MIAMI — The efforts of opponents and skeptics couldn't keep Miami out of a national championship football game. The inconsistent No. 2 Hurricanes may have had some narrow escapes on a weaker than usual schedule, but with Saturday night's victory over South Carolina they ended their regular season as one of just three unbeaten teams in the country.
For the second straight year Miami (11-0) will play for the title against another undefeated, hoping to do to No. 1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl Jan. 1 what it failed to do against Penn State in last season's Fiesta Bowl. (The third unbeaten team, Syracuse, will face Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.)
Flirtation with disaster, like Saturday night's 20-16 escape from the No. 8 Gamecocks (8-3), takes on less importance in that context, because the Hurricanes kept on getting by, albeit with the bare minimum.
"Our guys just kept coming up with the plays they had to make," Coach Jimmy Johnson said.
It's not a bad characteristic to have, as long as it works. The Hurricanes were recently criticized for only defeating Toledo. 24-14, and Virginia Tech, 27-13. Their final two games, against No. 10 Notre Dame and South Carolina, afforded opportunities to prove they were better than their scores.
They accomplished that, beating the Irish, 24-0, and withstanding the best attempt at upset South Carolina could muster, the Gamecocks leading in the first half, 6-0 and 13-7.
"We wanted to prove we could stop anything anyone threw at us, and we did," defensive back Tolbert Bain said.
Perhaps Oklahoma won't be as forgiving of three turnovers and some defensive generosity as South Carolina was, but if the trend continues, the Hurricanes will find something else to make up for it. Against the Gamecocks, it was a career-high 310 yards passing by sophomore quarterback Steve Walsh, who threw scoring completions of 46 yards to Michael Irvin in the first quarter and 56 yards to Brian Blades in the third.
That big-play ability allowed them to hold off an upset bid. Certainly, South Carolina's second-ranked defense played well enough to win, limiting the Hurricanes to 61 yards rushing, sacking Walsh four times, intercepting him twice, and causing him to fumble on the opening snap.
The Gamecocks' points came on three field goals by Collin Mackie and Todd Ellis' 47-yard pass to Sterling Sharpe. If the usually prolific Ellis had connected on a few more passes rather than going 10 for 28 for 141 yards, it might have been different game.
The result of the victory is that Miami is building a stronger and stronger case for calling itself the team of the '80s. For the decade, the Hurricanes have won 85% of their games and have a 32-game, regular-season winning streak, longest in the nation. They are seeking a second national championship to go with the one they won in 1983, having missed a chance when last season's squad unexpectedly lost, 14-10, to Penn State on Jan. 2 to finish No. 2.
When considering those numbers it is sometimes difficult to recall that this should have been a rebuilding year for Miami. The Hurricanes not only lost Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, but five players in all who went in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.