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'être 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."
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."