MIAMI – The ‘Canes found an inflatable toy gator in the end zone where they had scored the game-winning touchdown, and they went to town. They hoisted it up by a rope and waved it. They shook it and threw it down on the ground. They kicked it and stomped it. Then they left it there for the cheerleaders, who took turns stepping on it with their white Nike tennis shoes.
"We back on top!" screamed one Miami player. "Watch!"
Then they all barreled toward the rancor of their student section, jumping and yelling with a vindication they’ve longed to feel since they chose this school.
A few moments later, in the quiet of the press room, Miami coach Al Golden wiped himself off with a towel, shrugged and said, "I got no statement."
The statement was made on the field: With a 21-16 upset win here over hated Florida, Miami is on its way to returning to the days of "The U." And the ACC, with three star quarterbacks and three convincing wins on national TV in eight days, may just be the conference that finally ends years of SEC domination.
The feeling in the locker room was just like any other in the minutes before noon, but the ‘Canes realized immediately when they got onto the field that Saturday was not like other game days.
"We came out here," said sophomore linebacker Tyriq McCord, "and you knew it meant something."
Sun Life Stadium is no Orange Bowl, and this day had no eerie echo of Saturday nights back in the glory days of Miami football, but this NFL stadium rattled and hummed all afternoon. A venue that was embarrassingly vacant during Saturday games last season was packed and it got noisier as the Gators continued to drown in a blizzard of errors. Florida fans will say their team lost this game as much as Miami won it, and there’s something to that, yet Miami was always a place where visitors crumbled inexplicably. The Gators, though somewhat unrecognizable in their ineptitude on offense, looked a little familiar to long-time Miami fans. The old ‘Canes made opponents look bad.
And then there were the playmakers. Miami is a place for playmakers. Now there are new ones. Quarterback Stephen Morris, who throws bombs like they’re lobs, had the highlight of the day with a gorgeous 52-yard rainbow to Phillip Dorsett in the first quarter, gave the 'Canes a lead and must have woken up the nation to an upset in the making.
[Photos: Best of college football's Week 2 action]
"You come to Miami for moments like this," Dorsett told Yahoo Sports after the game. "We wanted to show everybody we had changed."
There were playmakers on defense too. Tracy Howard jumped a route and made a key interception late in the game, with the Gators threatening to take the lead. He picked off Jeff Driskel’s pass, tiptoed down the Miami sideline and eventually rushed into a berserk mob of ‘Canes assembled by the bench.
Then the play of the day came deep in Florida territory, as McCord burst around the end and all he saw was Driskel. "Amazing," was how he described the next feeling: popping Driskel and watching the ball spring loose. Florida never recovered from that turnover. Miami scored the winner minutes later.
"Sack-caused fumble is the best play in football," McCord said after the game. "You sleep and dream about it."
The ‘Canes have been dreaming about a win like this for quite some time. This is Miami’s first win over a top 10 team since 2010 – before Nevin Shapiro and the self-imposed sanctions, before the Golden era, before most of the new team stars even chose Coral Gables. The pandemonium as the last seconds ticked off (and the thrashing of the deflated gator afterward) felt "almost cathartic" in the words of the head coach.
"Twenty-six months, unleashed there, in that four or five seconds," Golden said.
The next 26 months look to be far more exciting. Many of the leaders on this team are young. Running back Duke Johnson is a sophomore, as are Howard and McCord. Everyone knew about the standouts on offense, but everyone feared the inexperience on defense. On Saturday, the Miami defense looked quite mature indeed.
"They couldn’t handle this setting a year ago," Golden said. "I think they’ve grown up. They are so much stronger, bigger up front."
Golden gave the entire defense a game ball. That was a BCS contender they just upset. Just like last week when Clemson upset another BCS contender in Georgia. Throw a stacked Florida State team with Jameis Winston into the mix, and the ACC is looking rather SEC-ish these days.
It’s barely September and the ‘Canes are still young, but when McCord says, "We’re back, we’re back," he means it.
There’s a chance they’re back for good.