Cheat the hangman often enough, and you start to get blasé 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.