Flipped on ESPN Classic today and was treated to the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl between No. 15 Miami and No. 25 Wisconsin, begging the question, how was this a “classic” to anyone outside of a diehard Canes-hater and Badger-lover with a soft spot for the city of Orlando?
Having tried to put that pointless post-season faceplant out of my head, I found myself hopelessly tuned in to this not-quite-a-classic on a random mid-summer Thursday afternoon.
On one level if felt like yesterday as several of last year’s players were in the mix – Jacory Harris and LaRon Byrd got some face time – but when cameras focused on the scowling, stoic of then-head coach Randy Shannon and former offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, it played more like a recurring bad dream.
Miami rolled into the Citrus Bowl with a 9-3 record – the program’s best since 2005. A ten-win season was on the line, which would’ve been the first since 2003, and Wisconsin was thought to be a quality opponent and benchmark entering 2010.
Both the Canes and Badgers were three-loss teams, went 5-3 in conference, had some young talent and were primed for a breakout the following year. During the game commentators even mentioned that fans could see a rematch in 2010, but on the BCS level as both squads were primed to breakout.
A year later, Wisconsin did just that, putting together an 11-1 regular season, eventually falling to an undefeated and third-ranked TCU squad who was title game-worthy. The Badgers entered the game ranked fifth and finished seventh in the final polls.
For the Canes, the complete opposite in 2010. Jacory Harris, who looked the part of the hero at times in 2009, was a disaster as a junior.
Harris missed the opener against Florida A&M and opened the season leading twelfth-ranked Miami into second-ranked Ohio State, where he unraveled with four interceptions, courtesy of some questionable decisions with the football.
Wins at Pittsburgh and Clemson were impressive, but Harris still had four interceptions to six touchdowns over eight quarters of football – leading up to another disastrous outing, this time against rival Florida State.
Harris was 19-of-47 for 225 yards with an interception in the 45-17 loss, which has been said to have started the process that saw then-head coach Randy Shannon ousted by season’s end – a season where Harris finished with fifteen interceptions and fourteen touchdowns, despite missing three-and-a-half games due to injury.
Miami went 2-3 to close out the regular season, as well as falling to Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl, marking the Canes first three-game losing streak to close out a season since 2008 (lost at Georgia Tech, at NC State and to Cal in the Emerald Bowl).
A year removed from the ‘classic’ Citrus Bowl, Wisconsin reaches the Rose Bowl, goes 11-2 and finishes in the top ten while Miami stumbled to 7-6, fired a coach and was embarrassed in a third-tier bowl game, punctuated with snowball fights on the sidelines.
While watching Miami take on Wisconsin, the most obvious difference in the post-season showdown had to do with the guys in headphones on the sidelines. Where Shannon didn’t have his team prepared, Badgers’ head coach Bret Bielema rolled south with a tough squad that came to play.
Bielema took over the Wisconsin program in 2006 – a program former coach Barry Alvarez left in good shape. Bielema’s Badgers posted a 12-1 record year one, but backslid years two and three, going 9-4 and 7-6. From there, things turned around.
After going 10-3 and beating Miami in the 2009 Citrus Bowl, Wisconsin posted a 22-5 record over two seasons, with back-to-back BCS appearances. A sound program on the rise, courtesy of Bielema.
Miami looked like it’d boat-race Wisconsin to the finish on December 29th a few years ago.
Running back Graig Cooper took the opening kickoff four yards before lateraling to Sam Shields, who went eighty-six yards for what looked to be a score. Miami was hit with a ten-yard illegal block, but a play later Cooper rushed sixteen yards for the touchdown and eventual 7-0 lead.
It looked like speed would kill in this ACC vs. Big Ten showdown, but in the end it was conditioning, grit and downright smart, well-executed, fundamental football.
Wisconsin ran hard early with Big Ten player of the year John Clay, baiting Miami with the ground game on the first possession, and coming back with a 37-yard strike from Scott Tolzien to tight end Lance Kendricks hook-up on first down after the Canes stalled, going three-and-out.
With first-and-goal, Clay punched it in from three yards out to tie the game, 7-7.
Miami again went three-and out after a Harris pass went incomplete, a Javarris James run only netted two yards and on a 3rd-and-8 throwing down, the Badgers put Harris in a running situation, where he didn’t convert.
Early in the second, Clay finally broke one, rumbling for fifty-two yards and inside the Canes’ red zone before being taken down. Miami got a first-down stop, leaving Wisconsin with a 2nd-and-14 situation, but again Tolzien found his man – this time, tight end Garrett Graham, for thirteen yards. Facing a 3rd-and-1 from the three, Clay again punched it in.
The Badgers chipped away late in the second quarter, putting together an eleven-play, 62-yard drive that resulted in a field goal and a 17-7 halftime lead, with the Canes’ only points coming on the second play of the game.
Miami got a late score in the game’s final moments, putting together the lone balanced drive of the night, while in desperation mode. Harris spread the ball to wideouts Byrd, Thearon Collier, Leonard Hankerson and Travis Benjamin, while James and Damien Berry got it done on the ground. The Canes covered seventy-nine yards over ten plays and found themselves down, 20-14 with just over two minutes to play.
Matt Bosher nailed the onside kick and Miami recovered midfield, with at least a chance to steal one. Instead, Harris was sacked on first down and threw three straight incompletions en route to another bowl game loss.
Despite the final score, this one wasn’t as close as it looked. Miami forced a Tolzien turnover when Micanor Regis picked him off early in the second quarter, but was given a gift when a 22-yard pick-up from Graham was fumbled into the endzone and recovered by safety Randy Phillips. Even with the gift, Miami still ended up facing a punt situation and a 4th-and-15 after Harris was again sacked.
Wisconsin had 430 total yards to Miami’s 249 and was 6-of-14 on third down while the Canes were a paltry 2-11. UM also rushed for a mere 61 yards while UW amassed 170 on almost twice as many attempts (23 to 42).
The Badgers turned it over two times to the Canes’ one, yet still dominated time of possession 39:15 to 20:45.
Postgame, when asked about the loss, Shannon’s answer; “Things just didn’t happen our way. I can’t explain why.”
Little solace for Hurricane Nation – as was the fact that Sunshine State team speed was neutralized, while UM players were called out for huddling around sideline heaters as the “wintery” Orlando evening in late December was hard for Miami boys to brave.
A tough game to get sucked into yesterday, but a stark reminder of the culture change that was needed in Coral Gables. The 2009 Hurricanes should’ve ended on a better note, setting the stage for another step forward in 2010 – but instead of 10-3 and good things to come, it was 9-4, a head coach left scratching his head and a top-ranked recruiting class (2008) entering its junior season in full regression-mode.
In hindsight, it’s now obvious why Wisconsin took a leap forward in 2010 while Miami withered. It’s also understandable why Al Golden had such a mountain to climb last season and will need a few years to bring the proper, Miami-style talent back to ‘The U’, getting the Canes back to winning ways.