- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

The Hurricanes have lost the killer instinct.
Sure, No.2 Miami brings a 30-game winning streak to Knoxville, Tenn., today to face a wounded Tennessee team. Granted, the Hurricanes (8-0) feature a pair of prominent Heisman contenders in quarterback Ken Dorsey and tailback Willis McGahee. And yep, the 'Canes boast perhaps the most talented crop of defensive linemen in NCAA history.
But it's laughable for anyone to suggest that this season's Miami squad is anywhere near as untouchable as last year's incarnation. Above and beyond the logic-crippling talent, what made last season's national champs special was an attitude, a team-wide malevolent glee. Of course, last season's 'Canes enjoyed the fist-pumping routine that long has been a program prerequisite. But what they truly relished above all else was pulping opponents, bludgeoning overmatched foes with the sadistic zeal of a horde of Huns.
"We like to really put it on you," safety Ed Reed said after the Hurricanes demolished Washington 65-7 last season. "Our goal is to break teams physically and emotionally."
Well, Reed and a slew of other team leaders from last season's squad are gone. And this season's 'Canes, well, they just don't seem to have the same passion for bashin'.
"I think some guys think we can go like 50 percent and still win games," senior defensive tackle Matt Walters said after Miami struggled with lowly Rutgers last week. "Maybe we can get away with that against most teams, but it's a dangerous mentality to have."
The Scarlet Knights (1-8), one of the worst teams in Division I-A, actually led 17-14 after three quarters before Miami turned 15 focused minutes into a 42-17 victory.
But the game was symptomatic of the relative apathy that has started to descend on the Miami program. Since blowing out Florida in the Swamp (41-16) in early September, the 'Canes have looked as pedestrian as possible for a team boasting the longest winning streak in three decades.
In its last three games, Miami has needed a last-second yank from Florida State kicker Xavier Beitia and fourth-quarter eruptions against West Virginia and Rutgers to avoid upsets.
"We have been living on the edge a little bit," said Miami coach Larry Coker, who like most of his team has never tasted defeat as a head man (20-0).
It's simply human nature for a team on a 30-game winning streak to start feeling a bit bullet proof. But Miami has started playing with the indifference of the invincible.
Consider these statistics:
Last week against Rutgers, the Hurricanes, who lead the Big East in penalty yardage, were flagged 13 times for 120 yards.
On the season, Miami has committed as many turnovers (17) as it has forced. Last season's ball-hawking bunch led the nation in takeaways (38), giving the team a 2-1 turnover ratio and regularly giving the offense a short field.
Last season's team routinely used the fourth quarter as a celebration stanza, entering the period with an average lead of 29.8 points. Discounting games against patsies Florida A&M; and Connecticut, this season's group has relied on the fourth quarter for put-away production, entering the period with an average lead of only 8.3 points.
And perhaps most disconcerting to Miami fans, this season's vaunted defensive line is allowing a staggering 172.1 rushing yards a game. Florida State's Greg Jones ripped the 'Canes for 189 yards. West Virginia's Avon Cobourne popped them for 175. And the two teams combined for 659 rushing yards against a defensive line that most believe will send five players to the NFL in the upcoming draft.
"All that matters is the result," Miami defensive end Jerome McDougle said when asked about the run-stopping issue. "We've taken everybody's best shot, and we're still standing. Have we lost yet? Am I missing something?"
Yep, last year's attitude. With players like Reed and tight end Jeremy Shockey and offensive tackle Joaquin Gonzalez around, it wasn't sufficient to play well enough and win; you had to play really well and win big. Last season, the 'Canes played with a chip on their shoulders. They felt cheated by the BCS system that allowed a Florida State team that they beat in 2000 to go to the Orange Bowl in their stead. And they buried everyone in their path to prove a point.
This year's team seems to have an entitlement mentality. When the 'Canes slept through three quarters against Rutgers and consequently lost their top spot in the AP poll to Oklahoma and their No.2 slot in the BCS standings to Ohio State, a handful of Miami players started whining about respect. They can earn back some of that respect, and probably the AP's top slot, by burying the Vols (5-3) today.
As for Miami's third-place position in the BCS, which will determine the two teams for this season's national championship game (Fiesta Bowl), Coker is trying to use Miami's current outside-looking-in predicament as motivation for his somewhat listless team. But most Miami players are aware that their remaining schedule is so much stronger than Ohio State's that the Buckeyes have no chance of holding the second slot in the BCS if Miami remains undefeated, even if the 'Canes do so in relatively forgettable fashion.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to that run comes today in Knoxville, where the Vols have little to lose after a disheartening season in which they were expected to contend for a national title. Though Tennessee has lost a huge chunk of its nucleus to injury, the team is still loaded with young talent certain that stardom is just an upset-carrying performance away. And blue-chip sophomore tailback Cedric Houston and an underachieving but gifted offensive line could test Miami's run-defense weakness.
But realistically, this game is Miami's to lose. An inspired Miami team is far and away the nation's best. With apologies to Oklahoma and Ohio State, there's more talent and more creative plays at most singles bars. For Miami, finding that inspiration is the key. Apathy is a great equalizer. And if the current 'Canes don't develop a touch of last season's bloodlust, an upset could be in the offing.

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