Commentary

Canes hope a victory over Sooners will resurrect program

Originally Published: May 7, 2007
By Jorge Milian | Special to ESPN.com

At the end of Miami's season-opening 31-3 victory over Marshall on Saturday, many of the 39,830 fans in the Orange Bowl serenaded the Hurricanes' first-year head coach by chanting his name.

[+] EnlargeRandy Shannon
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIOklahoma will prove to a big challenge for Miami and coach Randy Shannon.

"Ran-dy Shan-non, Ran-dy Shan-non," they sang in cadence.

That was a whole lot nicer than what the home fans were yelling at Larry Coker last season as the Hurricanes struggled through a disappointing and turbulent 7-6 campaign that ended up costing Coker his job despite a résumé that included a 53-9 record and a national championship prior to last season.

Shannon, the second black head coach in the history of ACC football, had a painless debut. The Hurricanes' suffocating defense registered six sacks and four interceptions while the tailback tandem of sophomore Javarris James and freshman Graig Cooper combined for 215 yards on 26 carries, and Miami snapped a two-game losing streak in season openers. Neither the Hurricanes, nor Shannon, will have it so easy on Saturday when they make their first trip to Norman, Okla., since 1985 to play the fifth-ranked Sooners, who opened 2007 with a 79-10 thumping of North Texas (ABC, noon ET).

The oddsmakers don't give Miami much of a chance; Oklahoma is a double-digit favorite. But the Hurricanes' impressive performance against Marshall has provided some hope in Coral Gables that Shannon might be capable of quickly turning around the football program's fortunes.

This is what we live for. It's a big game. It's top 10. We might not be ranked, but that's all on paper. We're going to play like we're ranked.

Middle linebacker Tavares Gooden

On Nov. 12, 2005, the Hurricanes were ranked No. 3 with an 8-1 record that included a dominating 27-7 victory over then-third-ranked Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

Since then, Miami has gone 10-9 and hasn't been ranked in either poll for nearly a year.

An upset win in Norman this weekend likely would propel Miami back into the rankings and, according to senior center John Rochford, "definitely send a statement out to the rest of the country that the Hurricanes are for real this year."

But Shannon, a linebacker for the Miami team that defeated Oklahoma in the 1987 national championship game, insists that Saturday's game is no more important than any other on the Hurricanes' regular-season schedule.

Asked if a victory over Oklahoma could put Miami back on the national map, Shannon responded, "I don't know we've ever been off the map. I don't worry about those things. We just have to go out and play this Saturday, and whatever happens, happens. If we win, great. We still have another 10 games left to play. So it's not a one-game season for us."

Miami's history is filled with games in which the Hurricanes were given little chance to win and pulled off upset victories. In 1985, an unranked Jimmy Johnson-coached Miami team traveled to Oklahoma to play the third-ranked Sooners. The Hurricanes came away with a shocking 27-14 win.

Kirby Freeman
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIKirby Freeman will need to be sharp against the Sooners' D.

"This is what we live for," said Miami middle linebacker Tavares Gooden. "It's a big game. It's top 10. We might not be ranked, but that's all on paper. We're going to play like we're ranked. I know nobody gives us a chance. But my coach, Randy Shannon, says we have a chance to win this game, and I believe in him."

Belief in the Hurricanes' offense may be a little harder to come by.

While the offensive line appears to be improved and the combination of James and Cooper could turn out to be one of Miami's best ever, questions about the team's passing game remain.

Against Marshall, the Hurricanes generated only 81 yards of passing offense, with quarterback Kirby Freeman connecting on only 9 of 21 passes. Not that Freeman got much help. Miami's receivers dropped at least four passes, and only senior Lance Leggett had more than one reception.

Three of Miami's four touchdowns against Marshall followed interceptions deep in Marshall territory that resulted in drives of 1, 24 and 29 yards.

Freeman, a junior, won the quarterback job over senior Kyle Wright in a battle that began in spring practice and wasn't completed until Shannon named the starter four days before the Marshall game. Freeman has now started five straight games for the Hurricanes dating back to last season, but his combined numbers are modest (58-of-111 for 826 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions).

Despite Freeman's lack of production in the opener, Shannon has all but ruled out the possibility that Wright, who started 21 consecutive games before being sidelined last season by a broken thumb, will play anything but an emergency role against Oklahoma.

"I'm not worried about Kyle right now," Shannon said Tuesday. "We've still got Kirby Freeman. Kirby's our guy. If something happens to go wrong, a shoe comes off Kirby Freeman and we need to go in and get another shoestring, then Kyle will go in until Kirby comes back."

Against Oklahoma, the Hurricanes are faced with playing a ranked team on the road, which has not been a recipe for success lately.

Since defeating No. 3 Virginia Tech at Blacksburg in 2005, Miami has lost five consecutive games to ranked teams on the road or at a neutral site. Last season, the Hurricanes were 1-4 away from the Orange Bowl, with the lone victory coming in a down-to-the-wire struggle with winless Duke in Durham, N.C.

"We really need a good road win," said junior cornerback Randy Phillips. "It will helps some guys with confidence."

Some Miami players aren't having any problem with their confidence. Asked this week what kind of statement Miami would make by beating Oklahoma, senior guard Derrick Morse responded, "I think it's going to be a huge statement when we win."

Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.