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At 11:40 p.m. on New Year's Eve, John Routh, who brings so much pleasure to so many as the Miami mascot, Sebastian the Ibis, was strolling on Bourbon Street in his civvies when a bullet grazed his head, close to his right eye. Routh, who took seven stitches in his face, suited up the next night, saying. "It's going to take a heck of a lot more than a bullet in the head to keep me out of this game."
The flying bullets and the near dustup between players were mere sideshows in the sublime unruliness that is holiday week in New Orleans. Wet bars sprang up everywhere—even in front of a major hotel, conveniently close to the valet parking stand. Have a pop while we bring your car around. After a disconcerting encounter with some French Quarter transvestites, Miami offensive tackle Mario Cristobal observed, "New Orleans—where the men are men, and so are the women."
'Bama fans had a significant numerical edge over their Miami counterparts in the Quarter and an overwhelming one in the Superdome. Torretta could not hear himself think. While some teams practice amid piped-in cacophony, to simulate the din of a loud arena, Miami coach Dennis Erickson has always eschewed "the noise thing," as he calls it. The Hurricanes have sophisticated hand signals for such emergencies. Against Alabama, hand signals were of no use. Arriving at the line of scrimmage, Torretta found himself facing defensive formations he had never before encountered, either on films of Alabama games or during practice.
The Miami offense lives by the short pass—no Hurricane rushed for more than 88 yards in a game this season—and Crimson Tide secondary coach Bill (Brother) Oliver had spent nearly a month perfecting a scheme to nullify that weapon. When Miami had the ball, the Crimson Tide had five, six, sometimes even seven defensive backs on the field. On several occasions Alabama placed 11 men on the line of scrimmage. It was a naked challenge to Torretta and the Ruthless Posse: Beat us deep if you can. "Sometimes we'd play man; sometimes we'd show man and drop into zone," said cornerback Tommy Johnson. "Torretta didn't know what was going on."
Besides loading up with defensive backs, Oliver juggled his two All-America linemen, ends John Copeland and Eric Curry. Sometimes he put them side by side to make it more difficult for Miami to double-team both. That left some hapless Hurricane with the near impossible task of blocking one of these future first-round NFL picks by himself.
The outcome of Oliver's scheming was a pick party. Torretta threw three interceptions, each of which led, directly or indirectly, to an Alabama touchdown. To be fair, the first, which came midway through the second quarter, wasn't a bad throw. Tide safety Sam Shade had to perform a bit of ballet to pick off the pass, which he returned 33 yards to the Miami 31. Five plays later Alabama tailback Sherman Williams scored on a two-yard run to put the Tide ahead 13-3.
By that time Miami's offense had joined the ranks of the one-dimensional, and Torretta's first play from scrimmage in the second half had a familiar look to Johnson. "[Horace] Copeland clears out for [Kevin] Williams to come underneath," said Johnson later. "They do it all the time."
This time Johnson stepped in front of Williams and received a belated Christmas gift at the Hurricane 43. Six plays after that, Lassic scored from the one to make the score 20-6. Sixteen seconds later Torretta telegraphed another dump pass. This one was intended for flanker Jonathan Harris, who was unaware that the ball was en route. 'Bama free safety George Teague sprinted in front of him, snatched the ball out of the air and sailed in for six.
It was Teague's first interception return for a touchdown, and it was a fine effort, but he would soon outdo himself by executing the transcendent play of the season. It came with slightly more than nine minutes left in the third quarter and with Thomas at center stage. The loquacious wideout had been having a poor game. He had caught four short passes, but in the first quarter Johnson had stripped him of the ball after Thomas had made a 13-yard reception, and Alabama had recovered on its own 23-yard line.
Now, with Miami facing second down and 10 at its own 11-yard line, Thomas's moment had arrived. With a nifty hip fake at the left sideline, he had burst past cornerback Willie Gaston and hauled in Torretta's sweetest pass of the evening at the Miami 36. Thomas was headed for the goal line. Thomas, a member of Miami's 400-meter relay team, has 4.5 speed in the 40. However, as Thomas neared the end zone, a crimson blur rapidly closed on him. "I was supposed to be behind him on that play," said Teague afterward. "I knew if I didn't catch him. I was going to be in trouble."