Say what you will about Miami's sack dances, touchdown shimmies and interception bumps and grinds—you really couldn't fault the Hurricanes for strutting last Saturday night. It was payback time in college football's nastiest, most sublime rivalry, and when it was over, the Hurricanes had ended Notre Dame's winning streak at 23 games while putting themselves back into contention for the national championship (page 75) a month after their only loss of the season, to Florida State. Miami all but shut down the Irish's vaunted option attack—as well as quarterback Tony Rice's Heisman Trophy dreams—in the 27-10 victory, and most of the Hurricanes stayed on the Orange Bowl field, basking in the crowd's adulation and savoring this delicious twist of fortune.
Last year Miami went to South Bend ranked No. 1 and left with a 31-30 defeat. It was their only loss of the season, and it deprived the Hurricanes of a second straight national championship. Notre Dame claimed the title by sweeping its regular-season opponents and easily defeating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Last Saturday, in the humid night air, the Hurricanes got to spoil Notre Dame's hopes of winning back-to-back titles. "This one is sweet," said Miami safety Hurlie Brown. "We waited so long for revenge."
On the game's very first play, Rice gained 12 yards up the middle, but that would be his longest run of the evening. Even so, the Irish were not broken until the Hurricanes received the second-half kickoff with a 17-10 lead and began the Drive, a remarkable 11-minute odyssey, to their third touchdown. The Drive lasted 22 plays, but should have stalled after eight. Following a Miami penalty, the Hurricanes had a first-and-25 on their own 26-yard line when Irish defensive end Eric Jones dropped quarterback Craig Erickson for a 12-yard loss and stripped him of the ball in the process. Coming from the other side, defensive end Devon McDonald swooped down on the fumble. Instead of falling on the ball on the 10-yard line, though, McDonald tried to pick it up and run in for the score. He didn't get a handle on the ball, and Miami center Bobby Garcia made the recovery.
"I messed up. I didn't do my job," said McDonald afterward. Upon being told that fumbles cannot be advanced in college football, McDonald said, "Is that right?"
That mistake evolved into disaster two plays later, with Miami facing third-and-44 on its own seven-yard line. Erickson called "80 double zone" in the huddle. Randal (Thrill) Hill lined up wide right and streaked up the sideline. Inexplicably, Notre Dame had only four defensive backs in the game, and cornerback Stan Smagala allowed Hill to get behind him. Erickson's pass settled into Hill's hands at the Notre Dame 49, giving the Hurricanes a first down.
Twelve plays after Hill's 44-yard catch, Erickson connected on a five-yard pass with wideout Dale Dawkins, who was open in the end zone. "In the huddle on the play before, I told him [Erickson] they were covering me one-on-one, so look for me," said Dawkins after the game.
"You told me? I told you" said Erickson, who was eavesdropping three lockers away. "I have to tell this guy what coverages they're in, what formation we're in, the snap count. Don't listen to him."
They were jesting, of course. Erickson was still a bit delirious with happiness. And why not? He had engineered a huge win without self-destructing, as so many people had expected him to do. All season Hurricane watchers have been saying it: Erickson has the footwork and the arm to be a worthy heir to Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and last season's starter, Steve Walsh. Erickson had one flaw, though: a proclivity for throwing interceptions.
The week before, in what was hardly a promising tune-up for the Irish, he had thrown his eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th interceptions of the season in a 42-6 victory over San Diego State. What's more, his season had consisted of only six games. Erickson had suffered a broken knuckle on his throwing hand against Michigan State on Sept. 30, forcing him to miss four starts, including the loss to Florida State, and the injury still affects him. "Every once in a while one gets away because of it," he says.
The larger challenge for Erickson has been learning Miami's offense. As a backup for two seasons, he absorbed coach Jimmy Johnson's system. When he finally got a chance to start, Johnson bolted for the Dallas Cowboys, and Erickson had to adjust to the scheme of new coach Dennis Erickson (no relation). It features some of the deeper patterns from Johnson's days but is primarily designed to take smaller bites out of the field with quick outs and hitch passes. The offense is not as glamorous a showcase for a quarterback as the previous Miami attack was. Craig Erickson runs into trouble—he throws interceptions—when he tries to make it one.