MIAMI, JAN. 2 -- It is permissible to dislike the Miami Hurricanes, but not to doubt them.
Laboring under a variety of adverse circumstances in yet another controversial season, a young Miami team assured itself of its second national title in five years with a 20-14 victory in the Orange Bowl Friday night over an Oklahoma team that led the nation in total offense and defense.
The polls that will be released Sunday will almost certainly reveal what everyone already knows -- the 12-0 Hurricanes, the only undefeated and untied team in the country, are unanimously No. 1.
"We had a couple of cold beers and we hugged each other's necks," Coach Jimmy Johnson said of his team's all-night celebration. "There was a lot of hooting and hollering and laughing. It was the first time in a while we'd been able to do that."
Miami's victory may have significance far beyond just this season, because the Hurricanes showed against Oklahoma that they are the future. In addition to having an elegantly progressive passing offense and a stunting, joyously violent defense, they are a team laden with underclassmen who are only going to get better. They lose just 14 seniors off the 44-man depth chart.
Quarterback Steve Walsh, just a sophomore, threw touchdown passes of 30 yards to Melvin Bratton in the first quarter and 23 yards to Michael Irvin in the third. The genesis of sophomore middle linebacker Bernard Clark, replacing leading tackler and senior George Mira Jr. who was suspended for failing an NCAA drug test, was startling. In only his second full game, Clark made 14 tackles and was named Miami's most valuable player by NBC.
Arrivals like that changed what was to be an off year for the Hurricanes. After losing a national championship game to Penn State in last season's Fiesta Bowl, the graduation of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde and five current NFL starters seemed to preclude the possibility of Miami winning its first title since 1983. Instead the Hurricanes turned out to be one of those peculiar teams that despite doubts and weaknesses (like a 24-14 victory over Toledo) managed to rise to the level of each game.
"Nobody in the whole world believed we'd go undefeated," Irvin said. "But we beat everybody."
The implications of the loss for Oklahoma are the kind that can change an entire philosophy, because the Hurricanes have now beaten the consummate wishbone team three straight years. While both teams have unequalled 33-3 records over that span, what the Sooners must recognize is that Miami's strategy and talent may simply be superior to their earth-bound attack.
"It's the system," Coach Barry Switzer said. "They've got a quarterback and wide receivers. That's what beat us."
Oklahoma must also grapple with the fact that while the Hurricanes promise to get better, the Sooners lose 13 senior starters from a team that was considered possibly their best ever. The evidence suggests the recruiting-wise Switzer might seek another classic passer like Troy Aikman, who transferred to UCLA three years ago and will be a Heisman candidate next season. But it's not likely Oklahoma will ever fully abandon the wishbone.
"No way," said Johnson, who became expert in the wishbone while coaching with Switzer at Oklahoma, and against him at Oklahoma State. "Look how many games they've won. I wouldn't come down on the wishbone. The wishbone didn't lose, the University of Miami won."
Judging by Miami's physical execution on both sides of the ball Friday night, Johnson may be right. The Hurricanes scored on their first possession, a 65-yard drive that ended in Walsh's 30-yard pass to Bratton. Oklahoma tied the score at halftime after an agonizing 15-play drive that took more than six minutes and ended in Anthony Stafford's one-yard run with nine seconds left.
The trend continued in the decisive third quarter. The Hurricanes broke the tie with Greg Cox's Orange Bowl record 56-yard field goal, and after an Oklahoma punt, drove 64 yards for Walsh's 23-yard pass to Irvin. The touchdown came after Miami had the audacity to convert on fourth and four at the 29 with a six-yard swing pass to Bratton that probably was the play of the game. Johnson wanted a touchdown instead of a field goal because a 17-7 lead would force Oklahoma to score twice with the wishbone.
He was correct in assuming the Sooners couldn't move the ball well enough against his defense, which is well-schooled in stopping the wishbone. In the third quarter, the Sooners gained just two first downs and those didn't come until the final two minutes of the period.
That drive ended in a disasterous fumble by tight end Keith Jackson at the Miami 23. ("It's 17-14 and maybe we win," Switzer said.) Their other points came on a fumblerooski, a trick play with 1:36 left in the game when guard Mark Hutson rushed for a 29-yard touchdown.
The victory removed a considerable onus from Johnson, who was 0-3 in bowl games over his controversial career here. How important it was to him perhaps was shown by his dishevelment and genuine emotion as he got his first victory ride off the field. Irvin mussed Johnson's usually perfectly groomed hair, and he cheerfully suffered the obligatory drenching on the sidelines.
Clearly Miami's future depends in part on the happiness of Johnson, who throughout his four years has been the subject of job-change rumors. In addition, Miami is attempting to raise its academic standards. Johnson is amenable to that, but he also says he would leave if they got so high that he couldn't recruit well enough to compete for another title. For the moment, however, he said he is staying.
Then there is the matter of how long the Hurricanes can tolerate their current image, which invites teams not only to loathe them, but to publicly criticize them.
Maryland and South Carolina refused to reschedule them, citing cheap shots and attempts to run up the score. The program was embarrassed when Mira and offensive tackle John O'Neill were suspended from the game for testing positive for the diuretic Lasix, which experts say can mask steroid use.
Defensive end Dan Stubbs accosted Oklahoma kicker R.D. Lashar on the field before the Orange Bowl kickoff, and shoved an Oklahoma trainer during stretching exercises. According to the Miami Herald, the trainer made a remark about how Stubbs' mother dresses him.
But those issues are for later. Right now, Johnson and the Hurricanes are savoring a victory of the in-your-face variety.
"We go 11-0, and people still asked can we win the big one," Johnson said. "Finally, I said 'What the hell.' If someone is going to question me and my coaching, to hell with them. All I can do is my best."
Game statistics, Page C14