SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- If luck is needed to win national championships, the University of Miami football team has had more than its share this season. If heart is needed to build dynasties, the Hurricanes appear to have that, too.
Top-ranked Miami had an abundance of both yesterday. The Hurricanes teetered on the brink of defeat again, but wouldn't fall to eighth-ranked Syracuse and a wild sellout crowd of 49,857 at the Carrier Dome. The Orangemen came up 3 yards short of an upset, as Miami held on for a 16-10 victory.
The victory was the 28th straight for the 10-0 Hurricanes, who are looking to become the first repeat champions since Alabama won back-to-back titles in 1978 and 1979. But it did not come easily, as Syracuse (9-2), which was riding a seven-game winning streak, nearly erased all of its 16-0 deficit.
"Winning like this is just a tradition here," said Miami coach Dennis Erickson, whose team appears headed to the USF&G Sugar Bowl. "We just feel like we can win it. But you can't tell that to my heart."
For the fourth time this season, it came down to the final defensive series before the Hurricanes secured victory. Three times, it has come down to the final play. A game-winning field-goal try by Arizona and a game-tying field-goal try by Florida State each went wide. A last-gasp pass by Penn State was intercepted.
Early last night, it came down to two sacks and one final tackle. After quarterback Marvin Graves ignored his own nausea and drove the Orangemen to the Miami 17 with 45 seconds remaining, a pack of sacks pushed Syracuse back to the 32. On fourth down, as time expired, Graves found tight end Chris Gedney at the 3. Gedney was immediately tackled by strong safety Casey Greer to end the game.
"My job was to be on top of the tight end," said Greer. "If he was going to beat me, he had to get behind me and I wasn't going to let that happen. It was wonderful, laying on the ground knowing we had won. I said a prayer to myself on the ground, and then my teammates jumped on me. To me, I'm getting used to winning this way."
Said Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni, whose team seems bound for the Fiesta Bowl: "I don't know if we were 3 yards short or one play short. I think we showed we can compete with anybody. It's great for the Big East Conference to have a game like this."
Said Gedney: "I knew when I went down I wasn't in the end zone. It was just a sickening feeling. I looked up and saw 0s across the board."
For nearly three quarters yesterday, Syracuse saw a big fat zero on its side of the scoreboard.
Despite Gino Torretta throwing three first-half interceptions, the
Hurricanes had jumped out to a 13-0 lead by halftime. The lead stretched to 16-0 early in the third quarter.
"We just didn't finish our drives," said Torretta, who had thrown just four interceptions coming in.
Except for kicker Dane Prewitt, who made all three of his field-goal attempts, the only thing consistent about the Hurricanes yesterday was their defense.
It was overwhelming, sacking Graves seven times in the first 30 minutes -- nine times overall -- and stuffing the explosive Syracuse offense to minus-1 yard and one first down in the first half.
"It was like we played them in 1990," said Graves, recalling a nightmarish 33-7 defeat at the Orange Bowl. "We played Florida State last year [losing, 46-14, when the Seminoles were No. 1]. We were tired of being embarrassed. But I take my hat off to them. They came here and won. You've got to play 60 minutes to beat a team like that. Playing 30 isn't enough."
Actually, the Orangemen played about 20. They finally scored on a 30-yard field goal by John Biskup with 4:29 left in the third quarter. As the fourth quarter began, things started to get interesting. A nine-play, 93-yard drive by Syracuse ended with Graves going over the top from 6 inches away. The Dome crowd erupted.
"We wanted to prove the fourth quarter in the Dome belongs to us," said senior receiver Qadry Ismail. "I think we proved that."
Not quite. A fumble by Graves at the Miami 19 with a little more than six minutes left took some steam out of the Orangemen, and another apparent fumble by Graves with a little less than four minutes left seemed to wrap up things for the Hurricanes. But on the second fumble, Miami was called offside, and Syracuse retained possession at its 33.
Said Miami defensive end Darren Krein: "It was tough. I thought ** the ballgame was over [after the fumble]. They called it on one of our linebackers. It was like starting over. It's like being in a dark alley. We get our best guys and they get their best guys. Whoever is left standing wins the game."
It looked as if the Orangemen were going to come out of this AstroTurf alley. First they converted a pair of third-down plays, the second on an 11-yard pass to Ismail to the Miami 36. After a timeout by the tired Hurricanes, Graves scrambled for 14 yards. As he started to get up, Graves keeled over. He recalled later feeling "a sharp pain in my heart." Then he vomited.
Forced to called its next-to-last timeout, Syracuse waited nervously as Graves returned to the field. After a 5-yard run by Graves put the ball at the Miami 17, the Hurricanes put pressure on the Syracuse quarterback. Warren Sapp got to Graves for a 6-yard loss. Then Krein got to him for a 9-yard drop back to the 32.
"Everyone told each other in the lineup that we had one big play left in us," said Sapp. "And we did."
In truth, it was the Orangemen who didn't. Though Pasqualoni had hoped his 6-foot-5, 254-pound tight end would bull his way for the touchdown, Gedney caught the ball going backward and was plowed right in the numbers by Greer's helmet. Players on both teams were strewn about the floor of the Carrier Dome.
"The close games they've had have come against great opposition," said Gedney. "Everyone comes up short in the end, it seems."
Of such endings, national championships are made. Dynasties, too.