The message was written in bold white strokes on a green chalkboard inside the visitors' locker room at the Orange Bowl: 11-0. FIESTA BOWL BOUND. The words mocked UCLA players as they showered and dressed in shock after last Saturday's 49-45 loss to Miami. Dead dreams are buried in this room, a dank bunker beneath the northwest end zone bleachers. Nebraska. Oklahoma. Notre Dame. Florida State. Each has shuffled into this tomb, suffering in silence after devastating losses to the Hurricanes in years past. Now the Bruins were the victims, 10-1 instead of 11-0, Rose Bowl-bound instead of Fiesta-bound, eliminated from the national championship race.
Next to the chalkboard, junior offensive tackle Kris Farris pulled a white golf shirt over his bare shoulders and slipped on a pair of shorts. Slowly and deliberately he scooped a towel off the floor, turned his back on the room, went to the board and wiped the chalk away. Farris is a film buff who would appreciate the metaphorical weight of his erasure. The day had begun with one regular-season game to play for three unbeaten teams—UCLA, Kansas State and Tennessee—and with the public in a lather over the arcane mathematics of the Bowl Championship Series rankings and the possibility that one of the unbeatens would be unjustly excluded from the Fiesta Bowl national title game. As swiftly as the Bruins' perfect record was improbably wiped away, however, the landscape was changed.
It seemed only fitting that such a chaotic regular season should end with madness. Only Tennessee survived the day undefeated, and the Vols will play 11-1 Florida State for the national title on Jan. 4 in Tempe, Ariz. But who would have thought that Miami would recapture past glory and inflict such pain on UCLA? Its upset of the Bruins came seven days after the Hurricanes lost 66-13 to Syracuse, a defeat that cost Miami the Big East championship, a spot in the BCS and most of its dignity. That loss was so decisive that Hurricanes coach Butch Davis instructed his assistants to study the tape closely, in search of players who had "surrendered." They claimed to have found none.
This was reassuring to Davis and his staff, but worthless to them in their preparations for UCLA. Last Friday, Davis sat behind a sprawling desk in his office and recited a litany of injuries and other handicaps (a lack of depth resulting from two years of scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA in December 1995 for numerous violations, too many young players, etc.) that had weakened his team. "After this game we could have as many as 12 guys in surgery, and they're all playing tomorrow," said Davis. "How well we'll play against UCLA, I just don't know." A visitor was tempted to take Davis's order for a last meal.
Yet as Davis had studied the Bruins, he saw something familiar: West Coast offense, lefthanded quarterback, explosive wideouts. "They are a carbon copy, college version, of the 49ers that I coached against when I was with the Cowboys [from 1989 to '94]," said Davis. "[Quarterback] Cade McNown is Steve Young. [Wideout] Danny Farmer is Jerry Rice. It's the same stuff." He remembered the 1992 NFC Championship Game, in which Dallas went to Candlestick Park and beat San Francisco, a victory that earned the Cowboys a spot in their first Super Bowl under Jimmy Johnson. "The Niners were a machine against us, ran up all kinds of offensive yardage, punted once the entire game—but we hung in there and beat them," said Davis.
So on Saturday morning he waved one of his two Super Bowl rings in front of the toddling Hurricanes and told them his NFL story. "This is not just going to be a game of stats," he said. "We're not going to shut down UCLA, they're too good for that. But we can limit them by staying on the field and wearing them down. You don't have to get beat just because of their big stats."
It was a surrender of sorts. Davis knew that his defense would get slaughtered, and it did. The brilliant McNown, a senior who will make some NFL general manager look very smart, passed for 513 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions, and the Bruins rang up 670 yards in offense. But Miami was just as good, and as Davis walked through a tunnel out of the Orange Bowl on Saturday evening clutching a victory cigar in his right hand, he recalled the conversation of the day before. "What did I say to you?" he said, grabbing his listener hard by the arm as though he were a walk-on wideout. "What did I say? It's not a game of stats. Just like against the 49ers."
UCLA's defensive unit made Davis's vision become reality. The Bruins, who came into the game ranked 91st in the nation in total defense, gave up 689 yards in offense to a Hurricanes team that had churned out all of 210 against Syracuse. UCLA defenders wilted in the South Florida heat, as Nebraskans had done on many occasions. "You could hear them sucking wind in the first quarter," said Miami offensive tackle Joaquin Gonzalez.
This was no surprise to Hurricanes junior tailback Edgerrin James. "If you looked at their games on tape, they weren't physical," James said. "They try to force turnovers, strip the ball, but they don't want to put pads on you." They hardly put any on James, who rushed for a school-record 299 yards on 39 carries and became Miami's leading single-season rusher.
James was playing in perhaps the last regular-season game of a three-year career contested entirely in the shadow of a fallen power's mediocrity. Had James been a Hurricane during Miami's glory days (1983 to '91), even casual fans would know that he is a 6'1", 220-pound power back in the mold of Alonzo Highsmith; that he wears his hair in a nest of short, tight twists; and that his ready smile reveals three glimmering gold teeth on the top and two more on the bottom. They would probably even know that his first name was coined by his mother, Julie James, in tribute to his father, Edward German. Instead, because Edgerrin is considering a jump to the NFL, there's precious little time to appreciate his talent or his vintage Cane candor. "To tell you the truth, I was actually laughing in the locker room after the Syracuse game," he said. "It was so bad you couldn't take it seriously."