Miami coach Larry Coker, left, and Ohio State boss Jim Tressel eye the object of tonight's Fiesta Bowl - the national championship trophy. Coker's Hurricanes have a quick-strike offense. Tressel's Buckeyes have an excellent defense.
TEMPE, Ariz. - Miami has a deserved swagger.
Ohio State has a well-defined determination.
The top-ranked Hurricanes (12-0) think they're unbeatable. The second-ranked Buckeyes (13-0) feel they're a team of destiny.
The strut is a two-touchdown favorite over the pluck tonight when the two teams meet in the Fiesta Bowl for the national champion in Sun Devil Stadium.
“All year we've stressed it's all about us and it's never really been about the other team,” Miami All-American senior center Brett Romberg said. “We felt we were untouchable from the beginning and we still feel that way. We feel like a lot of people have gotten close, but in the end we've pulled through when we had to.
“As seniors we said all along there's no way we're going to go out without another national championship, so the senior motivation was definitely there and not all senior classes at other schools have that.”
While that might sound like the epitome of self-righteousness, it comes equipped with documentation.
The Canes have won a nation-best 34-straight games. A victory tonight would tie them with the University of Toledo (1969-71) for the second longest winning streak in modern-day Division I-A history, bettered only by the 47-game unbeaten string compiled by Oklahoma (1953-57).
Miami also seeks to become the third team to win undisputed back-to-back national titles. The others were Nebraska (1994-95) and Oklahoma (1955-56).
The Canes were able to pulverize Nebraska's Cornhuskers in last year's national championship game by jumping out to a 34-0 lead in the first 30 minutes.
This is, again, a quick-strike Miami offense that averaged just 1:58 on its 67 touchdown drives this season. The Canes averaged 41.9 points per game and had 31 plays of 20 yards or more.
The Buckeyes scored 41 touchdowns and averaged 29.2 points, but only 18.8 points over their last six games, all of which they trailed in at one point. OSU averaged 3:17 per TD drive.
“I think Miami has the greatest combination of explosiveness and balance of any team we've seen,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said yesterday. “There's no question about it. Our guys know that every tackle is going to be important, every shed of every block. If you're covering a guy man-on-man you better have him covered and then make a play if they throw to him anyway. You have to play your best football to compete against the likes of Miami.”
Of the 56 teams competing in Division I-A bowl games this season, the Buckeyes are the second biggest underdog at 111/2 points, eclipsed only by Arizona State, which was a 18-point underdog against Kansas State in the Holiday Bowl.
It appears crucial that the Buckeyes not allow Miami to raise cane early with its high-powered offense, centered around tailback Willis McGahee and quarterback Ken Dorsey. They finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the recent Heisman Trophy voting.
If the Hurricanes can build a head of steam, like they did against Nebraska last year, their momentum might become gluttonous.
OSU defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio feels the Buckeyes are two-dimensional on offense as opposed to Nebraska's approach last year that consisted of the run, followed by the run, followed by the run.
“That allows us to play the game any way it falls,” he said. “The key is to play well early. That's the key for both of us.”
Miami's offense probably will be tested and retested by an Ohio State defense that ranks second in the country in points allowed (12.2) and fourth nationally against the run, allocating just 78.6 yards per contestant.
“Everyone wants the blowout, 30 or 40 points scored by the defending national champs,” Ohio State All-American line- backer Matt Wilhelm said. “We're a team that has survived a lot of close calls. We find a way to win no matter what.”
Miami's concern about OSU's smashing defense is genuine.
Miami senior offensive tackle Sherko Haji-Rasouli says, “This is the best defense I've seen since I've been playing. You just don't find any weaknesses. You find good personnel at every position just taking care of business and doing their job. The main thing offensively for us is to execute and be very patient against these guys because they are such a good defense. We can't deteriorate against them if they stop us. We've got to keep pounding on them, keep pounding on them.
“You can tell when a team has 4, 5, 6 guys at the point of attack that they're a good defense and these guys are able to do that.”
Ohio State defenders say their strategy will be to shut down, or at least contain, McGahee, who averages 140 yards rushing per game, and let Dorsey have the biggest say in the outcome. He has thrown for 3,073 yards and 26 touchdowns.
The Hurricane defenders will probably try to logjam OSU freshman tailback Maurice Clarett, who has averaged 119 yards despite reoccurring shoulder problems, and make quarterback Craig Krenzel carry more than his share of the load. He has passed for 1,988 yards and 12 touchdowns.
But that, too, is a major Miami concern. The Canes have allowed 191 rushing yards per game and have been vulnerable to off-tackle runs, where Clarett is adroit.
Miami coach Larry Coker, an OSU assistant coach from 1993-95, admits, “We don't have a big `S' on our chests by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes we've been exposed. Stopping the run is something we have had a problem with at times.
“I'll tell you one thing. We lost every defensive back we had from last year and they're involved a lot in the running game. You look at Michael Doss [OSU's All-American safety] and in 13 games I never saw him miss a tackle. You block everyone perfectly and you make three yards against them.
“Scheme-wise, they didn't invent football or reinvent defense, but what they do they do extremely well. They play extremely well together and they don't allow big plays. That's what sets them apart.”