On the Third Try, Miami Gets It (No. 1) Right

Times Staff Writer

The telling vignette of this Orange Bowl game, and there should be at least one when it's for the national championship, has Hurricane Coach Jimmy Johnson being hoisted aloft at game's end, moving slowly and randomly across the field on a huge clot of people.

He is drenched, his famously groomed hair now in a wild ice water mousse. He is absolutely helpless in his joy. When network broadcasters reach him, the carefully spoken coach is revealed as articulate as a stump.

Composure, evidently, is for losers. For three years, Johnson endured each of his team's finales with a stiff smile. Composure, in three bowl losses (two for the national title), has been his long suit. But Friday, following a 20-14 victory over top-ranked and previously undefeated Oklahoma that left Miami the last college football team with a perfect record, wild abandon was the game plan.

"I don't hide my feelings very well," said Johnson afterward, looking decidedly moist and disheveled and generally unbusiness-like. He couldn't stop smiling, gushing or hugging. This had been four years in coming, after all.

The previously second-ranked Hurricanes, who won this game going away, have had a history of stumbling in the big one. Johnson, in particular, had a sorry history in these games, losing all three previous bowl dates as Miami coach. Last year's Fiesta Bowl game, which the Hurricanes lost to undermanned Penn State for the top ranking, seemed to doom him to Bud Grant status.

Those big losses and numerous off-field troubles of his players had turned the Miami program into a curious laughingstock. The Hurricanes could win, but only up to a point. Then they'd make a fool of themselves (see: jungle fatigues, Fiesta Bowl) and blow an easy game.

Friday night's game was very different. The Hurricanes (12-0), this time embroiled in a sorry controversey over drug testing right up to game day, were for once poised and perfect against Oklahoma once the ball was kicked. Where they had made seven turnovers against Penn State a season ago, in this game they made just one. The team defense, against the formidable Oklahoma offense, was surprising. The offense, against the country's top defense, was varied.

Miami, it may be argued, holds the Oklahoma mortgage; it should always beat Oklahoma. It has, in fact, beaten the Sooners in each of the past three years, preventing them from winning their own big one the past two (the last two years ruining them in regular-season play). It was thought that only Johnson, who was an assistant with Coach Barry Switzer at Oklahoma and later an adversary at Oklahoma State, had secret knowledge of the wishbone.

But that advantage was thought to have gone down the drain when two of Miami's stars failed NCAA drug tests. George Mira Jr., the team's leading tackler, and offensive tackle John O'Neil made sorry spectacles of themselves appealing in the courts all week. However, the mess was happily mopped aside for the game when stand-ins made everybody in the crowd of 74,760 forget the originals.

Linebacker Bernard Clark, Mira's replacement, was even named the Orange Bowl's co-most valuable player. It certainly didn't appear that he lacked for preparation; after his several tackles for losses, he performed a complicated piece of syncopation with teammates. He had been ready.

Miami's redemption was complete in so many other ways, too. A sophomore quarterback, who suffered all season in comparison to his famous predecessor, shone. Steve Walsh, who will probably not win the Heisman Trophy Vinny Testaverde won last season, completed 18 of 30 passes for 209 yards and 2 touchdowns. On his team's first possession, he virtually closed out the game with a 30-yard beauty to Melvin Bratton. In the third quarter, his team ahead by 10-7, he completed a short pass in a fourth-and-four situation and followed it moments later with a 27-yard scoring pass to Michael Irvin.

Both passes were beautifully led throws. Bratton ran down the left sideline and right under the ball, as did Irvin, who beat All-American Rickey Dixon in the corner of the end zone. Miami's reputation for arrogance suffers when Walsh modestly explains them, though: Bratton "could beat the guy and he did," and Irvin "just ran under it."

Not that the Hurricanes were doing something spectacular on every play. For most of the game, until it got weird and close in the final minutes, this was slug-it-out defensive football. Miami managed just 281 yards total offense, not that much more than Oklahoma's 255. No back gained more than 50 yards rushing. And only Miami's Melvin Bratton had a super day on offense; he caught 9 passes for 102 yards and rushed for 18 more.

For Bratton this was a nice comeback after an average season. But as with Johnson and Walsh, redemption was the order of the day. It even applied to the kicker, who last year was the team's designated "short" kicker. But Friday night, Greg Cox put his team ahead, 10-7, with a 56-yard field goal and later iced it with a 48-yarder.

Oklahoma's Ruin Over Miami, though not unprecedented, was surprising. The wishbone is not much fun to stop, but Miami closed down the option offense at the corners. Seldom did a back reach the perimeter before he was dragged down. Oklahoma quarterback Charles Thompson, whose Indian slogan, on a neckband, means, "Clear the Way," gained just 29 net yards. Oklahoma is used to about four times that from its quarterback.

This is about all you need to know of Oklahoma's offense: The Sooners got their first touchdown after Dixon intercepted a Walsh pass, Anthony Stafford eventually scoring on a one-yard run. Their second score came in a wild fourth-quarter drive when guard Tom Hutson, on a trick play borrowed from rival Nebraska, simply picked the ball up off the ground and carried it and his 280 pounds 29 yards into the end zone.

By then, though, the Hurricane mascot had been making regular fun of Oklahoma's Boomer Sooner Schooner. First, it towed a small replica of the covered wagon onto the field, pulling it in a ridiculous circle. Then, it dragged it out and set it afire.

The game had been over for a long time, Oklahoma proven impotent on offense. Toward the end, Switzer looked as resigned to defeat on the sideline as Johnson looked hysterical.

But Johnson deserved this release of frustration. He has long been a target here and he takes things very seriously.

"When people throw stones," he said, referring to criticism of his embattled program, "whether it be at me or others, it does hurt. They've been hurting the last three-four years, even though we've been winning games."

Miami always wins games, 33 the last three years. But they've never won this one.

"You never can tell," Johnson said, referring to his underdog image, "but sometimes the other guy does win."

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