MIAMI, DEC. 5 -- It took a fake field goal, a bench clearing brawl, a series of exchanged turnovers and a career-best performance by quarterback Steve Walsh before second-ranked Miami could remain unbeaten tonight. The Hurricanes endured one of the biggest scares of the college football season, but hung on to beat gimmicky, unafraid No. 8 South Carolina, 20-16, at the Orange Bowl.
In a frantic, sometimes crazy contest before 63,317, marked by big turns of fortune and big emotions, Miami (11-0) trailed twice in the first half before scrambling to a 14-13 halftime lead it never relinquished. But the Gamecocks (8-3) harbored thoughts of upset until the final minutes, and never made it easy on the Hurricanes, who go on to the Orange Bowl Classic to play No. 1 Oklahoma in a rare event, a meeting of undefeateds for the national championship.
"I think mentally and physically it was played to the last down," South Carolina running back Harold Green said. "A couple of plays here and there and it would have had a better turnout for us."
A couple of plays did it. The Gamecocks gambled heavily on the blitz, leaving Miami's big-play receivers in single coverage while they sacked Walsh four times. But, twice, the Gamecocks' gambled and paid.
Walsh flung scoring passes of 46 yards to Michael Irvin in the first quarter and 56 yards to Brian Blades in the third. But the go-ahead touchdown came on Melvin Bratton's four-yard run in the second quarter that was set up by a humiliating fake field goal. After Walsh hit Blades, the rest was left up to Miami's defense, ranked third in the country.
The Gamecocks threw a nifty run-and-shoot offense and a riotous defense ranked No. 2 in the country at the Hurricanes, harboring thoughts of an upset if it could shake the finest passing team in the land. They intercepted Walsh twice, blocked an extra point, and got Todd Ellis' 47-yard scoring pass to Sterling Sharpe in the second quarter. Bound for the Gator Bowl against LSU, they had absolutely nothing to lose, and they played like it.
"It was everything it was advertised to be," Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson said.
The game represented a meeting between two of the best sophomore quarterbacks in the country in Walsh and Ellis. As it turned out, Walsh had the best performance of his career, completing 22 of 40 passes for 310 yards. Ellis, already South Carolina's career passing leader, had one of his worst, completing just 10 of 28 for 141 yards with two interceptions, and that was the difference.
The combination of Miami's defense and Ellis' troubles forced South Carolina to turn to kicker Colin Mackie three times, for field goals of 40 and 46 yards in the first quarter, and a 28-yarder with 13:51 left in the fourth period that represented South Carolina's only points of the second half, and the last for either team. It wasn't quite enough.
"Miami has a reputation of intimidating folks, but I don't think we got intimidated," South Carolina Coach Joe Morrison said.
The Gamecocks struck on their opening possesion with Mackie's 40-yarder, then startled Miami by causing a Walsh fumble on the very first snap. Mackie returned for the 48-yard kick and a 6-0 lead with 8:33 yet to play in the first quarter.
But Miami had insisted throughout this week that it would find ways to burn South Carolina's gambling pass rush. The Hurricanes made good on the promise on their next possesion: facing third and 11 at the South Carolina 46, Walsh found Irvin in single coverage at the 30 yard line, where he had a full two steps over cornerback Norman Floyd across the middle of the field. Irvin taunted Floyd all the way to the end zone and Miami led, 7-6, with 5:56 left in the period.
An exchange of punts later, South Carolina returned the favor on a pass from Ellis to wingback Sharpe on third and 12 from the Miami 47. The extra point gave South Carolina the lead again, 13-7.
But the game turned quickly and decisively, the Hurricanes taking just 1:49 to get Bratton's scoring run, which came with 8:06 left in the half and was set up by the fake field goal.
On fourth and four at the South Carolina 30, Greg Cox came on for what was presumed to be a 47-yard attempt. Instead, the snap went to punter Jeff Feagles, who audibled when he saw a shift on the line. He carried the ball for the first time in his career and caught South Carolina flatfooted for a 24-yard gain before defensive back Brad Edwards dragged him down. One play later Bratton burst around end for the touchdown.
Asked how fast he runs the 40-yard dash, Feagles replied, "Forever. The guys kidded me that if I had any sped at all, I would've scored."
In the second half South Carolina stayed with the relentless pass rush on Walsh, who had been sacked just nine times all season, but the decision begged for trouble. Miami made it costly with the 57-yard scoring pass from Walsh to Brian Blades to open the third quarter.
The glow faded when the extra point was blocked, and the Gamecocks threatened to tie it, driving 69 yards over the next 6:31 to the Miami 11. But there the third quarter ran out and so did the drive, and Mackie kicked the 28-yarder.
That was the end of the scoring but not the craziness.
Walsh began one of the strangest sequences of the college football season on third and two at his own 41, when he threw an interception to linebacker Matt McKernan at the 45. But on third and 10 for South Carolina, Green fumbled a screen pass as he was hit by Bubba McDowell. Tolbert Bain recovered at the Miami 41. But that wasn't the strange part: referee Terry Monk ruled it no fumble because an inadvertent whistle blew.
South Carolina got the down over, and a brawl errupted over Dan Stubbs' sack of Ellis. Once that cleared, referees called offsetting personal fouls, and illegal procedure on South Carolina. On third 15 at the 50, Ellis threw an interception to linebacker George Mira, and Miami took over at midfield.
But all of that came to nothing and Miami's fragile 20-16 lead proved strong enough to keep its hopes for a national title very much alive.
South Carolina 6 7 0 3 16 Miami 7 7 6 0 20
SC -- FG Mackie 40
SC -- FG Mackie 48
M -- Irvin 46 pass from Walsh (Cox kick)
SC -- Sharpe 47 pass from Ellis (Mackie kick)
M -- Bratton 4 run (Cox kick)
M -- Brian Blades 56 pass from Walsh (kick failed)
SC -- FG Mackie 28
A -- 63,318
S. Carolina Miami First downs 14 20 Rushes-yards 38-103 33-61 Passing yards 141 310 Return yards 52 23 Passing 10-28-2 22-40-2 Punts-average 5-46 5-44 Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-1 Penalties-yards 10-63 5-55 Ti
RUSHING -- South Carolina: Green 29-108, Bing 3-6, White 1-0, Ellis 5-minus 11. Miami: Feagles 1-24, W. Wil
PASSING -- South Carolina: Ellis 10-28-2, 141 yards. Miami: Walsh 22-40-2, 310.
RECEIVING -- South Carolina: Sharpe 4-69, Green 2-20, White 2-11, Bethea 1-22, Smith 1-19. Miami: Irvin 7-1