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Closer Look

Halfback-pass debacle could cost Dorsey the Heisman

Posted: Saturday December 07, 2002 7:02 PM
  Ken Dorsey Ken Dorsey reportedly "begged" to run the infamous halfback pass. Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com

MIAMI -- Talk about your all-time backfires.

With the game and accompanying Fiesta Bowl bid seemingly in hand, up 49-21 early in the third quarter of Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech, Miami decided it was going to end this whole Ken Dorsey-Willis McGahee Heisman debate once and for all.

Instead, the Hurricanes may have cost Dorsey the award -- and could have cost themselves the win.

All season, the 'Canes’ star quarterback and running back have shared the spotlight nearly equally, making it impossible for any rational person -- ABC’s broadcasters excluded -- to state a preference, and the first 39 minutes of their regular-season finale weren’t making it any easier. Dorsey had completed 10 of his first 15 passes for a whopping 275 yards, while McGahee had scored a school-record six touchdowns.

Following Dorsey’s 14-yard pass to Kellen Winslow, the 'Canes stood at the Hokies’ 1-yard line, seemingly one more McGahee plunge from putting the game officially out of reach.

But when offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski called in the play, backup Jarrett Payton trotted out to replace McGahee, drawing audible surprise from the 76,108 at the Orange Bowl. The 'Canes were up to something.

Sure enough, in one of the strangest play-calls in recent memory, Payton took the pitch, stopped and almost immediately turned to throw a halfback pass to Dorsey, who -- in tackily similar fashion to 2001 Heisman winner Eric Crouch -- had flared out to catch a touchdown.

“I went to the line pissed,” said center Brett Romberg. “I really didn’t want to run that play. I would’ve called 32-dive over the middle and scored the six points.”

They’d practiced the play every week for almost two years. Though Dorsey wouldn’t say it, it was obviously a forced attempt to get the usually unflashy quarterback his “Heisman moment.”

Romberg said the team even calls it “the Heisman play.”

Unfortunately, though, Payton telegraphed his intention so blatantly that Hokies safety Willie Pile was able to easily step in front of Dorsey for the interception and run 96 yards the other way for a Hokies touchdown. A packed stadium that had been ready to explode instead fell eerily silent, while Dorsey, still kneeling in the spot of the end zone where he would have achieved glory, looked to the sideline in stunned bewilderment.

It was the kind of drastic momentum change that doesn’t easily go away. Instead of further running away with things, Miami had let Virginia Tech back in the game.

The 'Canes' ensuing possession ended in a punt to the Hokies’ DeAngelo Hall, who returned it 71 yards to the Miami 18. The Hokies responded with a field goal, cutting the lead to 49-30. Then, Dorsey threw an interception that Ronyell Whitaker returned 56 yards to the Miami 9. One Lee Suggs run later, and the 'Canes' 28-point lead was down to 12 with an entire quarter to play.

As it turned out, Miami would turn it on in the fourth quarter, opening up a 56-37 lead that even a last-minute Hokies rally couldn’t overcome. But that didn’t make the play any easier to justify.

“I think we went brain-dead,” said head coach Larry Coker. “That was a bad call. As you learn, there are no safe leads; you can’t take a lead for granted. That call gave them an opportunity to come back in the game.”

If it had worked, Dorsey may have finished as the undisputed star of the day. He finished 12-of-20 for 300 yards and two touchdowns, including several dazzling long balls to receiver Andre Johnson, who finished with 193 yards on six catches. Already the favorite of many Heisman voters who have followed him throughout his illustrious career, Dorsey has come on strong the last several weeks of the season, and Saturday’s nationally televised game was another major showcase.

But the buzz in the locker room afterward was all about McGahee, who, in addition to the six touchdowns, finished with 205 yards on 39 carries. It was his 10th 100-yard rushing day of the season and gave him 1,686 yards and 27 touchdowns on the season. It was just the kind of performance he needed to counteract fellow frontrunner Carson Palmer’s big game against Notre Dame last week.

Both players have insisted all year, and did again Saturday, that they’re not concerned with the Heisman. But don’t be fooled. Chudzinski said afterward that Dorsey practically begged him to run the play. And Romberg, Dorsey’s roommate and close friend, knows full well how much it would mean to him.

“[My vote] is still Kenny,” said Romberg. “I don’t want any pee in my bed or anything.”

Without any such tangible threat, Heisman voters probably will continue to tear their hair out right up until Wednesday’s deadline. Perhaps they should take the lead of Miami's mascot.

On a stage set up afterward for Coker to accept the Fiesta Bowl invitation, Sebastian the Ibis held up a sign that says it all: “McGorsey 4 Heisman.”

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for CNNSI.com.

 
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