The University of Miami football program came into 1991 having established itself as the nation’s best. There had been three national titles in the previous eight seasons, all three under different head coaches.
There had been four other major bowl bids, and three top five finishes, including a final #3 ranking in 1990. The role of underdog was now a rare one in Coral Gables. But at the season’s biggest moment that’s exactly what the 1991 Miami Hurricanes were and they thrived on it.
Miami opened the regular season at #3 in the polls, but all the media hype surrounded their #1-ranked rival Florida State. This was going to be the Seminoles’ year to finally win their first national title. FSU was loaded and the November 16 date between the two archrivals would be in Tallahassee. That was how the story was supposed to play out anyway.
The Hurricanes produced the best defense in the nation, led by linebacker Darrin Smith and free safety Darryl Williams, both All-Americans. They were physical in the trenches, led by All-American offensive tackle Leon Searcy. Miami had a tough runner in Stephen McGuire and an efficient quarterback in Gino Torretta.
After a season-opening pounding of Arkansas, the ‘Canes moved to #2 in the polls behind Florida State. Up next was a Thursday night home game with Houston. The Cougars “run-and-shoot” passing offense—the forerunner of today’s spread in a lot of ways—was getting rave reviews, but the points were being piled on against bad teams. Its flaws—at least as run by Houston—were left badly exposed by an elite defense.
Miami chased Cougar quarterback David Klingler all over the field, had a 30-3 lead by halftime and won 40-10. Subsequent routs of Tulsa and Oklahoma State set up a real battle with Penn State, who was ranked #9 and no one in Coral Gables needed a reminder of what happened last time the two schools played—the Nittany Lions won a national championship battle in one of the great sporting events ever played, the Fiesta Bowl that followed the 1986 college football season.
The Hurricanes had home-field advantage and they also had a speed advantage. Kevin Williams, their excellent kick returner, brought a punt back 91 yards. Torretta found receiver Horace Copeland on an 80-yard touchdown pass. Defensively, they sacked Penn State quarterback Tony Sacca eight times.
Miami was still only ahead 26-20 with 1:04 left and the Lions were on the Hurricane 44-yard line. Sacca was a big strong-armed quarterback and there was plenty of time for him to win the game. But Darryl Williams came up with the interception that sealed it.
That was the last real test the ‘Canes would have before the biggest exam of all. They blew through Long Beach State, Arizona and West Virginia and rolled into Tallahassee on November 16 as the underdog.
Anyone remotely interested in college football was watching this game, and McGuire put Miami up early on a 30-yard touchdown run. Florida State began to take the game over the better part of 2 ½ quarters after that, but consistently did not cash in.
Miami held FSU to a field goal after a 1st-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Two deep third-quarter drives by the ‘Noles ended up with field goals. The ‘Canes made mistakes—three turnovers led to one Florida State touchdown and cut short two other promising Miami drives. But the Hurricane deficit was only 16-7 early in the fourth quarter when it could have been worse.
A 45-yard field goal by All-American kicker Carlos Huerta cut it to 16-10. On a big drive, McGuire, who rushed for 142 yards, had several tough runs and Torretta completed a 4th-and-6 pass inside the FSU red zone to Copeland. It produced a touchdown and Miami had a 17-16 lead with three minutes to play.
Florida State came driving back down. A pass interference call on Miami in the end zone set the ball up at the 18-yard-line—with college rules only giving 15 yards rather than at the 1-yard line, the penalty was actually worth it for the ‘Canes. FSU would try a field goal to win it. And in a phrase that would become legendary in college football and define this rivalry in the early 1990s, it sailed “Wide Right.” Miami had spoiled the dream season of their archrival and set themselves up for another national championship.
Miami won at mediocre Boston College the following week by a 19-14 score, but the unimpressive nature of the win and gathering sentiment for the undefeated Washington Huskies and their long-time head coach Don James, created a split poll. Washington took over the top of the coaches’ poll while Miami held firm with the writers.
The debate was really the only drama. The Hurricanes played a good San Diego State team, that had future NFL great Marshall Faulk in the backfield, but Miami had too much depth and too much at stake. They won 39-12.
Miami faced Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. This wasn’t a dominant Cornhusker team—they were a nice 9-1-1 team and co-champion of the Big Eight, but they were ranked #11 and no one was under any illusion it should have been higher. With the ‘Canes unable to play Washington (committed to the Rose Bowl) or fourth-ranked Michigan (also in Pasadena), rematching with Florida State being pointless, the Orange Bowl was an anti-climactic ending.
Toretta threw an early touchdown pass and it was 13-0 at the half. The scope of the mismatch was so bad that at halftime, NBC analyst and former San Francisco 49er head coach Bill Walsh termed it “a semi-successful half for Nebraska.” Walsh wasn’t wrong, though it begged the question of how ugly the game might have gotten had the first half not gone so swimmingly for the Huskers.
Washington had already blown out Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and Miami held up their end of the bargain with a 22-0 whitewash of Nebraska in the Orange. Both of the final polls ended up close, but the split decision held—Miami took the writers’ nod, Washington with the coaches. In those days, it was as appropriate a finish as you could hope for.
And the ultimate legacy of the 1991 Miami Hurricanes is this—not only did they win their fourth national title in nine years, but they denied their most hated rival in the most excruciating way possible. It really doesn’t get much sweeter than that.