Flying Start Surprising in its manners as well as its might, Miami pounced on favored Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic

September 05, 1999

In this sequel to A Clockwork Orange the villains actually wear
orange. They're nabbed by the authorities, punished severely,
rehabilitated and set loose once more upon the land, where--in a
feel-good twist on the Stanley Kubrick original--they wreak
merciless havoc on their victims, only this time with proper
manners.

To their leader, Butch Davis, the Miami football coach, good
manners are everything. "Butch wanted to change the public
perception of our team," Art Kehoe, the Hurricanes' offensive
line coach, said in the locker room on Sunday following No. 12
Miami's 23-12 defeat of No. 9 Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic.
"He talked about it all the time. We wanted smart, tough, good
characters. We didn't want to bring in any guys who had drug
problems. We have a classier program now."

Over a dozen often dirty years through 1994, a period in which
Miami played for the national championship eight times and won
four of those titles, the Hurricanes earned a reputation for
arrogance and unruliness and were, on occasion, flat-out
unlawful. At last, in 1995, changes were forced on Miami: For a
raft of illegal benefits violations committed under Davis's
immediate predecessor, Dennis Erickson, who coached the
Hurricanes from '89 to '94, the NCAA took away 24 scholarships
over the next two years. As a result Miami buckled from a 9-3
mark in '96 to a 5-6 record in '97--its first losing season in
18 years. "I don't think the NCAA realized how great an impact
the sanctions had on our program," says Davis. "We had guys
playing who had no business being out there. So we had to get a
little creative."

Davis's starting quarterback--who arrived three years ago
without costing Miami a precious scholarship--is a part-time
minor league centerfielder in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays'
organization. His offensive line features a Quebecer and a
Cuban-American who could have gone to Harvard. The key touchdown
against the Buckeyes was scored by a high school triple jumper
who walked onto the Hurricanes three years ago. But the biggest
oddity was what happened in the game after every big Miami play.
Nothing. Silence. An ego vacuum. These strangely self-effacing
Hurricanes would lift themselves off the ground, maybe jump up
and down momentarily in natural excitement, and then jog back to
the huddle. No finger-wagging, no strutting. No serious
trash-talking. It was like watching a game on black-and-white
television.

The first sign that things have changed for Miami came on its
second play on offense, when junior tailback James Jackson shot
through the right side behind the Cuban-Harvard guy for 44 yards
to give the Hurricanes a 7-0 lead. Jackson didn't preen for the
TV cameras or taunt any Ohio State defenders. "I've never
celebrated," he said afterward. "My dad always told me, 'Act
like you've been there before.' Once I'm in the end zone, I give
the ball to the referee."

To be sure, Jackson had predicted a 2,000-yard season for
himself in taking over for Edgerrin James, a first-round pick of
the Indianapolis Colts and the first running back chosen in last
April's NFL draft, but he insists he didn't mean that in a
boastful way. "The way I look at it, if I shoot high and I don't
quite make it there, I'm still doing pretty well," he says. On
Sunday, Jackson got a pretty fair start toward his 2,000-yard
goal, rushing for 89 yards against a team that was No. 1
defensively against the run last year and No. 2 overall in the
final Associated Press poll. His backup, Najeh Davenport, gained
83 more but tore the ACL in his right knee and could be out for
the season.

Having vanquished Ohio State, Miami now aspires to even bigger
upsets when it hosts No. 2 Penn State on Sept. 18 and visits No.
1 Florida State on Oct. 9. That it can even think in these terms
would have been unimaginable two years ago, when the Hurricanes
had only 58 players at spring practice, far fewer than the
number at other big-time programs. Miami, which had won an
NCAA-record 58 straight home games from 1985 to '94, went a
shocking 5-8 at the Orange Bowl from November '96 through
October '98. Just as things seemed to be improving last season,
the Hurricanes were routed 66-13 at Syracuse in a game to decide
the Big East championship. The following week, just as
unpredictably, they recovered from a 17-point deficit to knock
third-ranked UCLA out of national championship contention, 49-45.

Miami finished the year 9-3 but called to mind a hopelessly
inconsistent downhill skier--clinging to his edges one minute,
crashing into trees the next. As it happens, senior left guard
Richard Mercier knows something about the slopes. As a
15-year-old in Montreal he was a 6'1", 250-pound elite junior
moguls skier, racing over the bumps before completing two full
somersaults. Two years ago, by now an even more formidable 6'3"
and 290, Mercier didn't like seeing Miami football in so sorry a
state, so he joined several of his fellow linemen in doing
something about it. On Saturdays during the off-season they
gathered to study film, lift weights and run an obstacle course,
during which they took turns pushing center Ty Wise's 1993 Ford
Ranger 55 yards...after it was loaded with fellow linemen to a
total weight of more than 4,000 pounds.

The camaraderie among the truck-pushing linemen was infectious,
and players from other positions soon joined in. Looking ahead
to the Kickoff Classic, the Hurricanes knew they could be
embarrassed by Ohio State. At the end of the informal practices,
the players would run several 110-yard sprints. "Just before we
were about to drop, someone would yell out, 'Buckeyes!'" says
junior linebacker Dan Morgan, who with his classmate Nate
Webster would combine for 17 tackles against Ohio State. Thus
motivated, the Hurricanes would ignore the swelter of August in
Miami and run one more 110-yard sprint.

A few days before the start of official practices in August,
redshirt sophomore quarterback Kenny Kelly arrived on campus in
a 1985 Buick Regal, which he'd renovated with a new engine and
interior, a paint job, custom wheels, a stereo system, a TV set
and a Sony PlayStation. Kelly had spent the summer hitting .275
and playing a sweet centerfield for the Class A St. Pete Devil
Rays. His tuition was being paid by the Devil Rays, who in 1997
signed him to a four-year contract with a $450,000 bonus. Unlike
many other top prospects, Kelly was undeterred by the NCAA
penalties when the Hurricanes recruited him. In fact, he had the
Miami emblem tattooed on his right arm weeks before he signed
his letter of intent.

Sunday was Kelly's debut as Miami's starter, and late in the
first half he bootlegged for one touchdown and then completed a
67-yard pass to Santana Moss--the aforementioned high school
triple jumper--who caught the underthrown ball in the vicinity
of three defenders and sprinted across the field for a touchdown
with eight seconds left before halftime, giving Miami a shocking
23-9 advantage.

But the win wasn't secured until the fourth quarter. A field
goal brought the Buckeyes within 11 points, and they started the
final quarter by pinning Miami to its 11. The Hurricanes
responded with a 16-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a missed
field goal attempt but swallowed up nearly eight minutes. All
but nine of the yards came on the ground, many of them behind
the Harvard not-wannabe, 6'5", 275-pound tackle Joaquin
Gonzalez, the biggest long shot of all the Hurricanes. While
growing up just 15 minutes from the Miami campus, Gonzalez
wanted nothing more than to play for the Hurricanes. He was
recruited by Oklahoma State, Wake Forest and several Ivy League
schools, including Harvard, which offered him a full academic
scholarship. He decided to walk on at Miami. "People said, 'You
can go to Harvard--what are you doing?'" says Gonzalez. "But
it's like I say: You can have caviar, or you can have fries. Me,
all I want is fries and ketchup."

Gonzalez earned a football scholarship before the 1998 season
and responded by winning Big East rookie of the year honors. He
clearly speaks for the new breed of Hurricanes. When he and his
teammates came off the field after beating Ohio State, nobody
was boasting, dancing or shouting. Gonzalez said, "I just think
we're too tired."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER Orange crush Michael Boireau (93) and Co. held Ohio State to 220 yards total offense, the Buckeyes' lowest total in 51 games. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Able 'Cane Going from centerfield to center stage, Kelly ran for one TD and threw for another in a 17-for-25, 245-yard passing gem.

The biggest oddity was what happened after every key Miami play:
Nothing. Silence. An ego vacuum.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)