Nearly three years ago to this day, the Miami Hurricanes played 2,000 miles from home on a bitter-cold afternoon in El Paso, Texas — their coach-in-waiting watching from a stadium suite as his future team was dominated by Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl.
At 6:45 p.m. Saturday, that same coach, Al Golden, will lead the program he has painstakingly shaped into his own in Miami’s first bowl since self-imposing NCAA postseason sanctions that broke the Hurricanes’ hearts but ultimately not their spirits.
On Saturday night, the shackles rip free as the Hurricanes (9-3) face the No. 18 Louisville Cardinals (11-1) in the Russell Athletic Bowl at Citrus Bowl Stadium — 240 miles north of the Coral Gables campus.
“We’re going to try like heck to send them out the first 10-win team in a decade,’’ Golden said. “We’re grateful for all they endured and what they went through to get us where we are.’’
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The teams feature dozens of South Florida players who grew up with each other, including Miami-Dade-raised quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Stephen Morris of UM.
Bridgewater, a junior who starred at Miami Northwestern High and was committed to the Hurricanes before Randy Shannon was fired, could be playing in his last college game — he said he’ll decide in the next several days whether to enter the NFL early. If he leaves, he’s projected as a top-10 pick and the first quarterback to be taken in the draft.
Morris, a senior who played at Miami Monsignor Pace, has one of the strongest arms in college football but endured a rocky season in part because of an ankle injury that is now healed but set him back considerably.
Bridgewater and Morris know each other from their early years in youth sports.
“Louisville is a great program, and Teddy is a great quarterback,’’ Morris, third on Miami’s career passing list with 7,736 yards, said the day before the matchup was announced. “It would be a great opportunity for two Miami kids to shine on a big stage. I wish him all the best.’’
Said Bridgewater, ranked second nationally in completion percentage (70.2) and fifth in passing efficiency: “Stephen and I grew up playing baseball against each other in the inner-city league in Miami. He was a great pitcher and from the games I’ve watched, he’s a very tough football player — strong arm and a proven leader.’’
The Cardinals, coached by Charlie Strong, play in the American Athletic Conference. They will join Miami’s Atlantic Coast Conference next season and play UM in Louisville. The Canes are 9-1-1 in the all-time series but were hammered by the Cards 31-7 in Louisville the last time they played. Miami, ranked 17th at the time, fell to 1-2 and dropped out of the rankings for three years.
Now, the immediate goal is to end the season with 10 victories for the first time since 2003. UM had a chance to do the same in 2005 but lost miserably to LSU in the Peach Bowl, precipitating the firings of several UM assistant coaches — including current Canes offensive line coach Art Kehoe.
The last time the Canes had a chance for 10 wins was in the same bowl in 2009, then called the Champs Sports Bowl. Miami lost to Wisconsin on a cold night, 20-14.
“Double digits is always better than single digits,’’ said senior Pat O’Donnell, the nation’s third-ranked punter. “As Coach Golden has been preaching all week, it’s fundamental for our program. It’s moving forward. It’s past all the dark clouds that have been hanging around. It’s a move in a positive direction for the young guys and for all the seniors.’’
UM’s last postseason victory came against Nevada in 2006 in the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, Idaho. The drought for the five-time national champions has stretched longer than probably most could have imagined.
A win Saturday would be a significant step in the journey back.
“We’re in one of the greatest places that there is in college football, and we’ve gone through a really hard time,’’ Golden said Friday, referring to the NCAA case that involved now imprisoned Ponzi-schemer and former UM booster Nevin Shapiro. “We know we’re not where we want to be, but we know we’re not where we were.
“It was pretty dark days, as you remember. We were on the cover of Sports Illustrated … and it wasn’t because we were holding up a trophy. But we had a lot of young men that stood with the University of Miami. We had a lot of coaches and staff that stood with the University of Miami through really, really dark times, dark days, and we’re excited about moving the program forward.’’