MIAMI, NOV. 27 -- A quirky piece of late season timing brings 10th-ranked Notre Dame here Saturday with the intent of creating last minute havoc for No. 2 Miami. This is where it can all fall apart, from the Hurricanes' pursuit of a national championship, to the Orange Bowl's gala but fragile plans for a game of undefeated teams.
What the Irish will demonstrate Saturday at the Orange Bowl (3:30 p.m., WUSA-TV-9) is whether the Hurricances are for real, or merely the product of very good lighting. That there should be nagging doubt about the second-ranked team in the country this late in the season is a result of schedule; Miami (9-0) is undefeated, but its record came against some opponents that were laughable. What is not in doubt is that Notre Dame (8-2) has played the most difficult, purely legitimate schedule in the country.
"What remains to be seen," Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz said, "is if they can play two weeks in a row."
Given Miami's opponents in the last five weeks, the Hurricanes deserve some skepticism, despite the invitation to the Orange Bowl game to meet No. 1 Oklahoma. In order, they have bravely defeated Cincinnati, East Carolina, Miami of Ohio, Virginia Tech and Toledo. They beat Virginia Tech, 27-13, and last week got by Toledo, 24-14.
These last two games caused Coach Jimmy Johnson to deliver a caustic warning to his players that if they don't regroup against the Irish and No. 8 South Carolina next week, they won't remain unbeaten.
Miami did have some difficult games early in the season, including large victories over respectable Florida and Arkansas. The Hurricanes beat No. 3 Florida State, 26-25, when the Seminoles blew a 19-7 lead and failed on a two-point conversion in the final seconds.
So what gives? The trouble might simply have been that the Hurricanes were bored.
"The last couple of weeks we were playing because we had to," receiver Michael Irvin said. "It was work, not fun, and when it's work nothing goes right. We didn't have the lights on us that Miami players like, we have a lot of clutch players, stars, who like the attention. This week the spotlight is back on us, and we're coming to have fun again."
What the Hurricanes mean by fun is a blowout. A loose and loose-lipped team, they possess talent to back it up.
Their offense averages 38.7 points a game, while a defense led by linebacker George Mira limits teams to 10.6 points. Quarterback Steve Walsh has gone from being Vinny Testaverde's replacement to completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,743 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Thus, a couple of rather emotionless games do not trouble them unduly as they chase their second national championship game in as many seasons, their only loss in those two seasons coming in last year's Orange Bowl to Penn State. If anything, they have been impatiently awaiting this game, aggravated by accusations of a lame schedule and overrated rankings.
"They're not afraid of the police, the FBI, or the opposition," Holtz said. "They intimidate people and they're awfully good."
But if Miami has any thoughts that it can play another emotionless game, Cotton Bowl-bound Notre Dame will not brook such an insouciant attitude. The Irish have faced seven teams -- Miami will be the eighth -- headed for bowl games, and possess something else Miami might lack: a motive. There are lingering memories of two years ago, when the Hurricanes humiliated them, 58-7, in Gerry Faust's final game as coach.
Miami was accused of running up the score, throwing for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and running a reverse on the second-to-last play of the game. Even Holtz remembers it, watching at home on television having just been named Faust's successor. Johnson has stridently denied he intentionally destroyed the Irish, but the perception remains.
"We did not try to run up the score," Johnson said. "I hate that we have that controversy right now. I really wish it hadn't happened."
Johnson has good reason to be worried, because this is a vastly improved Notre Dame team from that demoralized one two years ago. The Irish have overcome all kinds of problems this season, including a transformation into a high-powered option offense when drop back quarterback Terry Andrysiak was injured. With sophomore Tony Rice handling the offense adeptly, the Irish are averaging 402 yards offense and 32.9 points a game.
Also, Hesiman candidate Tim Brown could figure heavily against Miami's defense, which, unlike many teams, won't alter its game plan just to deal with the wingback who is fourth in the country in all purpose yardage, averaging 175.2 a game. "He's not going to ruin my day," Mira said. But when Brown is left to his own devices in single coverage, he is a gamebreaker. Incidentally, he was on that team two years ago that got humiliated.
"We want to put the fight back in the Irish," Brown said. "We want to be known as the team that brought Notre Dame back."
The rest is left to Notre Dame's defense, which has been credible if not brilliant, allowing 289.7 yards and 15.9 points a game. And to emotion, which might not win games, but helps, and currently seems to be running in favor of the Irish.
"I don't think you can get ahead of somebody by trying to get even," Holtz said. "All we want to do is win the game, I can't think of anything more gratifying than that. Is that revenge? I don't know."