Eleven football seasons ago, after the Miami Hurricanes and FIU Panthers met at the Orange Bowl for the second year in a row, it was difficult to fathom that the programs would ever meet again on a football field.
Here we go again.
The FIU Panthers come to Hard Rock at 3:30 p.m. Saturday for a game that will be televised by ESPN2, the intrigue several notches higher because of the historic brawl the first time the programs met in 2006, and because Butch Davis, the coach that resurrected Hurricanes football from 1995 through 2000, is now coaching on the other side.
And one more not-so-little factor: The schools are 8 1/2 miles apart, with rosters bulging with players who grew up in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, played on the same youth teams and share a passion and pride for the sport that has brought them together.
“Everyone is going to know each other,’’ UM coach Mark Richt said. “Everybody’s parents are going to know each other, too.
“As far as the local pride of this game, it’s definitely going to be a factor... There are going to be a lot of guys fighting for the right to say ‘We are the best in the area’ — 8 miles apart.’’
The Hurricanes (2-1) are favored over FIU (2-1) by 26 1/2 points, but you can throw away point spreads when it comes to neighborly rivalries — even when the teams have only played each other twice.
“They’re athletic. They’re fast. They can run. They’re very physical at the point of attack,’’ UM tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Todd Hartley said on Hurricane Hotline. “They know how to finish. They play with a chip on their shoulder.
“I would certainly think they’re going to be gassed up for this game being in Miami at Hard Rock.’’
When talking to reporters earlier this week, Davis kept it generic and brief about the game.
“It’s more important about our team and preparation,’’ said the FIU coach, who is surrounded by many assistants who once worked or played at UM. “Very impressed. They’re a very good football team. They’re a lot of talent.
“It’s like anytime when I was at other schools. Your backyard games against teams that you competitively go against are significantly different. It’s like being at Miami and playing Florida and Florida State — those are your backyard battles. Or being at North Carolina and going against all the other schools in your state. So, it’s another game.”
This will be the fifth time Davis has coached against the Hurricanes. His first three times he beat UM as the UNC coach in 2007 (33-27), 2008 (28-24) and 2009 (33-24). In 2010, the Hurricanes beat a Davis-coached UNC team 33-10.
The Panthers are led by players such as receiver Maurice Alexander, who scored twice last week, including on a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown in a 63-24 win over UMass; running back Shawndarrius Phillips, who rushed for a career-high 117 yards and two touchdowns against UMass; and on defense by an aggressive front line of ends Noah Curtis and Kevin Oliver and tackles Anthony Johnson and Tayland Humphrey.
“They’re a problem,’’ UM offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said of the FIU defensive line. “I watched them early Sunday morning. I watched them Sunday night. I watched them all day [Monday]. They do a really good job rotating guys and keeping them fresh.
“They’re very disruptive, they’re vertical penetrating guys up the field. We definitely talked about different ways to try to account for how aggressive they are up front [and] get some backs involved trying to help out our front as well.’’
As for that game on Oct. 14, 2006, when 13 players were ejected after a massive fight that began when two FIU players slammed UM extra-point holder Matt Perrelli into the ground, it’s far enough in the past to not have personally affected any of the current players. The fallout from that game included 31 players — 13 from UM and 18 from FIU— being suspended for one game.
A couple of FIU players were kicked off the team after the incident, and one UM player was suspended indefinitely.
UM won that game 35-0, and won the next year 23-9.
“This is going to be a big game for us. We’re excited,’’ said UM left tackle Tyree St. Louis, who noted the atmosphere will be “choppy, very choppy. There’s going to be probably just as much rivalry as the Florida State game because everyone is right down the street.”
Said St. Louis: “People will love this matchup — backyard brawl pretty much. We’re going to show what Miami is all about.
“I forgot I just said, ‘backyard brawl,’ St. Louis immediately added. “We’re not going to have that again.”