CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- One by one, the Miami Hurricanes walked out on a soggy practice field yesterday to study the imitation Seminole spear that could change the tenor of what had been a respectful rivalry with Florida State. A flaming spear, thrown into the ground whenever the Seminoles play at home in Tallahassee, has come to symbolize the intensity of a series that holds an annual impact on the national rankings.
But the seven-foot stick that the Hurricanes spotted yesterday, the width of a broom handle, was painted red and plunged into the 35-yard line of the offensive unit's field. "Hey U.M.," it read. "The Streak Ends Here. Andrew Rocked You. We Will Crush You!
"Love, An F.S.U. Alumnus
"P.S. Rusty Got Lucky"
The effects of Hurricane Andrew, more than five weeks removed, could still be seen in the tortured trees and mangled fences on campus, and heard in stories of recovery told by the injured and homeless.
Rusty Medearis, the outstanding defensive end who would have posed the biggest challenge tomorrow to the mobility of Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward, remained in a nearby hospital, recovering from major surgery on the knee he injured in the 8-7 victory over Arizona.
Whatever the source, and however insensitive the handwritten challenge may be, it held reminders of the most difficult period in the recent history of the most successful college football program in the nation.
The Hurricanes were booed during their escape over Arizona last Saturday, their 21st consecutive victory and 47th in a row in the Orange Bowl. The overall streak is the longest among major colleges; the home streak is 10 games short of Alabama's record.
"It was just embarrassing," said running back Stephen McGuire, who has gained 39 yards in two of Miami's three victories in his return from reconstructive knee surgery. "I took it as a loss. Nobody wants to be the first team to lose in the Orange Bowl, because then you're going to hear it from the older guys."
Miami has won six of the last seven meetings with Florida State, including the 17-16 victory last year at Tallahassee that cost the Seminoles a chance for a national championship. Miami has not lost to Florida State at home since 1984.
Miami's recent players, a source of friendly and not-so-friendly // persuasion in the days and hours before big games, have had to cope with the deaths of the former Hurricanes Jerome Brown, killed in a car accident, and Shane Curry, who was murdered. Current and former players are awaiting the outcome of a federal investigation into charges that financial aid was obtained fraudulently.
The current upperclassmen, who have inherited the expectations of a championship legacy, have examined the motivations of teammates and accused some of selfishness. Their reminders are a particularly sensitive subject in the days leading to such a decisive game.
McGuire repeated yesterday that he probably would have applied for the NFL draft if not for the injury.
And there is the reminder of a quiet moment when the team came together in August, before Hurricane Andrew changed everything, and the senior class posed together for a picture. And Lamar Thomas, instead of saying "cheese," said, "First round."
The subject is sensitive because Miami's NFL connections, its 82 draft choices in the last 11 seasons, 15 in the first round, provide a reason that the school continues to recruit so successfully.
But the issue was raised after a rare full-pad practice on Monday, a day usually reserved for a 12-minute run, in a meeting run by senior linebackers Micheal Barrow and Darrin Smith.
"Everyone stated we had to stop being individuals," said tailback Darryl Spencer. "We've got superstars, but we can't win as a team if they're worried about what stats they have."
Players said the group priorities have been refocused.
"We're a fist now," Spencer said, "instead of an open fist."
But the hope to play at the next level remains an important personal goal to consider.
"That's sometimes hard not to do," said Kevin Patrick, the junior defensive end who will take the place of Medearis in the starting lineup. "There's so much involved in a football game these days. It's almost not a game anymore. It's natural for somebody to go after certain goals for themselves.
"This is a big step for people who want to succeed in football and want to go on to the NFL. But it's true that a lot of people come here because it's the best college program around. And we don't go out to compete for the Big East, or for the SEC or anything like other people do. We go out every year to be No. 1. And if we're not No. 1, our season wasn't complete and we didn't reach our goal."
If the Hurricanes can find a way to get through the week undefeated, their next step toward a possible championship will be a trip to Penn State a week from Saturday.