This year’s Russell Athletic Bowl might now have the dramatic flair and high stakes of the playoffs on New Years Eve, but the storylines and history surrounding the Miami and West Virginia showdown will make for one of the season’s more intriguing match-ups.
On paper, it’s the ACC and the Big 12 going at it. A four-loss team versus a two-loss squad—both with higher hopes back in September, but landing in a good-enough spot as 2016 draws to a close.
In reality, a lot of hate on both sides between one-time BIG EAST rivals who tangled over a dozen times from the early 1990’s through the early 2000’s.
The Mountaineers’ hate for the Canes is as elementary and pedestrian as expected; little brother envious of big brother and a backwoods program jealous of them flashy “big city” boys who racked up conference titles and national championships left and right.
Added animosity for those few occasions the underdog had swag-fueled program on the ropes, but couldn’t close—as well as the defection to the ACC after the 2003 season, where Virginia Tech, Boston College and Syracuse were eventually invited along, the BIG EAST imploded and the boys from Morgantown were left out in the cold.
For Miami, West Virginia was nothing more than a mid-tier rival who rose up on a few occasions, fell short many others and proved to be a shitty host whenever dem boys from the three-oh-five made that biannual trek to Mountaineer Field.
And what a throw-down some of those treks were. For those unfamiliar with the rivalry, a quick trek down memory lane for context-sake.
CANES FOUND WAYS TO WIN; MOUNTAINEERS REINVENTED WAYS TO FAIL
Prior to becoming conference foes in 1991, four match-ups between 1942 and 1974, with Miami going 3-1. The teams met again in 1983, with the Mountaineers a footnote in the Canes’ first national championship season—where the hometown boys rolled, 20-3 at the Orange Bowl.
The first conference game was a 35-23 home win for Miami in 1992. Those eight years in-between, the Canes racked up three more championships and left at least three more on the field. Meanwhile, long-time head coach Don Nehlen had the Mountaineers an at-best 9-3 squad before an 11-1 standout season in 1988, culminating with a Fiesta Bowl loss to Notre Dame.
Five seasons later West Virginia rose to No. 2 in the polls by way of an undefeated run, before getting trounced, 41-7 by eighth-ranked Florida in the Sugar Bowl—a season highlighted by a late November upset of fourth-ranked Miami in Morgantown, 17-14.
The Mountaineers got the Canes one more time in 1997; a 28-17 victory in the Orange Bowl with Miami on probation year three under Butch Davis and en route to its first losing season since 1979, bottoming out at 5-6.
Outside of that, it was a rivalry where Miami either rolled, as expected—or West Virginia choked-away would-be upsets or thrilling victories; 1996 being one of the more memorable dogfights.
Miami limped with losses to Florida State and East Carolina, while eleventh-ranked West Virginia was 7-0 and smelled blood. The Canes rolled out quarterback Ryan Clement and his separated non-throwing shoulder, as back-up Scott Covington was laid-up back home with a collapsed lung.
Scoreless at the half, the Canes notched a third quarter field goal, though a Clement interception by Mike Logan was returned to the three-yard line and quickly resulted in a go-ahead touchdown. With :26 remaining, the game looked in the bag as the Mountaineers lined up to punt in the shadow of their end zone when magic happened.
Tremain Mack came fast off the edge, blocked the punt, Jack Hallmon recovered and before going down, handed the ball off to Nate Brooks, who rumbled in for the score. Miami survived 10-7 in a game where the Mountain State’s finest rained down D-sized batteries, unopened beers and racial slurs—as well as 22-gallon-sized trash can from the second level that took out Shannon, the Canes’ linebackers coach at the time.
For added measure, the locals even tried to tip the ambulance geared up to take injured Miami running back Danyell Ferguson to the hospital with a dislocated hip.
Two years later, revenge was equally-as-sweet as the Canes were coming out of probation and Davis’ squad was finally on the mend. Again, an early loss to Florida State had Miami in bounce-back mode, while West Virginia rode a four-game win-streak and rose to No. 14 after a season-opening loss to top-ranked Ohio State.
The Mountaineers raced to an early 14-3 lead, but the Canes cut it to 24-17 by the half. Covington helped tied things up early third, before Miami took a 27-24 lead in the quarter’s final moments—but West Virginia scrapped back, going up 31-27 in the fourth.
Daryl Jones hauled in the eventual game-winner with 1:37 remaining and the Mountaineers missed a game-tying 53-yard field goal attempt as time expired in a 34-31 victory for Miami.
COMEBACK CANES SAVED BEST FOR LAST IN BIG EAST SWAN SONG
All that aside, the biggest dagger might’ve come in 2003 when the BIG EAST foes met one final time on a Thursday night in the Orange Bowl. The second-ranked Canes were four games removed from a national championship loss to the Buckeyes and a 34-game win-streak coming to an end. Weeks prior to West Virginia’s trek south, a thrilling comeback victory against the hated Florida Gators had Miami on a high.
Amidst that tremendous run, the Canes extended the win-streak over the Mountaineers to five and won the previous three meetings by a combined score of 132-26.
Limping in 1-3 in year three of the Rich Rodriguez era, the early-October showdown was nothing more than a formality as Miami prepped for its annual trek to Tallahassee nine days later. Instead, one of those quirky Thursday night ESPN games that threatened to derail the season.
Brock Berlin coughed up two interceptions. Frank Gore went down with an injury, while back-up Jarrett Payton was guilty of a late-game fumble. Red-zone struggles plagued the Canes all night, too—leaving freshman kicker Jon Peattie to keep Miami alive with his inexperienced right foot.
The Canes looked to be in control late; pushing the lead to 19-10 early third quarter, but an early Mountaineers’ field goal pulled the road dogs to within six with just over ten minutes remaining.
Payton’s mid-field fumble with 3:30 remaining was the momentum-shift West Virginia needed and five plays later Rasheed Marshall hit running back Quincy Wilson on the left sidelines; the running back trucking Canes’ defensive back Brandon Merriweather en route to pay dirt.
Upset alert in full force as Miami took over, trailing 20-19 with 1:54 remaining—made even worse by a penalty that set up 1st-and-20 from the Canes’ 18-yard line.
Moments later, history was made when Kellen Winslow II made a ballet-like grab on 4th-and-13. Berlin spread it around three more times before finally getting Peattie in position to drill a 23-yarder with :14 remaining, while new-level of dejection kicked in for a West Virginia program that has reinvented ways to shit the bed against Miami.
Even worse, the rivalry ended that day as it was all about the ACC for the Canes the following season. Wednesday’s showdown in Orlando marks the first time the teams have met since that Instant Classic in 2003.
A DECADE-OF-DISASTER FOR ONCE-POWERFUL MIAMI
Life for Miami since the dominant BIG EAST days have been a struggle—having less to do with the conference switch and everything to do with poor leadership, in-over-their-head coaches and an off-field scandal that brought the NCAA sniffing around, a lengthy, distracting investigation and three years of probation—all of which killed recruiting and turned the Canes into a middle-of-the-pack program.
Bowl-winless since topping Nevada on some blue turf in 2006, Miami is on it’s third head coach over that same span and dealt with a few seasons of self-imposed penalties that killed any chance at post-season success.
Mark Richt looks to succeed year one where both Randy Shannon and Al Golden failed the Canes on a handful of tires.
The Mountaineers ride in on their first 10-win season since 2011—their final run in the BIG EAST, where they won the conference and reached the Orange Bowl. The five years since have been sub-par for head coach Dana Holgersen as life in the Big 12 has proven more challenging; 26-25 the past four go-arounds before this year’s 10-2 regular season.
For West Virginia, a win over Miami this bowl season would be more nostalgic than ultimately meaningful. The Canes roll in unranked, while the Mountaineers’ successful season is somewhat paper-thin—playing only one ranked team and getting rolled by eight-ranked Oklahoma, 56-28 at home.
West Virginia beat BYU, Kansas State and Texas by a combined eight points, while other wins came against the likes of Missouri, Youngstown State, Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas, Iowa State and Baylor, it what was an admittedly weak year for the Big 12.
CANES WITH ONE-FOOT OUT THE DOOR MUST DELIVER
For Miami, a win over West Virginia would prove meaningful—less by way of the opponent and more to do with ending a post-season victory drought, taking down a 1o-win squad, closing out a 9-4 season year one of the Richt era and riding that momentum into recruiting season.
Late December and early January optimism legitimately hasn’t been the case in Coral Gables since 2004 wrapped with a 9-3 season and Peach Bowl win over Florida. A win on December 28th, 2016 goes a long way in reversing a horrible curse.
Furthermore, it’s a chance for this current crop of Hurricanes to go out with a bang. Lots of chatter surrounding quarterback Brad Kaaya, tight end David Njoku and running back Joe Yearby, who are all expected to give up their remaining eligibility in favor of chasing NFL dreams.
Today’s players taking a me-first approach late in their careers is understandable. College football has become big business and so much is on the line for the modern-day athlete. Still, the lack of team success and all-encompassing success during the tenure of these aforementioned kids is impossible to ignore. Doesn’t matter if Kaaya broke the record books in his three years as a starter or Njoku had better numbers than all three Mackey Award finalists—these Canes all come up hollow regarding the ultimate stats. No other way to say it.
Winless against Florida State; playing their part in a seven-game losing streak. No Coastal Division title, either—let alone an ACC Championship, which Miami hasn’t sniffed in the 13 years since joining the conference. No one on this current Canes’ squad has won a bowl game, either—all of this unfathomable when comparing the present to Miami’s rich legacy as a one-time powerhouse.
While there’s no room for waxing nostalgic for a rah-rah era where players still believed in that “unfinished business” mantra and would put personal goals on hold for one more go-around with their brothers—chasing team goals, conference titles and making a run at a national title—it’s not asking too much for these soon-gone Miami greats to elevate their game to the next level and show up big at the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Four wins over patsies to start the season were followed by four losses against the best competition the Canes faced this fall (sans Notre Dame). Four wins against average conference talent followed, hence the 8-4 finish—yet not one signature win.
Embarrassingly, Miami has to go back to 2009 and a one-point victory over eight-ranked Oklahoma for the program’s last marquee victory (and even that one came with Sooners’ quarterback Sam Bradford sidelined with an injury.)
Beating a one-time BIG EAST foe who the Canes are 16-3 against lifetime doesn’t seem like a signature win—but coupled with a dozen down years, a decade-long bowl drought, head coaching turnover and a 10-win squad on the other sideline this Wednesday—a victory over the couch-burners and nine-win season for Miami is a fine way to close out a true rebuilding season.