Entering the final week before the Miami-Florida matchup, fans and the national media alike chose to place the spotlight on three issues. First, would Ron Zook break out of Steve Spurrier’s shadow? Second, how will the Hurricanes be able to play 60 minutes of solid football contending with the noise of 85,000 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, AKA “The Swamp?” Finally, which quarterback would show more Heisman potential on Saturday, Rex Grossman or Ken Dorsey?
After Miami’s 41-16 demolishing of the state’s third best college football program, I’ll quickly supply answers to these questions. Time will tell about Ron Zook’s coaching ability, but as of now, they both can talk out of the side of their mouths about losing big to the Hurricanes. As for “The Swamp” issue, I will agree with my WVUM broadcast partner Kyle Berger, who described the challenge of playing in Gainesville “overrated.” And, I’ll get to the Grossman-Dorsey issue later.
But, on to another topic. I’m not a person who likes to buy into hype, which is why it puts a big smile on my face to see the deciding factor in the Hurricanes rout had nothing to do from the three questions listed above, but rather from eleven players wearing white and green who didn’t get a lot of attention entering Saturday’s contest: The Hurricane defense.
Despite the fact that Miami will forever be known as “Quarterback U,” great Hurricane defenses served as the backbone to five national champions. Take a look over this list: George Mira, Jr., Greg Mark, Bennie Blades, Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, Ryan McNeil, Jessie Armstead, Michael Barrow, Darrin Smith, Daryl Williams, Ed Reed, Phillip Buchanon. All of them started for a national championship Hurricanes squad.
Not to mention Hall of Famer Ted Hendricks, and two NFL superstars who will one day join Hendricks in Canton: Warren Sapp and Ray Lewis. They both donned the Hurricane uniform.
So how does this 2002 Hurricane unit compare to some of the great Miami defenses? Well, for starters, add this front four, or should I say front eight, to the list of the program’s best. With Jerome McDougle returning from injury, this defensive front harassed Grossman all game. Rex may have only been sacked once, but he constantly found himself running for his life, or on the ground after just barely getting off a pass.
Most importantly, the defensive front rushed Grossman on their own, allowing the linebackers to stay back and help cover the pass. That alone should tell you the strength and speed of this Greg Mark coached line.
Let’s move on to the linebackers, the weakest part of last year’s championship team. Not so this time around. Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams have become two of the best in the nation, while Larry Coker projects the third man in the unit, Howard Clark, as a “twelve game starter.” Now, the linebackers certainly helped defend the pass up in Gainesville, but they certainly did their part in helping hold one of the country’s most underrated running backs, Earnest Graham, under the century mark in rushing yards.
But folks, I’ve saved the best for last. The Miami secondary, with four new starters, was the targets of question after question entering this season. I’ll admit, I wasn’t convinced about the Hurricane defensive backs, especially after seeing too many missed assignments and too much separation against the receiving corps of FAMU, a Division 1-AA team.
So, how the heck can they contain one of the nations most prolific air attacks, you and I may ask. Simple, they obviously needed just a game of seasoning. Strong safety Maurice Sikes showed an uncanny ability to read pass routes, as witnessed by a pair of interceptions. Free safety Sean Taylor may take chances, but boy does he make opposing receivers anywhere near the ball pay, and pay hard. Antrel Rolle, the shakiest of the Hurricane DB’s after the FAMU game, gave Grossman no room for error thanks to blanket coverage. And then there is the man wearing the cast, freshman Kelly Jennings. In his first collegiate contest, Jennings only had the difficult task of matching up against Taylor Jacobs most of the game. And Jennings awareness and speed showed us why Coker and Randy Shannon have been extremely high on this newcomer all year long. Oh by the way, he also held Jacobs to 5 catches for 57 yards, nearly 200 yards less than his input the previous week against Alabama-Birmingham.
Now, as for the Dorsey-Grossman matchup, make no mistake, there were flashes of brilliance in Dorsey’s four touchdown strikes and Grossman’s ability to make the perfect throw under heavy pressure. More often, though, there was frustration on the faces of the two men, especially the one wearing No. 8 on his blue jersey.
But the Dorsey-Grossman matchup and all the hype surrounding it is a moot point. All that matters right now is 41-16 Miami. And again, you ask how does this 2002 Hurricane defensive unit compare to the other great defenses of Miami’s past? Take another look at the score, and that should answer your question.
Jeremy Marks-Peltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.