With Christmas behind them and 2016 inching closer, the University of Miami will culminate a season of heartache and triumph Saturday amid the striking backdrop of the Franklin Mountains in the nation’s second oldest bowl game.
The Hurricanes (8-4, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) say they’ve savored their stay in El Paso, nestled on the banks of the Rio Grande River and a short walk from the Mexican border. But their memories from the Hyundai Sun Bowl will ultimately be affected by the season’s final outcome against the Washington State Cougars (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12).
“It’s not always how you start,’’ Hurricanes interim coach Larry Scott said Friday. “It’s always how you finish.’’
Miami has a multitude of reasons inspiring it to finish strong, including this one: the Hurricanes have not won a bowl game since 2006 — a 21-20 victory over Nevada in the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, Idaho.
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Since then, UM has lost to Cal in the Emerald Bowl, Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl, Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl, Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl and South Carolina last year in the Independence Bowl.
“It would mean a lot for us to turn that around,’’ said sophomore running back Joseph Yearby, who needs only 61 rushing yards to reach his first 1,000-yard season. “It would be the start of a new era.’’
The Canes are playing for their former coach Al Golden, who was fired Oct. 25 after the worst loss in school history to now-No. 1 Clemson. They’re playing for their current coach Scott, who was named the interim leader after Golden’s firing and has led them to four victories in their past five games. They’re playing for their new coach Mark Richt, who stayed behind to spend Christmas with his family and begin assembling a staff. They’re playing for their position coaches, some of whom will lose their jobs when Richt makes his hires public.
And of course, they’re playing for each other.
“I just want to leave it better than how I found it,’’ senior linebacker Tyriq McCord said of the program, which self-imposed consecutive postseason bans in 2011 and 2012 because of NCAA infractions. “I just want to leave with a W, leave the younger guys with a good way to start off next year.”
Added cornerback Artie Burns, a junior who might declare for the upcoming NFL Draft: “The seniors went through a whole lot, and this program went through a whole lot. Getting that trophy after all these years would be a good transition for this program.’’
To achieve their goals, the Canes will have to get past the No. 1 pass offense in the nation and the innovative mind of its coach Mike Leach, whose no-huddle, “Air Raid’’ offense is led by prolific passer Luke Falk.
Falk, a 6-4, 205-pound redshirt sophomore, enters the Sun Bowl leading the nation in passing yards per game (387.8), third in total offense (377.5) and fourth in passing touchdowns (36, with eight interceptions) and passing yards (4,266).
“This guy can really pick you apart,’’ Scott said of Falk. “He does a great job of getting the ball out and taking what the defense gives him.’’
The UM secondary, tied for 12th nationally with 15 interceptions, is looking forward to the challenge.
“It’s going to be fun,’’ cornerback Corn Elder said. “This is what DBs live for, to see all those passes.’’
The Hurricanes have their own weapon at quarterback in 6-4, 210-pound sophomore Brad Kaaya, who has 6,217 career passing yards for fifth on the all-time UM passing list. This season he has 15 touchdowns and four interceptions, and leads the ACC with 274.5 passing yards a game.
“They’re a very good offense, they’re explosive, and they’ve got a good quarterback who throws it really well,’’ Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “They’ll get some licks in, but you’ve just got to play together and kind of outlast the barrage.’’
And the Hurricanes will have to outlast the weather, suited more toward the Cougars, who regularly play in the cold, rain and even snow. The Canes, used to scorching sun and 85-degree practices — and tropical rain as well — will likely have to contend with rain Saturday and temperatures in the 40s.
After the game ends, the forecast calls for a rare one to three inches of snow — and gusts up to 40 mph.
The night before UM’s 2010 Sun Bowl against Notre Dame, the snow came down heavily and fans were greeted by more than an inch of ice and snow on the field the next day. Scott said Friday that the team is equipped for whatever weather conditions it faces.
“One thing we don’t have control of is the weather,’’ Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas said. “I know the forecast doesn’t sound so good, but in El Paso, as we like to say, ‘If you don’t like the weather, stick around a couple hours. It will change.’ ’’
Scott seemed barely concerned with inclement weather, not after what his players and fellow coaches have gone through this season. When asked what this moment meant to him, he talked about his players overcoming adversity and getting to this point.
“They stayed together, they played for the pride in the university they represent, and they played for the commitment and love they have for each other,’’ Scott said. “The reality of it is that this is where we are, and the only opportunity we have is [Saturday] afternoon. … We’re looking forward to it.’’