Cheat the hangman often enough, and you start to get blasè about it. That sort of confidence would explain the we-had-'em-all-the-way attitude of Miami last Saturday after its latest close scrape with a Top 10 opponent. The Hurricanes edged Syracuse 16-10 in a game that came down to the last, cardiac-arresting play and that almost lived up to the Barnumesque billing bestowed upon it by a local paper, which described the No. 1 versus No. 8 matchup as "the biggest sporting event in the history of central New York."
Rallying behind junior quarterback Marvin Graves, who in losing his lunch without leaving the game lent new meaning to the term "gutsy performance," the Orangemen came oh, so close to upsetting the defending national champions. Three yards, to be precise. That's how far from Miami's end zone Syracuse tight end Chris Gedney came to rest on the final play. Those nine feet preserved Miami's perfect record—the Hurricanes have won 10 straight games this season and 28 overall—and allowed wide receiver Lamar Thomas to act as if the outcome had never been in doubt.
"Champions find ways to win," Thomas said. "They don't have to be pretty. They can be ugly. You can drive a Yugo to California."
It was, indeed, a homely, by-the-length-of-a-subcompact win. Certainly there was nothing handsome about the demise of Gino Torretta's streak of 123 passes without an interception. After having led the Hurricanes to the Syracuse six on Miami's first possession, Torretta telegraphed a pass intended for tight end Coleman Bell. It was picked off by linebacker Dan Conley. On the first play of Miami's next possession, Conley intercepted Torretta again, thereby single-handedly launching a new, unwanted streak for Torretta, who would throw one more interception before the day was over.
This week Torretta and the Hurricanes will fly—or rent a fleet of Yugos and drive—to California, where they will face San Diego State in what could be the Heisman Bowl if Aztec tailback Marshall Faulk, Torretta's chief competition for the trophy, bounces back from the sprained knee he suffered last Saturday. In the winner's locker room, Torretta was glum. "Why the long face?" he was asked.
"We should have scored more points, and I should have played better," replied Torretta. Then, with a touch of defiance, he said, "I'll take a national championship over a Heisman any day of the week."
During the first month of the season Torretta saw the tonsils of opposing defensive linemen practically every time he looked up. He put together ordinary numbers while sustaining extraordinary lumps. Two things happened that boosted him into Heisman contention and kept the Hurricanes' streak alive:
1) Miami's offensive line, 1,379 pounds of Swiss cheese through the first four games, came into its own. "These guys have talent," says offensive line coach Art Kehoe. "They just needed experience."
2) After the Hurricanes had a close call at Penn State on Oct. 10, coach Dennis Erickson switched on passing downs to the shotgun, a formation he had experimented with in spring practice. Why the delay in installing it? Because the results in April had been pure slapstick. Center Tirrell Greene had sprayed snaps over Torretta's head and at his ankles. But after watching Torretta get his bell rung with alarming regularity early in the season, Erickson went with the shotgun. "Thank god," said Torretta on Saturday. Greene, who had a thumb operation on April 30, is making accurate snaps, and the extra seconds Torretta has gained by not having to drop back have meant that he can read coverages and find receivers while absorbing less punishment. In laughers over Texas Christian, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Temple, Torretta averaged nearly 300 yards passing.
The statistical orgy ended in the Carrier Dome. The Orangemen entered the game with a 9-1 record and were nurturing faint national-title hopes of their own. Coach Paul Pasqualoni succeeded Dick MacPherson two years ago, and given MacPherson's 36-10-4 record in his last four seasons, it would have been reason able to expect a dip in the team's fortunes. Instead, the Orangemen have cranked it up a notch. Going into Saturday's showdown they had won 19 of 22 games under Pasqualoni.
Much of that success is attributable to the seamless transition over which Coach P, as he is known on campus, presided. Pasqualoni, who had been the Orange men's linebacker coach for four years, was known to be strict but fair, tireless and intense. A 43-year-old bachelor, Pasqualoni admits to being wedded to his work.
His master plan for Syracuse football is the same as MacPherson's was—namely, recruit primarily within a six-hour radius of central New York and in talent-laden Florida and Texas, and attract the speediest players with a pitch that goes something like this: Six times a year you will be able to showcase your skills on the fastest playing surface in the country. Unlike outdoor artificial surfaces, which are slightly convex to allow for drainage, the floor of the Carrier Dome is as flat as the top of a pool table.
Of course, that's not an advantage for the Orangemen when high-octane Miami comes to town. Syracuse was looking for a bomb on the Hurricanes' first play from scrimmage. Torretta obliged by throwing a bomb—and completing it, to Horace Copeland for 48 yards. Said Pasqualoni, "We put our best guy on him—Dwayne Joseph—and Copeland still ran by him. We knew Miami was fast, but they're even faster than we thought."
Although that play did not lead to a score—Conley picked off Torretta's next pass—it was fruitful. "After that," said Pasqualoni, the Orange defensive backs "backed up even deeper." Those fat cushions allowed Torretta to complete 28 of 43 passes, most of them dinks and intermediate throws, none for touchdowns.
The other supposed advantage of playing at home in the Dome is the din created by the Syracuse crowd. The racket, however, did not throw the Hurricanes off stride. Indeed, while the fans booed Miami during pregame warmups, some Hurricane players egged the crowd on, waving their arms and cupping their ears as if to say, What, that's as loud as it gets? In the second quarter, while Orange fans strained their vocal cords, Torretta—strolling up and down the line of scrimmage to make himself heard—calmly audibled a running play on which fullback Larry Jones went 11 yards untouched to put the Hurricanes up 10-0.
Asked after the game if the prospect of playing in the Dome worried him, Miami linebacker Micheal Barrow answered, "Have you been outside today?" It was rainy, windy and cold. "We appreciate the opportunity to play in the Dome."
The Hurricanes' attitude is this: We'll do the intimidating, thank you. Last week Bell had gotten a call from Syracuse linebacker Garland Hawkins, who provided some advice on play selection. "Don't even think about running those weak-ass counters and draws against us," Hawkins told Bell. Having talked the talk, however, Hawkins couldn't quite walk the walk: He came up with a lot of air on Jones's scoring run—a draw.
It would be the Hurricanes' only touchdown. The balance of Miami's scoring came from kicker Dane Prewitt's three field goals. As it has in each of Miami's other tight games this year—against Florida State, Arizona and Penn State—the defense played custodian, tidying the offense's messes. Before Saturday, Syracuse's multiple offense was averaging 447.5 yards per game. At halftime it had minus one yard with one first down. Graves had been sacked seven times, and the Orangemen trailed 13-0. Of the 28 plays Syracuse ran before intermission, 17 went for zero or negative yardage.
That futility couldn't last—Syracuse is too talented. In the first half, Miami had taken the option away from the Orangemen by overplaying to the outside. In the third quarter, Graves started handing off to his fullbacks, who tore off nice chunks up the gut. Syracuse scored on its first two possessions of the half, on a 31-yard John Biskup field goal followed by a 92-yard touchdown drive. On first-and-goal from the one, Graves became a human pogo stick to get the ball into the end zone.
Graves had entered the game leading the nation in passing efficiency. A three-sport star at Archbishop Carroll High in Washington, D.C., he won the starting job as a redshirt freshman. George DeLeone, the Orangemen's bespectacled, tweed-jacketed nutty professor of an offensive coordinator, found Graves's versatility irresistible. Here was a kid who could run the option and throw the drop-back pass. Plus, he was sharp. The Orange coaches call Graves a one-timer, meaning they don't have to tell him anything twice. "The problem is, we can do so much with Marvin, we probably go into each game with more offense than we need," says DeLeone.
The Syracuse playbook is now 400-odd pages, but DeLeone doesn't know precisely how long it is, because the pages aren't numbered. That's deliberate. "I don't want kids to walk out of our first meeting and transfer," he says.
Perhaps data overload was responsible for Graves's big goof. After getting his team back into the game, he managed the clock poorly on Syracuse's final drive. Starting at the Miami 49 with 2:40 to go, Syracuse took 90 seconds to run three plays. There was Graves strolling up to the line, taking his sweet time calling the cadence. Pasqualoni was disposed to forgive him. "Marvin's got to make sure he sees the defense right," he said. "He's got to get us in the right play."
Graves's task was made all the more difficult by the fact that several plays earlier he had taken a thunderous hit from cornerback Paul White. After scrambling for 15 yards to the Miami 21 with less than a minute remaining, Graves wobbled back to the huddle. "I got a sharp pain in my heart," he said later, "and just started vomiting." Rather than let the officials call a timeout—which would have required Graves to leave the game for at least one play—Syracuse spent a precious timeout of its own.
Graves's distress did not go unnoticed in the Miami huddle. "Hey, you guys, he's throwing up," said linebacker Rohan Marley. "Let's get him!"
Marley, a redshirt freshman, was giving Jessie Armstead a breather. A senior, Armstead is on his way to the NFL, but the Hurricanes don't lose much with Marley in the game. Marley's interception of a ball knocked loose by linebacker Darrin Smith had snuffed out Syracuse's penultimate drive. At 5'8", 200 pounds, Marley describes himself as "the smallest linebacker in the state of Florida." He comes from athletic stock. His father was a soccer player and distance runner in Jamaica, though he was better known for his music. Bob Marley, who died of cancer in 1980, was the seminal reggae artist of the '70s. After his father's death Rohan moved to Miami to live with his grandmother. When he went out for the team at Palmetto High, the coaches put him at safety. "Then we did hitting drills," says Marley. "Next day, I'm a linebacker."
Once Graves had collected himself and play had resumed, the Hurricanes did, as Marley had implored, "get him." After a short run Graves took costly sacks—his eighth and ninth of the game—on consecutive plays. On fourth-and-forever from the 32, with less than 10 seconds left, Graves called a pass play at the line of scrimmage. "There wasn't much I could do," he said later. "I sent everyone deep."
He sent everyone but only had eyes for Gedney, an All-America who has been his go-to guy all season. Gedney had played a strong game, encouraged by female admirers in the west end zone who had hung a banner that read, CHRIS GEDNEY, WE LOVE YOUR TIGHT END. Gedney lined up on the right side and ran a post pattern. He made his cut around the 12-yard line and gathered in Graves's pass at the three, where he was immediately flattened by strong safety Casey Greer.
"When I saw where I was, then looked up and saw those zeros on the game clock, it was a sickening feeling," said Gedney.
Greer's response was vintage Hurricane: "Hey, better him than me."
As time ran out, the Syracuse fans cut loose with an epic groan, followed by spontaneous sustained applause. They clapped as they coped with one of Graves's symptoms: a sharp pain in the heart.