The Miami Hurricanes were one of the great dynasties in college football in the ten-year period from 1983-92. They started the era off by winning the national title in a shocking Orange Bowl upset of top-ranked Nebraska. The Hurricanes went on to win crowns in 1987, 1989 and 1991. They came within one play of doing so in 1986 and 1988.
The “off-years” were 1985, where they still had a shot at #1 before a Sugar Bowl loss, and 1990 when they only ended up #3 nationally after a 46-3 demolition of Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The 1992 Miami Hurricanes were gunning for a repeat title, something none of their predecessors had done, and the path they followed was marked by series of last-second clutch plays.
Miami’s 1991 national championship team had shared the crown with Washington and both teams were considered loaded for bear and ready to joust all year at the top. The ‘Canes opened the season at #1, but there was pressure each week as voters continually evaluated and debated over both teams. And in those days, the bowl system would send Washington to the Rose to play the Big Ten champ, so there was no way a Hurricanes-Huskies debate could settle itself on the field.
Miami opened the year with an easy win over #23 Iowa, destroyed Florida A&M and then it was time for things to get interesting.
Arizona came to South Beach and brought a tough defense with them. Miami’s running game was undergoing renovation, with the loss of Stephen McGuire to knee surgery. The ‘Canes couldn’t run the ball to save their life, while Arizona piled up 170 yards on the ground.
In the course of the game, Miami lost All-American defensive end Rusty Medearis to a season-ending knee injury. Somehow they still led 8-7, when the Wildcats lined up for a 51-yard-field goal. It came up a foot short.
Even though the near-escape moved Washington to the top of the polls, Miami would have a chance to play their way back up. The next two games would be against national title contenders in Florida State and Penn State.
Florida State came to Miami. This was the era of “Wide Right” when Florida State had issues making big kicks against their in-state rival. Miami’s key win in the 1987 title run came when FSU had missed an extra point and subsequently had to go for two in a game that ended 26-25. One year earlier, the Seminoles had a missed a field goal wide right by inches in a 17-16 game.
The 1992 affair was similarly taut. Florida State scored two special teams touchdowns, but Miami quarterback Gino Torretta threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lamar Thomas for a lead with less than seven minutes left. It was a lead with a familiar score—17-16. Only this time, Miami got a couple gift points. A Florida State screwup on a punt return on the goal line resulted in a safety. Florida State still drove to the 22-yard-line to try and tie the game on the final play. A tie, of course, would temporarily end the #1 debate and leave Miami dependent on a Washington loss. Florida State missed the field goal…wide right.
There was no time for celebration as Miami packed its bags for Penn State. It was the first time the schools had met since an epic 1986 Fiesta Bowl that settled the national championship. Heavily favored Miami had lost 14-10, when Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde threw five interceptions.
In October of 1992, the Hurricanes made a huge defensive play, when defensive end Darren Krein intercepted a screen pass and returned it for a touchdown in the third quarter, giving Miami a 17-7 lead. Penn State rallied with a touchdown and when they got into field goal range, Miami was again in danger of a tie game in the pre-overtime era (OT rules were instituted for 1996). This time the ‘Canes made the play themselves and blocked the field goal. Three times, their bid for a perfect season was placed on the line with a last-play field goal. Three times they’d survived.
Miami gave its fans some room to breathe in the coming weeks, steamrolling TCU, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Temple. Over the course of that time what happened on their bye week of November 7 was most significant though. Washington took on Arizona and the Huskies weren’t as fortunate as Miami. The Wildcats knocked them off 16-3. Miami moved to the top of the polls, Alabama was #2 and the two would meet in the Sugar Bowl so long as they took care of their business the rest of the way.
Taking care of that business wouldn’t be so easy, as Miami paid a visit to a good Syracuse team and had to do one more Cardiac finish. The ‘Canes led 16-10, when Syracuse reached the 32-yard line. On the final play quarterback Marvin Graves completed a pass down near the goal line. The Orange were stopped on the three-yard line. Once again, Miami survived. Senior linebacker Michael Barrow had a simple explanation—“It’s all heart!”, he screamed to the TV cameras in the aftermath of the win.
After a blowout of San Diego State, Miami secured their perfect season. Their quarterback, Gino Torretta, won the Heisman Trophy, although this was a classic case of giving a quarterback way too much credit for a team achievement. Torretta’s selection is one of the two or three worst of my lifetime and on my short list of worst major award decisions in any sport during my lifetime. Miami was consistently winning defensive-oriented games, with the defense or special teams making key plays. If there was a quarterback carrying this team, I missed it.
The 1992 Miami Hurricanes showed as much heart as any of their championship predecessors and it’s why they remain a great story even 21 years after the fact. But they didn’t have the same dominating talent and it’s what finally did them in. Alabama was motivated and played its best game in the Sugar Bowl, pulling away in the second half to a 34-13 win. At a program that had come to see the national title as the only measurement of success, the 1992 Cardiac Canes didn’t get their due. But they deserve better—they made clutch play after clutch play and produced a memorable season as they tried to chase down their dream.