Saturday, November 24, 2001

MIAMI On a long weekend famed for feasting, it’s only fitting that we pay homage to college football’s most formidable hogs.

Ask the average fan about top-ranked Miami, and you’re likely to hear about Heisman-hopeful quarterback Ken Dorsey, Jim Thorpe Award finalist Edward Reed or 1,000-yard rusher Clinton Portis. But if you took that trio off the roster, the Hurricanes likely still would be 9-0 heading into tonight’s showdown with No. 12 Washington (8-2) at the Orange Bowl. Forget the flashy little mites with their high profiles, gaudy stats and camera-friendly mugs. The key to Miami’s march toward the Rose Bowl has been its dominant offensive line.

“I think that group Miami has over there right now is the best I’ve ever seen,” Florida State coaching legend Bobby Bowden said earlier this season. “I guess if you pushed me on it, I’d say the line Nebraska had in the early ‘80s with [Dave] Rimington and [Dean] Steinkuhler was the best run-blocking group since I’ve been around. But Miami’s bunch is the best I’ve ever seen in pass protection. You just can’t get to Dorsey. It’s like the moat’s full, the drawbridge is up and he’s back there behind the castle walls laughing at you. They are something else.”

Here are the staggering statistics generated by Miami’s big boys up front. The Hurricanes’ offense is averaging 42.7 points (third in the nation) and 467.3 yards (sixth). Dorsey, who was sacked an NCAA-low three times last season, has been sacked just twice this year. And that’s not because Dorsey, who never will be confused with Michael Vick, is a particularly slippery character in the pocket.

“Ken couldn’t outrun a Zamboni,” said junior center Brett Romberg, betraying his Canadian roots (Ontario) during a teleconference earlier this season. “But it’s our job not to let anyone touch him, much less sack him.”

And the Miami line hasn’t just given Dorsey supreme protection. It also has cleared running lanes that have allowed ball carriers to average 5.5 yards, best among the nation’s Top 25 teams.

“Sometimes, I feel like it’s not even fair,” Portis said last week. “A lot of times, I get credit for 8 or 9 yards on a run, but nobody even touches me until I’ve gone seven. Those guys are just crazy good.”

So who are these guys?

Miami uses a six-man rotation of Romberg (6-foot-3, 293 pounds), senior guard Martin Bibla (6-4, 300), senior tackle Joaquin Gonzalez (6-5, 292), senior tackle Bryant McKinnie (6-9, 335), junior guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli (6-6, 326) and sophomore guard Vernon Carey (6-5, 363). All have talent and size, but few know about their unique combination of diversity and intelligence.

Joining Romberg on the international track to Coral Gables are Bibla and Haji-Rasouli. Bibla, whose parents fled the former Soviet Union, was raised in Mountaintop, Pa., and speaks fluent Russian and Polish. Haji-Rasouli, who was born in Iran, moved with his family to Toronto as a child and has helped his fellow Hurricanes better understand the peaceful underpinnings of the Muslim faith since September 11.

Gonzalez, who is working on his MBA after earning his undergraduate degree in just three years, is the group’s resident brain. The All-American tackle walked on four years ago after scoring a 1,320 on the SAT and earning academic scholarships to Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth and Cornell.

“I didn’t want to go to the Ivy League; I wanted to play for the ‘Canes,” said Gonzalez, a Miami native. “My family was pretty ticked off at the time, but I think they’re over it.”

And McKinnie and Carey are the blue-chippers, can’t-miss prep players who chose Miami for drastically different reasons.

McKinnie was a high school phenom from Woodbury, N.J., who desperately wanted to play for Joe Paterno at Penn State. But despite a 3.0 high school average and a qualifying score on the ACT, McKinnie came up several credits short of the NCAA’s core course requirement because of a bad steer by a high school guidance counselor. Penn State, which does not accept Prop 48 players, withdrew its scholarship, and McKinnie was forced to spend a season at Lackawanna Junior College (Scranton). Still stewing over Penn State’s decision and seeking vengeance, McKinnie chose Miami because Penn State was on the Nittany Lions’ future schedule.

“When we played [Penn State] earlier this year, Coach called eight straight running plays behind me because he knew how jacked up I was to run over them,” said McKinnie, who recorded 14 pancake blocks in Miami’s rout of Penn State at Beaver Stadium. “They have a great program up there, but they did me wrong and paid dearly for it.”

McKinnie, who is expected to graduate on time from Miami, is also expected to be the first offensive lineman taken in next year’s NFL Draft. He has never allowed a sack in 21 starts at left tackle. And last week in Miami’s 59-0 blitzing of Syracuse, McKinnie matched up with All-American Dwight Freeney and allowed the nation’s top sackmaster just one tackle.

“I watched the tapes, and I was just in awe of the job Big Mac did,” said Carey, the top offensive lineman from the prep class of 1999 and a Miami fan from birth. “Freeney’s a stud, and Big Mac just shut him down.”

Expect more of the same when McKinnie and Co. face All-American nose tackle Larry Tripplett and the Huskies’ defense tonight at the Orange Bowl. Dorsey will have all day, Portis will have his way, and the pair will be showered with praise hard-earned by the ‘Canes’ anonymous front five.

“If I wanted talk, I’d be on the debate team at Harvard,” Gonzalez said. “I just want a ring.”

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