husky quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, gingerly fingering a 12-stitch gash under his chin, a first-quarter calling card left by Miami defensive end Rusty Medearis. "I'd like to congratulate the coaches in the USA Today/CNN poll for their prescience in naming us Number One, and the Hurricanes on a great season—12-1 is nothing to be ashamed of."
Hobert, more than anyone, had helped bring this game about. After the Huskies' 34-14 Rose Bowl win over Michigan on New Year's Day, the brash redshirt sophomore had expressed an interest in playing Miami, whose 22-0 shellacking of Nebraska in that day's Orange Bowl would earn the Hurricanes the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll. "I don't like sharing things," Hobert said. "Let's find a field somewhere and play it off."
January 13, 1992
Once SI determined that Hobert's feelings were shared by a majority of Hurricanes and Huskies, chartered jets were put at each team's disposal for the Poll Bowl or, as it was also promoted, the Fracas in the Cactus, because it was played in a temporary stadium erected behind the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.
By gametime, the Who's No. 1? arguments had taken on a my-dad's-stronger-than-your-dad tenor. Who had the better defense? The Hurricanes, who in whitewashing Nebraska had kept the Cornhuskers out of their territory for the game's first 26 minutes? Or the Huskies, who held mighty Michigan to nine first-half rushing yards and Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard to one catch?
The real surprise, when the teams finally met, was that the Hurricanes came up short on offense. The Huskies neutralized Larry Jones, the precocious Hurricane redshirt freshman fullback whose 144 yards rushing had made him the Orange Bowl MVP. Forced to throw, Miami quarterback Gino Torretta was hounded by the relentlessly blitzing Huskies. The sight of the scrambling Torretta, whose many virtues do not include mobility, recalled the flight of a beached sea lion.
To be sure, this is a gifted Hurricane offensive unit. The receivers—the Ruthless Posse is their collective moniker—are the best in the country. Senior tackle and future NFL starter Leon Searcy anchors an otherwise steady but unspectacular offensive line. With all that, there is something prodigal about this offense. Against the Huskies, Miami again squandered several scoring chances, as it had throughout the season, especially in eking out wins against Penn State, Florida State and—alarmingly—Boston College. The Hurricanes' touchdowns against Washington came on plays of 99 and 63 yards. Indeed, Miami was overreliant on the big play all season, consistently unable to mount long, clock-consuming drives. And it was prone to mindless penalties: Its 11 against Penn State and 12 in the Orange Bowl presaged the 17 it committed against the Huskies. In dropping half a dozen passes against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, the Ruthless Posse seemed at times finger-less, as it did again in flubbing four more against Washington.
That the Hurricanes had a special teams edge in the Fracas became quickly apparent. Sophomore flanker Kevin Williams bobbled the opening kickoff on the Miami one, scooped up the ball, made two would-be Washington tacklers miss and accelerated to the far end zone as if being sucked into a vacuum. Unable to wait for Williams to return to the sideline to celebrate his touchdown, the Hurricanes crowded into the end zone, drawing the first of those 17 flags.
It was Miami's sole touchdown of a tortuous first half. That was because no team in the country blitzes as deceptively as the Huskies. As has been its custom for the past two seasons, Washington routinely put eight men on the line of scrimmage against the Hurricanes. Sometimes the Huskies rushed four defenders, sometimes six, and even eight. "If you insist on sending out too many receivers," said Washington defensive coordinator Jim Lambright in a this-is-going-to-hurt-me-more-than-it's-going-to-hurt-you tone, "you may lose your quarterback."
The Huskies, who did knock four quarterbacks out of games this season, did not injure Torretta, which is not to say they didn't get to him. He was sacked six times, took 20 or so hard shots and complained after the game of a ringing in his ears. One Washington rusher whom he came to know especially well was number 90, Steve Emtman, the All-America defensive tackle.
A trenchant analysis of Emtman's ability was provided in October by UCLA guard Scott Spalding: "When he lines up on your head, you turn to the guy next to you and shout, 'Help me! I need help with this guy.' " In the first quarter of the Fracas, when Hurricane center Kelvin Harris shuffled over to give guard Rudy Barber a hand with Emtman, Husky noseguard Tyrone Rodgers came up the middle unblocked and pile-drove Torretta into the dusty turf, jarring the ball loose. Washington's Dave Hoffmann recovered that fumble, and seven plays later Travis Hanson's 40-yard field goal caromed inward, off the left upright, and went over the crossbar to make the score 7-3. Carlos Huerta answered with a 20-yard chip shot of his own on Miami's next possession. Hurricanes 10, Huskies 3.
Washington's equalizer was Mario Bailey, a splendid 5'9" wide receiver who had spent the season in the shadow of Emtman and the rest of the Husky defense. At one Rose Bowl luncheon he was introduced to a guest as Michigan's Howard by a stuffed-shirt Bowl official. Bailey politely explained that he was not Howard.
"Oh," replied the stuffed shirt, nonplussed. "Do you know where he is?"
Bailey escaped Howard's shadow with six Rose Bowl catches for 126 yards, including a diving grab for a TD. Against Miami he got the attention of the Posse by making toast out of strong safety Hurlie Brown early in the third quarter for another touchdown, this one on a 26-yard pass that tied the game at 10—all.
Before they saw Bailey's score and asked, "Who's that guy?" the Posse members' biggest question was this: Will Husky cornerbacks Dana Hall and Walter Bailey dare attempt to play us man-to-man? The last team to try that was Houston in September. The halftime score of that game was 30-3 in Miami's favor.
Hall smirked. "We've been dominating receivers all season," he said. "We don't adjust to other teams—they adjust to us."
Walter Bailey was more respectful: "It would be much harder to keep Miami off the scoreboard. It would be like facing Desmond Howard times four."
Rough poetic justice was meted out when, with just two minutes remaining in the Fracas, Hall was burned for Miami's go-ahead touchdown. Hurricane wide receiver Lamar Thomas sold Hall on a hitch pattern and then blew by him for a 63-yard scoring pass. Thomas, in fact, had also beaten Hall in the first half, to set up Huerta's field goal. He should have scored on the earlier play: Hall had fallen down, leaving Thomas a clear path to the end zone. Deciding he would score with a flourish by standing on the goal line and falling backward into the end zone—"taking the Nestea plunge," as he later sheepishly put it—Thomas set out to do precisely that. But he mistook the numeral 5 painted on the field for an upside-down G and fell backward on the three-yard line. The Husky defense was unyielding on the next three downs, and Miami had to settle for Huerta's field goal.
Apparently unchastened by his earlier fiasco, Thomas popped off the ground after his touchdown catch and assumed a Heisman pose—a dig at Mario Bailey, whose similar pose after a fourth-quarter touchdown in the Rose Bowl had been a swipe at Howard, whose hubristic imitation of the trophy after a 93-yard punt return against Ohio State had kicked off this epidemic of stiff arms. Before Thomas struck his pose, however, he tore off his helmet and, as is his wont, sought out a television camera. While beaming intently into the lens, Thomas failed to notice the approach of fellow Posse member Horace Copeland, who had also removed his helmet and was attempting to congratulate him. Raising his right arm, Heisman-like, Thomas inadvertently clubbed Copeland, knocking him senseless.
Seeing Copeland on his back in the end zone, cross-eyed and spread-eagled, the referee mistook the distressed receiver's posture for yet another newfangled expression of glee and flagged him 15 yards for excessive celebration.
Those yards, tacked onto the ensuing kickoff, proved costly. A handsome return by freshman Napoleon Kaufman gave the Huskies the ball at midfield with 1:47 remaining. Hobert hit Mario Bailey for 22 yards at the left sideline. Reserve tailback Jay Barry—in the game because starter Beno Bryant had sprained a knee in the Rose Bowl—followed that by churning out 10 yards on a draw. Three plays later, Washington faced fourth-and-eight on the Hurricane 15. Hobert called his final timeout.
Offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson sent Hobert back to the huddle with a play and then stared anxiously across the field. He is a close friend of Miami coach Dennis Erickson; they both grew up in Snohomish County, Wash. They're golfing buddies; every summer, Gilbertson takes advantage of Erickson's miserable putting to line his pockets with the Hurricane coach's money. Gilbertson was an assistant under Erickson at Idaho in 1982 and again in '85. Together they refined the one-back set that both their teams now use. Each knows how the other thinks. Now Gilbertson wondered if Erickson was anticipating his call.
The Huskies came out in a four-receiver, no-back set. The voice of Sonny Lubick, Miami's defensive coordinator, rang out over the din of the crowd: "Watch the sneak! Watch the sneak!" On fourth-and-short against Michigan, the Huskies had come out in a no-back formation, and Hobert had kept the ball and run for a first down. This time the wide receivers and flankers ran corner routes. Tight end Aaron Pierce held his block for the count of one-thousand-one, released over the middle, caught Hobert's dump pass and turned upfield. Pierce met Miami free safety Darryl Williams at the two and carried him into the end zone.
James unhesitatingly held up two fingers—Washington would go for the win. Yet again, the Huskies came out in a no-back set. "Watch the tight end! Watch the tight end!" Lubick bellowed.
Pierce blocked out on the defensive end, counted one-thousand-one, released. Middle linebacker Mike Barrow went with him as Hobert took a three-step drop...and sneaked straight up the gut to win the game.
Particularly touching—at first—was the postgame, midfield rapprochement between Medearis and Washington center Ed Cunningham. The pair had waged a war of words, through the media, all during December.
"Ed, I said if Washington was in Florida, it would be the fourth-best team in the state," Medearis now said. "But after seeing the Gators choke against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, I'm bumping you to third."
"You're too kind, Rusty," said Cunningham. "I knew you'd be a gracious loser."
With that the two fell on each other, trading blows before teammates pried them apart. The general bonhomie was further eroded once it was discovered that the uprights, brought in from a nearby high school field for the hastily arranged game, were 23 feet, four inches apart—nearly five feet wider than the recently narrowed NCAA width. After making the point that Huerta's field goal had bisected the uprights, whereas Hanson's had glanced off an upright, Erickson concluded, "If they were gentlemen, they'd concede the game." The Huskies laughed at the suggestion.
Speaking for his teammates, who stood behind him looking belligerent, Torretta announced, "We'd just like to say that despite the uprights controversy, our hats are off to the Huskies. They played us tough but clean. The better team won."
Two seconds elapsed. Then, as if on cue, 59 Miami voices—minus Copeland's, since he was already on the bus with an ice pack on his head—delivered the punch line: "Not!"
So the Hurricanes boarded their bus, truculently refusing to talk to reporters and, most shocking, pretending that the game had never happened. They would claim that it had been nothing more than a mirage at the Mirage.
Can you imagine?