This year’s Russell Athletic Bowl might now have the dramatic flair and high stakes of the playoffs on New Years Eve, but the storylines and history surrounding the Miami and West Virginia showdown will make for one of the season’s more intriguing match-ups.
On paper, it’s the ACC and the Big 12 going at it. A four-loss team versus a two-loss squad—both with higher hopes back in September, but landing in a good-enough spot as 2016 draws to a close.
In reality, a lot of hate on both sides between one-time BIG EAST rivals who tangled over a dozen times from the early 1990’s through the early 2000’s.
The Mountaineers’ hate for the Canes is as elementary and pedestrian as expected; little brother envious of big brother and a backwoods program jealous of them flashy “big city” boys who racked up conference titles and national championships left and right.
Added animosity for those few occasions the underdog had swag-fueled program on the ropes, but couldn’t close—as well as the defection to the ACC after the 2003 season, where Virginia Tech, Boston College and Syracuse were eventually invited along, the BIG EAST imploded and the boys from Morgantown were left out in the cold.
For Miami, West Virginia was nothing more than a mid-tier rival who rose up on a few occasions, fell short many others and proved to be a shitty host whenever dem boys from the three-oh-five made that biannual trek to Mountaineer Field.
And what a throw-down some of those treks were. For those unfamiliar with the rivalry, a quick trek down memory lane for context-sake.
CANES FOUND WAYS TO WIN; MOUNTAINEERS REINVENTED WAYS TO FAIL
Prior to becoming conference foes in 1991, four match-ups between 1942 and 1974, with Miami going 3-1. The teams met again in 1983, with the Mountaineers a footnote in the Canes’ first national championship season—where the hometown boys rolled, 20-3 at the Orange Bowl.
The first conference game was a 35-23 home win for Miami in 1992. Those eight years in-between, the Canes racked up three more championships and left at least three more on the field. Meanwhile, long-time head coach Don Nehlen had the Mountaineers an at-best 9-3 squad before an 11-1 standout season in 1988, culminating with a Fiesta Bowl loss to Notre Dame.
Five seasons later West Virginia rose to No. 2 in the polls by way of an undefeated run, before getting trounced, 41-7 by eighth-ranked Florida in the Sugar Bowl—a season highlighted by a late November upset of fourth-ranked Miami in Morgantown, 17-14.
The Mountaineers got the Canes one more time in 1997; a 28-17 victory in the Orange Bowl with Miami on probation year three under Butch Davis and en route to its first losing season since 1979, bottoming out at 5-6.
Outside of that, it was a rivalry where Miami either rolled, as expected—or West Virginia choked-away would-be upsets or thrilling victories; 1996 being one of the more memorable dogfights.
Miami limped with losses to Florida State and East Carolina, while eleventh-ranked West Virginia was 7-0 and smelled blood. The Canes rolled out quarterback Ryan Clement and his separated non-throwing shoulder, as back-up Scott Covington was laid-up back home with a collapsed lung.
Scoreless at the half, the Canes notched a third quarter field goal, though a Clement interception by Mike Logan was returned to the three-yard line and quickly resulted in a go-ahead touchdown. With :26 remaining, the game looked in the bag as the Mountaineers lined up to punt in the shadow of their end zone when magic happened.
Tremain Mack came fast off the edge, blocked the punt, Jack Hallmon recovered and before going down, handed the ball off to Nate Brooks, who rumbled in for the score. Miami survived 10-7 in a game where the Mountain State’s finest rained down D-sized batteries, unopened beers and racial slurs—as well as 22-gallon-sized trash can from the second level that took out Shannon, the Canes’ linebackers coach at the time.
For added measure, the locals even tried to tip the ambulance geared up to take injured Miami running back Danyell Ferguson to the hospital with a dislocated hip.
Two years later, revenge was equally-as-sweet as the Canes were coming out of probation and Davis’ squad was finally on the mend. Again, an early loss to Florida State had Miami in bounce-back mode, while West Virginia rode a four-game win-streak and rose to No. 14 after a season-opening loss to top-ranked Ohio State.
The Mountaineers raced to an early 14-3 lead, but the Canes cut it to 24-17 by the half. Covington helped tied things up early third, before Miami took a 27-24 lead in the quarter’s final moments—but West Virginia scrapped back, going up 31-27 in the fourth.
Daryl Jones hauled in the eventual game-winner with 1:37 remaining and the Mountaineers missed a game-tying 53-yard field goal attempt as time expired in a 34-31 victory for Miami.
COMEBACK CANES SAVED BEST FOR LAST IN BIG EAST SWAN SONG
All that aside, the biggest dagger might’ve come in 2003 when the BIG EAST foes met one final time on a Thursday night in the Orange Bowl. The second-ranked Canes were four games removed from a national championship loss to the Buckeyes and a 34-game win-streak coming to an end. Weeks prior to West Virginia’s trek south, a thrilling comeback victory against the hated Florida Gators had Miami on a high.
Amidst that tremendous run, the Canes extended the win-streak over the Mountaineers to five and won the previous three meetings by a combined score of 132-26.
Limping in 1-3 in year three of the Rich Rodriguez era, the early-October showdown was nothing more than a formality as Miami prepped for its annual trek to Tallahassee nine days later. Instead, one of those quirky Thursday night ESPN games that threatened to derail the season.
Brock Berlin coughed up two interceptions. Frank Gore went down with an injury, while back-up Jarrett Payton was guilty of a late-game fumble. Red-zone struggles plagued the Canes all night, too—leaving freshman kicker Jon Peattie to keep Miami alive with his inexperienced right foot.
The Canes looked to be in control late; pushing the lead to 19-10 early third quarter, but an early Mountaineers’ field goal pulled the road dogs to within six with just over ten minutes remaining.
Payton’s mid-field fumble with 3:30 remaining was the momentum-shift West Virginia needed and five plays later Rasheed Marshall hit running back Quincy Wilson on the left sidelines; the running back trucking Canes’ defensive back Brandon Merriweather en route to pay dirt.
Upset alert in full force as Miami took over, trailing 20-19 with 1:54 remaining—made even worse by a penalty that set up 1st-and-20 from the Canes’ 18-yard line.
Moments later, history was made when Kellen Winslow II made a ballet-like grab on 4th-and-13. Berlin spread it around three more times before finally getting Peattie in position to drill a 23-yarder with :14 remaining, while new-level of dejection kicked in for a West Virginia program that has reinvented ways to shit the bed against Miami.
Even worse, the rivalry ended that day as it was all about the ACC for the Canes the following season. Wednesday’s showdown in Orlando marks the first time the teams have met since that Instant Classic in 2003.
A DECADE-OF-DISASTER FOR ONCE-POWERFUL MIAMI
Life for Miami since the dominant BIG EAST days have been a struggle—having less to do with the conference switch and everything to do with poor leadership, in-over-their-head coaches and an off-field scandal that brought the NCAA sniffing around, a lengthy, distracting investigation and three years of probation—all of which killed recruiting and turned the Canes into a middle-of-the-pack program.
Bowl-winless since topping Nevada on some blue turf in 2006, Miami is on it’s third head coach over that same span and dealt with a few seasons of self-imposed penalties that killed any chance at post-season success.
Mark Richt looks to succeed year one where both Randy Shannon and Al Golden failed the Canes on a handful of tires.
The Mountaineers ride in on their first 10-win season since 2011—their final run in the BIG EAST, where they won the conference and reached the Orange Bowl. The five years since have been sub-par for head coach Dana Holgersen as life in the Big 12 has proven more challenging; 26-25 the past four go-arounds before this year’s 10-2 regular season.
For West Virginia, a win over Miami this bowl season would be more nostalgic than ultimately meaningful. The Canes roll in unranked, while the Mountaineers’ successful season is somewhat paper-thin—playing only one ranked team and getting rolled by eight-ranked Oklahoma, 56-28 at home.
West Virginia beat BYU, Kansas State and Texas by a combined eight points, while other wins came against the likes of Missouri, Youngstown State, Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas, Iowa State and Baylor, it what was an admittedly weak year for the Big 12.
CANES WITH ONE-FOOT OUT THE DOOR MUST DELIVER
For Miami, a win over West Virginia would prove meaningful—less by way of the opponent and more to do with ending a post-season victory drought, taking down a 1o-win squad, closing out a 9-4 season year one of the Richt era and riding that momentum into recruiting season.
Late December and early January optimism legitimately hasn’t been the case in Coral Gables since 2004 wrapped with a 9-3 season and Peach Bowl win over Florida. A win on December 28th, 2016 goes a long way in reversing a horrible curse.
Furthermore, it’s a chance for this current crop of Hurricanes to go out with a bang. Lots of chatter surrounding quarterback Brad Kaaya, tight end David Njoku and running back Joe Yearby, who are all expected to give up their remaining eligibility in favor of chasing NFL dreams.
Today’s players taking a me-first approach late in their careers is understandable. College football has become big business and so much is on the line for the modern-day athlete. Still, the lack of team success and all-encompassing success during the tenure of these aforementioned kids is impossible to ignore. Doesn’t matter if Kaaya broke the record books in his three years as a starter or Njoku had better numbers than all three Mackey Award finalists—these Canes all come up hollow regarding the ultimate stats. No other way to say it.
Winless against Florida State; playing their part in a seven-game losing streak. No Coastal Division title, either—let alone an ACC Championship, which Miami hasn’t sniffed in the 13 years since joining the conference. No one on this current Canes’ squad has won a bowl game, either—all of this unfathomable when comparing the present to Miami’s rich legacy as a one-time powerhouse.
While there’s no room for waxing nostalgic for a rah-rah era where players still believed in that “unfinished business” mantra and would put personal goals on hold for one more go-around with their brothers—chasing team goals, conference titles and making a run at a national title—it’s not asking too much for these soon-gone Miami greats to elevate their game to the next level and show up big at the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Four wins over patsies to start the season were followed by four losses against the best competition the Canes faced this fall (sans Notre Dame). Four wins against average conference talent followed, hence the 8-4 finish—yet not one signature win.
Embarrassingly, Miami has to go back to 2009 and a one-point victory over eight-ranked Oklahoma for the program’s last marquee victory (and even that one came with Sooners’ quarterback Sam Bradford sidelined with an injury.)
Beating a one-time BIG EAST foe who the Canes are 16-3 against lifetime doesn’t seem like a signature win—but coupled with a dozen down years, a decade-long bowl drought, head coaching turnover and a 10-win squad on the other sideline this Wednesday—a victory over the couch-burners and nine-win season for Miami is a fine way to close out a true rebuilding season.
For those with a shared allegiance to the University of Miami, the entire premise of Catholics vs. Convicts had to be met with a mixed bag of skepticism, general curiosity and a longing for an impartial take on an epic game with a controversial ending.
ESPN’s 30 For 30 has become synonymous with the Miami Hurricanes, courtesy of a two revered documentaries spanning the rise, fall and comeback of the storied football program on- and off-the-field over the past three-plus decades. When teasers began dropping regarding the Canes and Irish and that epic 1988 battle in South Bend, it begged the question—who was behind this?
Miami faithful were obviously hoping to see Billy Corben and the Rakontur crew tied to the project; makers of “The U” (2009) and “The U Part 2” (2014)—two of the more beloved segments in the acclaimed series. Instead, the name Patrick Creadon surfaced, prefaced by three words that immediately evoked unshakable feelings of bias—”Notre Dame alum”.
For the Canes enthusiast, optimism and excitement immediate shifted to a fear of elitism, embellishment and the type of trumped-up, fairy tale-type mystique, a la Rudy—where legend replaced fact.
Corben and his team produced two films that showed the good, bad and ugly of the Miami football program over the years—as well as unapologetically showcasing the city’s culture and climate at the time of the Canes’ initial rise to the top. The result was some universally-appealing storytelling which is why the Canes-themed docs always top any “best of” list for the series.
For fans of the Canes, Corben and crew’s films got the juices flowing as the best of yesterday was back on display. The epic victories, national championships and colorful personalities that helped transform a small, private school in Coral Gables into a national sensation. For the anti-U crowd; enough footage of heartbreaking losses, titles left on the field, the NCAA hammer dropping—twice—and gut-wrenching moments where an opposing viewer could gleefully celebrate a villain’s demise.
Catholics vs. Convicts proved to be the exact opposite. Like a kid with a face so ugly, only a mother could love—this Fighting Irish stroke-fest oozed with schmaltz and Irishesque, holier-than-thou sentiments at every turn.
For the contingent who deems South Bend sacred, a carefully-crafted love letter for a fanbase 23 years removed from championship glory. For everyone else, an all-too-familiar feeling regarding an Irish slant and drunken storytelling.
SHAMROCK-COLORED GLASSES ON DISPLAY EARLY
First-person plural from the get-go, Creadon uses “we” when talking about Notre Dame football and history—immediately setting the tone that “fair and unbiased” are going right out the window. This trip down memory lane is being told by a Golden Domer with Irish blood pumping through his veins. It’s not a story for the universal viewer—this was aimed directly at those who experienced this era of Notre Dame football from Creadon’s vantage point; a super-fan who’s adamant in sharing their personal history with the program.
The Creadon family’s deep ties to South Bend were on display heavily in the film’s first act. Dad graduated from Notre Dame; his love for the program rooted in the Irish doing it “with class and dignity”, while Gramps was recruited by Knute Rockne. An impressive legacy, but also an Irishly narcissistic sub-plot that truly had nothing to do with the bigger story that was about to unfold.
Early on, it’s explained that outside of revisiting the game, a portion of the film was dedicated to figuring out why the moniker “Catholics vs. Convicts” stuck. Why did some feel it was “funny and accurate”, while others—Creadon included—thought it was “mean-spirited and reckless”?
That question really never gets answered from the filmmaker’s perspective—though Miami-bred columnist Dan LeBatard spelled it out in a way that sums up precisely why the Canes got under that soft, Irish skin.
“They’d tell you there were gonna kick your ass. They’d kick your ass and then they’d celebrate the kicking of your ass.”
Damn straight. Spoken like a true Miamian who lived through that era.
For an establishment-type program like Notre Dame that dominated in the leather helmet era, the brashness of the ultimate anti-establishment program taking you behind the woodshed—that was never going to play well and proved to be the tipping point in this story.
Not two minutes in, Creadon is speaking with college buddy and one-time t-shirt mogul Pat Walsh about the design and the screen goes black, followed by the phrase, “Three Years Earlier” and the now notorious date—November 26th, 1985. That’s why everyone is along for this ride; bitterness that stemmed—and still stems—from that historic 58-7 ass-kicking the Canes delivered.
BRASH & DOMINANT CANES SCAPEGOAT FOR FAUST’S INCOMPETENCE
From that moment, the entire first act immediately goes into defensive-mode—justifying the shirt that surfaced three years later and manufacturing hatred because fourth-ranked Miami ran up the score on a prideful Notre Dame program not accustomed to getting its shit pushed in. Those bruised egos then led to the mythical-up sub-plot regarding disrespect shown to then-Irish head coach Gerry Faust, who resigned days before heading south for the season finale in the Orange Bowl.
Faust’s squad was 5-5, coming off back-to-back losses against Penn State and LSU, while sporting a 30-25-1 record late in his fifth season. A revered high school coach who spent 19 seasons building up Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati, Faust was thrust into the big time in South Bend—despite no collegiate experience—and epically face-planted. His career record at the collegiate level was 73-79-4 after spending the next nine seasons at Arkon, where he was done after a 1-10 season in 1994.
Notre Dame’s embarrassment of a 51-point loss and an inability to deal with their then-level of insignificance—that’s what sparked the sour-grapes still on display today. Even in a documentary meant to showcase the Fighting Irish’s 12-0 season and epic win over Miami during that championship run, those Golden Domers on board to celebrate 1988 are still visibly rattled by those four quarters in 1985.
WNDU anchor Jack Nolan rants and raves that Faust’s last stand at Miami should’ve been “quiet and respectful” and “like a state funeral” while others interviewed in the segment still bitch about “hard feelings” for the Canes’ 21-point forth quarter. Nolan even goes as far as to compare the Fighting Irish to a baby deer that the Hurricanes ran over, stopped and backed up to hit again—an absolute joke of an analogy to anyone outside of South Bend who watched the University of Notre Dame play the role of bully for decades before more parity, diversity and speed entered the game, eventually leveling things out.
The displaced frustration pathetic, laughable and deserves to be mocked.
Fast-forward thirty years and Miami was on the wrong end of a 58-0 ass-kicking, courtesy of Clemson in 2015. Up 42-0 at the half, the Tigers scored two fourth quarter touchdowns en route to delivering the worst beating in Canes’ football history. Similar leadership narrative, too—a maligned, decent-guy head coach in his fifth year who wasn’t getting the job done.
When those four quarters were over, did Miami bitch, moan and complain about Clemson piling on? Hell no. Did anyone have sour feelings towards Dabo Swinney? Not even close. If anything, most folks were grateful as it proved to be the final nail in the coffin regarding the Al Golden era. “Fear The Tie” was canned the next morning and to his credit, at least the in-over-his-head coach went down swinging—grinding it out and attempting to clean up a mess that didn’t occur on his watch.
Golden wasn’t much of a leader, but at least he wasn’t a quitter. Faust waiving the white flag for a program once known for the grit and toughness of The Four Horsemen—no way that sat well in South Bend, again leading to some misappropriated anger.
The revisionist history and manufactured storyline surrounding Faust was nothing more than a way to take the focus off the fact the “Fighting Irish” had simply become plain ol’ Notre Dame—something former Miami defensive end Bill Hawkins touched on in a quick soundbite, smugly explaining the Irish were mortal and lost their fight. Unbeatable author Jerry Barca took it a step further when he got some screen time.
“In the Faust era, players voted to have shorter practices. They had to take three votes to go to a bowl game, because twice it got voted down. College kids not wanting to play another football game. It was bad,” expressed Barca, still seemingly baffled all these years later as to the softness the Irish displayed at the end of Faust’s tenure.
That denial and deflection, coupled with expected elitism, a sentiment that NBC’s Chuck Todd—a Miami native and Canes’ supporter—summed up with one perfect sentence. “It was sort of like, ‘Wait a minute—how dare Miami throttle Notre Dame in the way that Notre Dame used to throttle other people,'” mocked the visibly-bitter political analyst.
JJ WORRIED ABOUT OWN LEGACY; NOT THE IRISH’S UNRAVELING
The final missing piece—something Notre Dame faithful choose to eliminate from their version of history; complete disregard for Miami trying to work its way back into the national championship picture under second-year head coach Jimmy Johnson. The Canes opened the 1985 campaign with a loss to fifth-ranked Florida, before rattling off a nine-game win-streak, boosted by road upsets of No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 10 Florida State.
Also lost in the shuffle; the fact that Johnson replaced Howard Schnellenberger in 1984—a legend who came off like a pipe-smoking prophet when he delivered the national title he predicted by 1983; his fifth and final season. Months later, Johnson got off to a respectable start with the defending champs—taking down Auburn and Florida—but Miami was soon 3-2 after losses to Michigan and Florida State, inviting criticism from a newly-spoiled fan base.
Johnson’s Canes ratted off five wins in a row—including a 31-13 victory in South Bend—before a nightmarish three-game skid to end the season 8-5. Incomprehensibly, Miami blew a 31-o halftime lead in a 42-40 loss to Maryland, followed by Thanksgiving weekend’s “Hail Flutie” miracle against Boston College and coming out on the wrong end of a Fiesta Bowl shootout against UCLA. Months later, the aforementioned season-opening loss at home to the hated Gators—the Canes’ last Orange Bowl defeat before tearing off 58-straight victories over the next ten years.
Putting it in the simplest of terms; Johnson and “The U” had more-pressing concerns than Faust’s resignation or a rival’s potentially-hurt feelings. Johnson wanted a title shot and a convincing win on the national stage over a one-time power would go a long way in regarding Miami’s perception when bowl games were announced.
Even with Miami’s logical reasoning and Notre Dame’s emotionally-fueled bitterness, Irish loyalists proudly point out how revenge was exacted on the hardwood two months later.
Former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps—in smug fashion—boasts about the beat down they laid on a Miami program that was dormant for 14 seasons and just resurrected months earlier. Phelps boasts about piling on, running up the score and proudly boasts that his boys won by 53 points —“Two more points than football lost!”—as well as his squad’s return to South Bend and football players waiting at the gate to welcome and thank them.
This detailed explanation, a long, scenic route to explain that through Creadon’s storytelling to this point, Notre Dame justified referring to Miami as “convicts” on a t-shirt because they were permanently-soured the Canes whooped their ass three years prior—yet moments after this revelation, the Irish openly boast about their eye-for-an-eye tactic and purposefully running up the score on the equivalent of a first-year basketball program. (Editor’s note: Miami dropped basketball in 1971, eventually resurrecting it in 1985.)
A vintage-era, Notre Dame approach to bullying the little guy—just like they did back in the day in football—and being completely all right with it. Welcome to the Domers’ crash-course in hypocrisy—Flawed Irish Logic: 101.
As Catholics vs. Convicts continues to unfold, the Miami hatred continues to unravel—jealousy tones, scowls and smugly delivered soundbites sprinkled throughout.
“If you don’t want people to be upset, show a little class,” whined local radio anchor Nolan; diluted into believing the Canes actually gave a shit what the critics thought, while former offensive lineman Tim Ryan could barely keep a lid on his envy and programmed elitism.
“Those guys went down to Miami Beach and had access to all kinds of stuff. We had a little bit of a different approach. Notre Dame goes above and beyond in trying to do thing the right way and takes this very seriously.”
Look up “elitist hater” in the dictionary; you’ll find Ryan’s headshot.
It’s strange to infer that mighty Notre Dame would have any inferiority complex in regards to little ol’ Miami—but for whatever reason, the Cane-envy is palpable throughout. Former UM offensive lineman Leon Searcy made what was probably a throwaway statement to the film’s editors regarding the 1985 game being that moment where the Irish finally saw things for what they had become.
“I think that’s when Notre Dame finally considered us a rival.”
BIG BROTHER COULDN’T STOMACH LITTLE BROTHER RISING UP
A quick history lesson regarding these rivals.
Miami and Notre Dame first went at it in 1955; the Irish winning, 14-0. The Canes bounced back with a 28-12 victory in 1960, when the two met again. In 1965, a 0-0 tie, leaving both sides were 1-1-1. From there, Notre Dame rose up and tore off an 11-game win-streak between 1967 and 1980—the most-lopsided victory coming in 1973; a 44-0 shellacking at the Orange Bowl.
The Canes finally broke that streak in 1981 with a 37-15 pasting—Schnellenberger going on to lead Miami to a 9-2 season that also included a homecoming win over top-ranked Penn State. Little brother was all grown up and the once-ridiculed Sun Tan U was morphing into a program that would soon dominate and instill fear.
The Canes went 6-2 against the Irish in the 1980’s—including a four-game win-streak going into the 1988 battle highlighted in this documentary—while wins in 1983, 1987 and 1989 helping spring Miami to national championships. If you’re big, bad Notre Dame—that’s a bitter pill to swallow, no matter how you try and package it or prop up the “Catholics vs. Convicts” showdown and the role it played in the Irish’s most-historic season.
Sifting through all the mushiness and seeing things for what they are—outsiders will realize this is nothing more than a well-crafted propaganda piece.
The dewy-eyed segment on the stand-up Tony Rice that played out in fairy tale-fashion—solely due to his on-field success and place in Irish history—began with excerpts from the student newspaper where elitism was on full display; fans calling Rice, “intellectually inferior”, “ridiculously unqualified”, while verbalizing that he didn’t belong in South Bend and his acceptance to the university was seen as “lowering our standards” and would “jeopardize our reputation”. The father of one young fan even told his son, upon meeting his hero, to not grow up to be a “dummy” like Rice—rattling the quarterback to the point he called his family and expressed a desire to quit.
Fittingly, none of that mattered once the wins started piling up and the Miami dragon was slayed. Rice instantly became a folk hero. Same to be said for the irony in Irish faithful referring to the Canes as hoodlums, while the documentary romanticizes Walsh’s bootleg t-shirt business and his entrepreneurial-type spirit.
DOUBLE STANDARD APPROACH TO FLAWED DYNAMICS ON BOTH SIDES
The storytelling essentially justifies all copyright infringement with an explanation that collegiate licensing at the time wasn’t what it is now, while driving home Walsh’s present-day remorse—which seems to stem more from getting busted and dismissed from Notre Dame’s basketball program than any real regret for illegal activity.
The premise for “Catholics vs. Convicts” was birthed out of two Miami players arrested prior to the 1988 season—a reserve defensive tackle who sold drugs to an undercover cop and another who stole a car with a friend.
Both are crimes absolutely deserving of punishment—but much like sin itself, who is man to deem one transgression more erroneous than another? Is selling drugs “worse” than selling illegal t-shirt? Both were done by college kids seeking supplemental income. One just happened to be black and from Miami’s inner city, while the other was a white boy from the Midwest and a school with a sterling reputation.
By the standards of Catholics vs. Convicts, one is led to believe that slanging Hanes Beefy T’s on campus is slap-on-the-wrist worthy—with Creadon’s film working to build sympathy for “Walshy”; constantly hammering home his life’s goal of playing basketball for the Irish and that dream taken away.
While there’s much to be critical of regarding Creadon’s sentimental set-ups, the game-related portion of the film came off unbiased—until the cartoon character that is Lou Holtz surfaced. Everyone else involved—especially on the Irish side—dropped their schtick in favor of a reverence for what took place on the field that day. Notre Dame players came off less defensive and bitter, while Miami’s athletes—even in defeat—hold that contest in high regard. Everyone involved that day knew they were a part of something special.
Regarding the coaches, Johnson was transported right back to the moment, not wanting to watch footage of the phantom Cleveland Gary fumble and blown call that mistakenly gave the Irish possession in the shadow of their end zone—while the forever full-of-shit Holtz sanctimoniously claimed that he’d never seen footage of the Andre Brown touchdown 28 years later. For added measure; a Holtzism about that referee not getting his way into heaven for calling that grab a touchdown. (For the record, both officials in the end zone signaled the score—which is was regarding the catch rule in that era, which has since changed.)
CBS Sports’ Brent Musberger called the game and in typical, vintage commentator fashion, still snickered about the controversial tee, praised the educational rehabilitation of quarterback Rice and refused to give an inch on the position he’s held for years—be in the 1985 game, the Gary “fumble” or the villainous label slapped on Miami; never even once playing devil’s advocate.
In case all of that wasn’t enough for Canes Nation to boil over; Creadon saves his ultimate weak-sauce dig for last—an insinuation that Miami’s pounding of Notre Dame in November 1989 was the result of a tight and watered-down Irish bunch, afraid of Holtz’s supposed threat to yank scholarships if his players engaged in any pre- or post-game fisticuffs. Without that clamp-down, a pointless “what if” moment.
Miami tipped its hat to Notre Dame; Johnson admitting on camera they were the better team that day in 1988. When presented a comparable moment regarding the 27-10 takedown of the defending champs and nation’s top-ranked team sporting a 23-game win-streak—Creadon instead chose a caveat and self-imposed an asterisk on a game that didn’t need one.
May the filmmaker remain tortured by that loss just as team captain and Irish linebacker Ned Bolcar were when interviewed on hallowed Orange Bowl grounds in the wake of defeat.
“This one is going to haunt us the rest of our lives. I hate this damn place.”
Agreed. Just as a viewing of Catholics vs. Convicts and that controversial afternoon in South Bend will forever haunt us, elitist Domers.
The Miami Hurricanes knocked off the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the eleventh game of the season, a week after convincingly topping the Virginia Cavaliers. Prior to that, an offensive explosion and 51 points scored against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Hard Rock Stadium.
A convincing home beat-down and two back-to-back road wins now set the stage for this Saturday’s season finale; a home showdown against the Duke Blue Devils.
It should all feel better, but for some reason, still hollow and disheartening—searching for November silver linings after an October face-plant decimated all season moral; the Canes dropping four in a row against the toughest competition faced this fall, while looking at its best when pounding on nobodies back in September.
Prior to getting on the comeback trail at home three weeks back, Miami fell to a sub-par Notre Dame squad in South Bend, courtesy of yet another slow start on offense—a late comeback thwarted when the defense couldn’t reel in a would-be fumble and the Irish knocked through a game-winning field goal.
The week-plus prior, a convincing loss at Virginia Tech—a showdown that even the bleeding hearts penciled in as a loss due to the four-day turnaround, as well as a typical raucous Thursday night in Blacksburg. That came on the heels of a home setback against North Carolina where Miami chose to sleepwalk through the first half, before waking up at intermission and still coming up short.
Of course those three losses were magnified after coming on the heels of a seventh consecutive loss to Florida State; Miami missing a game-tying extra point in the final minutes that could’ve led to overtime—that Seminoles’ hex bleeding over into the following week against the Tar Heels, for a half, at least.
While the last three wins ring a bit hollow after a four-game losing streak, Miami did check off some boxes in the process. 534 yards against the Panthers, no turnovers, a fast start and strong close—a convincing way to end a losing streak against a Pittsburgh squad that went on to upset Clemson in Death Valley the following week.
From there, another meeting at Scott Stadium, where the Canes are 2-4 since joining the ACC and winless in Charlottesville since 2008. Miami racked up 450 yards on offense while holding Virginia to 289. The Canes capitalized on four turnovers and cut down on penalties; seven for 45 yards compared to the Hoos’ 10 for 110 yards—while rushing for an uncharacteristic 222 yards as the ground attack has oft been stifled.
Whatever the reason, Virginia is a tough road showdown for Miami—yet the Canes won this one convincingly, 34-14. Yes, the Cavaliers are garbage—a two-win squad at kickoff, but lest not forget a four-win UVA team riding a four-game losing streak upended Miami, 30-13 two years back; the Canes in free fall-mode after a fifth-straight loss to the Seminoles.
PROGRESS AND LATE-SEASON SILVER LININGS
Small as it was beating lowly Virginia team, it was a step forward. Same to be said for the recent victory in Raleigh, though Miami more or less “survived” North Carolina State delivering a complete, sixty-minute performance.
Ugly play early led to a 3-3 halftime score—the Canes’ offense again coming out tepid, complete with suspect play calling. The ground game deplorable on the opening offensive possession, Miami went pass-happy it’s next go-around—freshman Ahmmon Richards with two big grabs earlier before Brad Kaaya found David Njoku on the ensuing first down.
Per the norm, a false start penalty turned a 2nd-and-4 into 2nd-and-9, head coach and offensive play caller Mark Richt again going to Mark Walton, who picked up two yards, still leaving the Canes in a third-and-long. Back to Walton again, the sophomore tore off a nine-yarded and picked up the first down.
Richards reeled in an 18-yard grab that set up 1st-and-1o from the 20-yard line—which has oft proved to be the Canes’ kryptonite. Kaaya ran for five, Walton ran for two and on third-and-short, an incomplete pass thwarted a stellar drive and Miami settled for three; a way-too-common theme this season.
Feast-or-famine offensive play calling continued; big passes followed up by runs that went nowhere, errant throws or foolish penalties—the Canes punting three more times before a missed field goal to end the half; an 11-play, 74-yard drive resulting in nada.
Passes to Walton and Richards back-to-back—coupled with a roughing the passer call—resulted in 45 yards for the Canes, with Walton tearing off a 30-yard score after finding a crease in the line and turning on the jets.
Malek Young reeled in an end zone interception on 3rd-and-8, costing the Wolfpack all-but-guaranteed points on the ensuing drive. Next possession, a one-yard Walton score—set up by a 51-yard reception by Stacy Coley.
17-3 early in the third had Miami breathing easier—but the path to a two-touchdown lead was as much a part of incompetence by the Wolfpack than next-level play by the Canes.
The Young interception was the result of a bad decision by quarterback Ryan Finley, while the late hit on Miami’s previous possession was just the spark the road team needed. Unfazed, the Wolfpack drove 70 yards on 14 plays the next possession—another almost-end zone interception overturned before running back Matthew Dayes punched it in on 4th-and-3, making it a seven-point game.
An ugly-as-hell one-minute possession followed for the Canes—Miami going ice cold after an initial 13-yard reception by Njoku. The run completely abandoned, Kaaya threw incomplete passes on second and third down before another Justin Vogel punt.
Returning to the Wolfpack-meltdown narrative, Bra’Lon Cherry muffed the punt, Jaquan Johnson recovered and the Canes’ offense had new life on the 16-yard line.
Seemingly concerned with Kaaya’s red zone abilities, Richt called three consecutive runs with Walton; who ran for eight on 3rd-and-2. Kaaya misconnected with Njoku on first down, Walton got nothing on second and a pass to Chris Herndon in the back of the end zone fell incomplete.
A gimme touchdown opportunity resulted in a 22-yard field goal attempt, which the inconsistent Michael Badgley sailed through.
Down 20-10, North Carolina State responded with a seven-minute drive that would’ve changed the tone of the game had they found the end zone—but a 14-play drive came to a crashing halt by way of a false start.
Clipping on 3rd-and-2 from the Miami 16-yard line called back a would-be score, yet on 3rd-and-18, Finley found Stephen Louis for 19 yards and a first down.
The Canes’ defense clamped down on Dayes on first and third down, but an eight-yard pick-up on second was enough for a 4th-and-1 situation from the four-yard line—North Carolina State already 3-of-3 on the day regarding fourth down conversions.
Movement. Self-implosion. Five-yard penalty. 4th-and-6. Field goal time. Seven-point game instead of three, resulting in less pressure on the Canes’ next possession—a shoddy one bailed out on 3rd-and-12 by a pass interference call.
A fresh set of downs from the Wolfpack 39-yard line, three doses of Walton in a situation where a field goal likely puts the game out of reach—the sophomore back ripped off a 24-yarder on 2nd-and-6, giving the Canes a two touchdown lead and thwarting out any chance of a comeback.
27-13 on the road against a team that took Clemson to overtime in Death Valley, while also giving Florida State a run for its money—leading the Seminoles all game until the go-ahead score with three minutes remaining—impressive on paper for Miami … on paper.
The Wolfpack certainly gave this one away—but being that the Canes have done the same on occasion this year, chalk it up to the football gods balancing things out. Shame that wasn’t the case against Florida State, North Carolina or Notre Dame—all three winnable, with “The U” unable to close.
PROGRESS BEING MADE, BUT STILL A WAYS TO GO
A four-win Duke squad rolls south for Senior Day this weekend and that 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff certainly works in Miami’s favor—a much different atmosphere than the Canes dealt with last Halloween in prime time, surviving the Blue Devils on a miracle kick return in Durham.
Show up with an ounce of passion and spirit and Miami ends the regular season 8-4 and in line for a decent bowl game, yet missing out on a 13th consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference title—the harshest reality in all this.
Virginia Tech—with first-year head coach Justin Fuente—will wrap up the Coastal with a home win over Virginia; the Hokies going 7-6 last year under long-time leader Frank Beamer in his finale. Beamer won four ACC titles since 2004—joining the conference the same year as Miami—as well as five Coastal crowns dating back to 2005; when the divisions went into place. Over that same span, four different Hurricanes’ coaches proved incapable of even pulling off the feat once.
Soon as one wants to give the veteran Richt a pass for year one, you’re reminded that the 40-year old Fuente and his five years head coaching experience returned a six-loss team in Blacksburg and is a win away from guiding the Hokies to their first Coastal crown since 2011.
Is that an indictment on the successful former Georgia coach? Is it a broken culture at Miami? Not enough talent across the board? Maybe all three and then some.
For all the knocks the Canes’ defense took this past half decade; a faulty 3-4 defense and suspect fundamentals, it looks infinitely better than the offense–Manny Diaz running his side of the ball better than the experienced Richt, whose play-calling has come off inconsistent, rusty and pedestrian way too often this season.
INNOVATE OR DIE; THERE IS NO IN-BETWEEN
Another Canes’ site recently offered up a column about Richt sticking to his guns; running the type of system that proved successful at Georgia over the year. Power running back, pro-style offense with the standard, heady drop-back passer and what not.
The piece came off as somewhat defiant and defensive—as well as bleeding-heart; propping up Richt’s success with the Bulldogs over a decade-and-a-half, as if that prevents him from needing to evolve as others are in this modern era of college football.
Looking in the rearview or dealing with those ghosts of Hurricanes’ past; it’s the biggest drawback regarding decades of success at “The U”. Those ghosts and five championship rings loom heavy—as does the swagger, style and brand of football played, as well as the pipeline to the NFL. Present-day Miami will forever compete with teams of yesteryear and the bar will remain high.
This isn’t a time to plant one’s feet, cite past success—neither the Canes or their new coach—and follow an old blueprint in an ever-changing sport. Look across the board at what the top programs are doing; an Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Florida State, et al. It’s 2016, not 1996–or even 2006, for that matter. Look at what’s working elsewhere and attempt to both emulate and improve-upon.
All that aside, Richt does have a secret formula worth bringing from Athens to Coral Gables; his abilities as a recruiter, a way with parents and a true heart for his players that other head coaches at today’s football factories might be lacking.
The stories over the years have been heartwarming, welcomed and are the reason Richt is respected as a man and father figure, as well as a head coach—but don’t for a minute consider him soft or see that as a weakness. Molding young men and is as important as teaching X’s and O’s. Former Canes’ wide receiver and 4-star recruit Sam Bruce learned that the hard way—dismissed by Richt months back for a minor infraction, on top of a few other setbacks that would’ve gone unmentioned elsewhere.
“I want him to handle his business, go to class, go to study hall, go to your tutors, be on time, be prepared, be respectful, do your best in every way you can,” Richt said prior to the final straw. “Go to your treatment, do your rehab, learn what to do when you’re in meetings with your coach, grow up like all of them.”
Bruce was late for rehab regarding a broken leg—which resulted in his time at Miami being over before it began.
FINISH STRONG & SHIFT FOCUS TO A STEP FOWARD NEXT YEAR
The wait-til-next-year rallying cry is a tired one, but for the first time in almost two decades, there’s reason to believe that Miami will pull out of a rut. The Canes’ last two coaches failed miserably in their rebuilding efforts, while the guy before that was handed arguably the best team in the history of the game, before crashing and burning by year six.
Butch Davis was the last Miami head honcho to take a train-wreck situation, change the culture, build depth and coach-up football players, while turning the Canes into a championship-caliber program, again. The first three years were lean, due to probation and the wrong players—but a spark year four, highlighted by a late season upset of second-ranked UCLA.
A year later Miami went 9-4; dropping a heartbreaker to second-ranked Penn State, No. 1 Florida State and second-ranked Virginia Tech; the Noles and Hokies eventually battling it out for the national title. By 2000, the Canes were firmly back.
None of that is meant to compare where Miami was, is or what path Richt should follow to bring the Canes back. It’s simply a reminder that having a capable head coach and proven winner offers up some solace.
All that’s left for this season; the chance to close strong. Beat Duke. Follow up a four-game losing streak with a four-game win streak. Win a bowl game for the first time in a decade. Send the seniors off with a bang and let Richt show his worth in January, locking down any on-the-fence recruits, making from an impressive National Signing Day.
From there, do everything it takes to field a more compete, mature and capable team in 2017—all-around better and another step closer to being a contender.
It was like walking into a buzzsaw from the get-go. A spirited Thursday night in Blacksburg—coming off back-to-back losses, a four-day turnaround and the already-stretched-thin, defensive casualties piling up. The Canes’ sideline looked more like a M*A*S*H unit than an in-repair team looking for a road win to get back on track. This wasn’t going to end well.
Four hours later, Miami’s showdown at Virginia Tech pretty much followed the script; incompetence on both sides early on before the Hokies began making some plays. As has been the case in weeks’ past, the Canes had a glimmer of hope late—but as always something went awry, killing any hope of a much-needed comeback.
As a result, the bloated and padded 4-0 start has quickly turned into a nightmarish three-game losing streak set to define the season. Even worse, there’s truly no quick-fix to stop the bleeding. Miami must shift into overachiever-mode before things fully unravel.
First-year leader Mark Richt did all those post-game things head coaches try to do when making sense of a loss, but it was a wasted exercise. Taking blame for not having his quarterback ready, not doing enough to protect said guy under center and questioning his overall failed offensive strategy. Richt checked off all coach-speech boxes in the bowels of Lane Stadium—but how will that rhetoric translate in regards to having the Canes game-ready the next five weeks?
The answer to that lies in what Richt is saying behind closed doors, or when assessing the program with his coaches. One has to wonder where his head is truly at almost a year into this career change. Does the former Georgia leader feel his alma mater is in need of a full-blown overhaul, or will he stick with his process and core values, running the Canes like he did the Bulldogs and hoping for success in a weaker conference than the mighty SEC?
For the sake of this piece here, reliving and recapping last week’s 37-16 loss seems a fruitless exercise. What good will come from a dissecting a third consecutive match-up where the Canes proved they’re not a four quarter team capable of consistent success. It started with the late-game fade against a beatable Florida State squad, followed by a took-too-long-to-get-rolling showdown against North Carolina, where the Canes ran out of time.
Five days later, a shot at conference redemption as a win in Blacksburg would’ve provided a ‘hard reset’ that would’ve made it easy to chalk up back-to-back losses as a bump in the road. Instead, Miami’s offense was completely exposed by Virginia Tech—blitz-happy on crucial third downs, beating up quarterback Brad Kaaya all night and shutting down the running game, while the raucous environment rattled Hurricanes in position to make a difference, resulting in untimely mental errors.
A worst-case scenario situation that will unfortunately serve as a blueprint for opposing coaches to completely negate Miami’s offense. The Canes best be on guard.
CANES NOT AS GOOD AS EARLY HYPE; NOT AS INCOMPETENT AS LOSING STREAK
That four-game win-streak, ascension into the Top 10 and favorable defensive stats—judged accordingly by most, based on the level competition. The only ones overblowing the start; a lazy, hype-driven media that spouts a lot of gibberish when attempting to fill four hours of coverage. It’s everywhere these days. Miami is hardly immune to the practice.
Opening weekend the Longhorns outlasted the Fighting Irish in overtime; the game-winning score punctuated with a, “Texas is back!” soundbite. In the weeks since, the Horns have dropped four of their past five, with head coach Charlie Strong firmly planted on the hot seat. Next to him, Notre Dame leader Brian Kelly—whose Irish have lost five of seven after starting the season in the Top 10 and expected to make some noise.
Several preseason faves quickly found themselves shitting the bed. Stanford and Oklahoma two others preseason Top 10’s that have fallen way off. Houston showed promise and unraveled, while solid Top 25 teams like Oregon and Southern Cal have been jumped in the Pac-12; the Ducks winless in conference while Washington, Utah, Washington State and Colorado are the new frontrunners.
The storylines remain a work-in-progress on a weekly basis; yet it doesn’t stop the media for hyping teams and pulling choice information to build a case—yet when a team falls, they’re called “overhyped” by the same media who put them on the pedestal to begin with. Nice process.
An entirely separate piece could be dedicated to irresponsible journalism and a lack of depth, insight and talent by way of changes in today’s industry—but that’s for another time. The point of this rant is to honestly asses the current “State of Miami”, question how these Canes will respond regarding a season that tanked quickly and determine what it will take for a measurable step forward next spring.
That starts with a pull-no-punches approach in discussing these present day Miami Hurricanes; a transparency most covering this team will not offer up as they’re too close to the program; reliant upon players and coaches for quotes and in need of credentials that get them in the building.
Part of the machine and forced to play the game, it results in a watered-down message or standard distraction-tactics—hyping current recruits and next year’s class (putting the focus on a promising future instead of frustrating present), practice reports (guys getting chippy as they’re tired of losing’ always a go-to after a few losses) or quotes from coaches about getting back to basics and Hurricanes-style football (evoking memories of yesteryear when Miami was truly “The U”.)
It’s pointless and instead of setting realistic expectations, winds up creating false hope that leads to frustration.
HONEST ASSESSMENT, TOUGH LOVE FOR STRUGGLING CANES
All of that noise; it’s to avoid admitting what is painfully obvious—that Miami in its current state is not a good football team and that these Canes remain a far ways off from championship-level style of play. The Hurricanes have essentially been irrelevant for a dozen years now and its going to take some time to flush out the broken culture and negative impact the past few regimes have pushed into the DNA of this program. Three bad-fit coaches over a ten-year span; it gonna take some time to scrub that dirt off.
No doubt the Canes have some standout players and difference-makers—but not enough across the board (or depth-wise) to play the type of consistent football necessary to win divisions and conferences. 0-for-12-and-counting in regards to ACC Championships; it speaks for itself—all these facts making years of irrelevancy easier to comprehend.
Look at other programs across the nation. You know what teams pass the eye test and which ones don’t. Coaching, chemistry, game-planning and execution also required for success—but it’s not a fluke that the nation’s best squads are all loaded with top-flight talent and depth.
Alabama. Clemson. Michigan. Ohio State. Even newer or non-traditional powers like Washington, Louisville and Baylor have the talent to hang with the best. Same to be said for an arch-rival up north; having started their rebuild a decade ago—with a current roster that looks more SEC than ACC.
It’s easy to point to Miami’s one-point loss to Florida State weeks back as a step in the right direction—but it’s the seven-game losing streak the Canes have to the Noles that more indicative of the separation between these two. One program finds ways to win; the other invents ways to lose.
Still not buying it? Make yourself sit through an episode of “A Season With Florida State Football” on Showtime. Not a subscriber? Lucky you, there’s a free episode online. Spoiler alert; the Noles pass the eye test.
Four division crowns, three ACC titles and one national championship the past six seasons under Jimbo Fisher—with a handful of almost-Canes that have been Miami-killers amidst this latest streak. Superior talent, winning out—and when combined with experience and depth, makes you a champion.
Can’t be said for the Canes right now—and so be it. It’s been a shitty decade. Lots of purging in this comeback process. Miami went off course and is finding its way; led for the first time by a former player who at least understands how the program is hard-wired. Long way to go, regardless.
WHERE DO ‘U’ GO FROM HERE…
The first step is admitting you have a problem. Richt has done that. Now figure out a way to get things back on course.
Miami coaches seem aware of what they’re working with and what they want to do; it’s simply been a lack of execution. The Canes had a lot of shots the past three weeks. Instead, a nightmare scenario—three losses in 13 days; a fan base holding its breath to see if another all-too-familiar late season collapse is on deck for November.
The offensive line is a hot mess; struggling in run blocking and and letting Kaaya get killed—though often the result of poorly called, long developing plays destined to fail.
The Canes have to run the football to survive the next five games. There’s no other option and something has to give with this offense. Mark Walton and Joe Yearby are going to have to tough out some more yards and jumpstart this thing.
Kaaya has to then get on board and lead—with receivers holding on to the rock. Too many drops; adding to issues with untimely penalties and lapses in judgement on both sides of the ball. Whatever the issue with this undisciplined style of play; it starts with mental effort and a stronger mind. Like anything of importance with high stakes; it takes tremendous focus.
Smarter football down the stretch; the best way to negate depth issues and any other related roster holes.
Notre Dame is beatable; on the ropes even more so than Miami—2-5 on the season and job security-related stress for a coaching staff four years removed from a title game appearance. What was once a heavyweight title fight and marquee match-up; reduced to a slump-buster —a win providing much-needed, late-season motivation. For the loser; please try again next year.
Two bonus days to plan after playing last Thursday night. Players with extra down time to heal up. Coaches able to dial in and focus on a strategy that will give Miami’s offense the best chance to succeed; while relying on a feast-or-famine defense to make a few big plays, a la Georgia Tech.
Human nature is to fix the problem all at once; and when truly assessing University of Miami football—that simply isn’t an option. It’s going to take time, patience, strategy and three recruiting classes before these Canes resemble anything close to what “The U” was in its heyday; and that’s barring Richt uses the next few years wisely and gets it right. Last two guys had nine years combined and still failed.
Knowing that to be true, set the focus on this week and then worry about the next and the next and the next.
Come with a game plan to beat the Irish. Execute. Buy this program a week of feeling good—and bragging rights over the game’s biggest bunch of elitists. From there, get ready for Pittsburgh. Then Virginia. Then North Carolina State. Then Duke. Then the bowl game. Then closing strong on National Signing Day. Then spring ball. You get the drill.
For four hours on Saturday, may it all come together, Miami. It’s doable—so do it.
For Miami faithful, lots of hope and hype surrounding the kickoff to this latest college football season. Much of it was rooted in addition-by-subtraction; a maligned, in-over-their-heads coaching staff sent packing, while a seemingly better-suited one was assembled. Exit, Al Golden and his buffoons—enter Mark Richt and an all-around better fit.
Lost in the exciting shuffle for many; the fact that the Hurricanes were still going to trot out essentially the same group that went 8-5 last year and 6-7 the year prior—upperclassmen tainted by years of sub-par coaching, while last year’s freshest faces dealt with a mid-season turmoil and new staff by year’s end.
A lot is being made about the Seminoles hangover effect; the Canes going in the tank on the heels of losses to their arch-rival. A blown lead in 2014 led to a three-game losing streak, while a late-game comeback attempt last season paved the way to Clemson collapse, leading to Golden’s dismissal.
There’s no denying that Miami showed up flat, lethargic and mentally checked-out of this weekend’s 20-13 loss to North Carolina; but pinning all that on Florida State isn’t logical. It’s also a disservice to what the Tar Heels have grown into this past decade.
Hard as it may be for some to accept; North Carolina looked more like “Miami” than Miami.
‘U’ HISTORY: 101—A FEW MOVES THAT SENT CANES DOWN THIS PATH
Rewind to mid-November 2006. The Canes were reeling, but to what degree no one was ready to admit. Five years removed from its last national title, four years it’s last championship appearance and three years since ending a streak of four consecutive BCS games—everyone wanted to believe it was simply a down year and bump in the road.
Early losses to Florida State and Louisville were followed by bland wins over Houston and North Carolina, followed by the battle royal against Florida International and almost-loss at Duke, courtesy of a dozen player suspended.
The Canes then dropped back-to-back games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Defensive end Bryan Pata was gunned down in cold blood. Road losses to Maryland and Virginia ensued. Between setbacks against the Terrapins and Cavaliers, North Carolina quietly hired former Miami head coach Butch Davis—a few years on the shelf after his short NFL stint flamed out.
Two weeks later, Larry Coker was out at Miami—an ugly 7-6 season where the wheels came off in disastrous fashion. From there, a crushing nine-year run for the Hurricanes—mistake after mistake made, crippling the program and paving the way for yet another rebuild underway today.
Ten days separate Davis’ hiring in Chapel Hill and the end of Coker’s run in Coral Gables—changing the course of both programs over the next decade.
This is the point where this article could go one of several different paths, leading to countless moot results—so let’s keep things on track. Davis was eventually dismissed by North Carolina prior to the 2011 season; caught up in an academic scandal that reached the highest levels and UNC. That said, it’s neither here nor there for the sake of this write-up.
The focus here is how Davis assembled a football program at a basketball school; bringing in blue chip talent and future first rounders, while building a winner and changing a culture.
While Davis built-up the Tar Heels, the inept Randy Shannon piled on Coker’s mess with the Hurricanes. Four program-defining years in Chapel Hill, versus four setback years in South Florida. A bonus for the Canes; Nevin Shapiro and his shit-bag ways mucking things up and bringing immediate distraction and chaos to the Golden years.
North Carolina hit reset post-Davis and went the interim route, promoting defensive coordinator Everett Withers for a throwaway season as the program regrouped. Miami chose Golden from a talentless pool that included Marc Trestman and Randy Edsall; and ultimate lesser of a few evils situation.
Withers’ run was over as soon as it began and the Tar Heels hired Southern Miss head coach and up-and-comer Larry Fedora to take over. Year one Fedora took a Davis’ built squad to 8-4; winning the ACC’s Coastal Division on paper, but banned from all postseason play due to violations from the 2010 season.
7-6 and 6-7 followed—as did a coaching change as Fedora brought on former national champion head coach Gene Chizik to run the Tar Heels’ defense. The result; an 11-3 season and 8-0 regular season run in the ACC.
As North Carolina turned a corner in 2015 with the Fedora/Chizik combo, Miami dumped a bad stock and sent Golden packing by late October. Interim head coach Larry Scott took over, went 4-2 down the stretch and Richt was the new guy in charge by December.
RICHT FEEL-GOOD STORYLINE WON’T TRUMP RIVALS’ HEAD STARTS
Looking at the timelines between the two programs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that North Carolina looks the part this fall, while Miami still comes across makeshift, inconsistent and shoddy.
The Tar Heels benefitted greatly from eight years with Davis and Fedora at the helm, while the Canes had eight-plus with Shannon and Golden leading the the charge. Meanwhile, Richt is six games into a bigger mess than he probably accounted for—fired by Georgia on a Sunday and hired by Miami the following Wednesday.
A 15-year career coming to an end and embarking on a new one 96 hours later doesn’t give one much time for deep thinking or critical analyzation.
Assessing the long-term, the Canes are right to be excited about Richt’s potential. The Miami alum was hired to rebuild the program proper; laying a solid foundation and doing away with a broken culture that started on Coker’s watch.
A proven recruiter, a man of faith—giving players Bibles (with no expectations), improving community relations, et al—this will all pay off in due time, win over parents and further build-up Richt as one of the best in the business, allowing “The U” to rebuild properly, in some ways starting from scratch.
What it won’t do; fix a decade-long problem overnight.
After falling to North Carolina—Miami dropping to 1-2 in conference play—Richt admitted some rustiness in his play calling; something he got away from at Georgia when taking on more of a CEO-type role.
Any notion or belief that Richt would just waltz back into the role of offensive guru after a multi-year hiatus; absolutely foolish. While Richt was managing things in Athens, guys like Fedora were climbing the coaching ladder—making a name for themselves as the game’s next great offensive minds.
None of that is to say Richt can’t or won’t refind his groove; but expecting next-level play year one while trying to clean-up a culture the last few guys broke? Wishful thinking.
CANES’ MYSTIQUE WON’T WIN ACC; NEED SMARTER PLAY & BETTER PLAYERS
Rough as the last two losses have been to accept, it’s time for a hard reset on expectation for year one in the Richt era. Any entitlement in regards to winning the Coastal Division and reaching the ACC title game for the first time in a dozen tries; stop it. Should this squad pull it off, great—but any blah-blah-blah about talent, match-ups and how the Canes are “better” than divisional opponents on paper; it’s all noise.
Miami hasn’t earned the right to have any conference expectations. All talk of winning the Coastal must be shelved until this program proves it can bounce back from tough losses, while showing up against beatable opponents—dropping games to four-win squads like Virginia a few years back and what not.
Show up for whoever is on the schedule that week. Bring it. Do away with the mental mistakes—moronic penalties, inexplicable drops, sub-par execution and flaws in coaching strategies—as each step and accomplishment takes you closer to the ultimate goal.
This shift in thinking is crucial as it’s flat-out embarrassing to watch in-season bargaining taking place—crossing fingers that divisional rivals are upset down the stretch, allowing Miami to back into the title game (something yet to happen to date.)
Six regular season games remain; five in conference. A few things to focus on down the stretch:
— Better protection for quarterback Brad Kaaya, who is taking an absolute beating by way of a shoddy, depth-challenged offensive line. In a perfect world, there are more bodies and a deeper pool of talent to work with. Right now, there isn’t—so you work with what you have and plan a strategy accordingly.
The Miami Dolphins are a hot mess, but found a way this past weekend to get their line working together and protected their guy under center en route to an upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Improvise. What’s the worst that happens, another loss?
— Accept the fact that this Hurricanes’ squad is void of a capable bigger-bodied running back; so quick trying to ground-and-pound with smaller guys like Mark Walton and Joe Yearby, as it’s not working. Makes you wonder if Richt is having Georgia flashbacks and thinks he has a few of those tough Bulldogs runners he’s had in years passed.
Miami was 4-of-15 on third-down conversions against North Carolina; a handful of those the result of a Walton or Yearby called upon to rush up the middle—smaller backs behind a weak-ass line and a predictable play snuffed out.
Walton and Yearby are most dangerous when given some space and the ability to make a move. Nothing is happening when handed the ball three yards behind the line of scrimmage when opposing defenses are in the backfield soon as the ball is snapped.
— Put the best players out there and let them do their thing. All due respect to fifth-year senior Malcolm Lewis and all he’s been through, but fielding a kickoff and running out of bounds on the three-yard line to start the game; a bench-worthy offense.
Special teams as a whole has been deplorable for the Canes this season and that is something that needs constant tweaking and personnel changes until the right mix is found.
— Lastly, the mental breakdowns and emotional lapses in judgment have to come to an end. Miami was only dinged for four penalties against North Carolina—compared to a disastrous 10 for 110 yards versus Florida State—but in both cases, game changing and ultimately detrimental.
ACC officiating has been lopsided and piss-poor the past few weeks; a bogus holding call negating a Walton touchdown against the Seminoles, while a bobbled haul-in was called a touchdown this past weekend; the right call likely setting up a field goal on 4th-and-Goal from the five-yard line.
Both shit calls impacted the tone of the game, as well as the final outcome—but neither have anything to do with the mistakes the Canes are making top to bottom, which are having a greater impact on the course of the game.
MODERN-DAY MIAMI; WHERE DOES IT GO FROM HERE?
Time will tell if the short week and road trip to Virginia Tech proves to be a blessing or a curse, but Miami is in must-win territory.
Coastal dreams aside, a third-consecutive loss would send this season into a full-blown downward spiral—early wins deemed meaningless, while ten months worth of Richt hype would go right down the drain until another hopeful step forward next fall.
Even worse, the schedule isn’t necessarily forgiving.
Bad as Notre Dame has looked, no doubt the Irish will bring their A-game and South Bend will be rocking the final Saturday of October. From there, a tough home game against a gritty Pittsburgh squad.
Charlottesville is always tough on Miami and the Canes follow up that annual showdown with the Cavaliers by heading to Raleigh to face a North Carolina State squad that took Clemson to overtime in Death Valley. Last up, a home game against Duke—who is on the mend and will be revenge-minded after last year’s game in Durham.
Time to respond quickly, adjust on the fly and work with that the Canes got as anything less will result in another disastrous close-out amidst yet another rebuilding year.
Another big stage moment ended with the Miami Hurricanes coming up short last weekend with rival Florida State in the house. The blocked extra point served as the final nail in the coffin of a 20-19 loss, though the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve moments were plenty leading up to that point.
Conservative play-calling on offense. A crucial end-zone interception. A bogus holding call negating a would-be score. Broken defensive plays allowing the bad guys to get back in the game. All were equally as brutal and played their part in another big game collapse—and with that, all must be flushed as there’s a ton of important football left to be played this season.
Look no further than recent Canes’ losses to the Seminoles for a blueprint of how not to react in the face of adversity.
That 23-7 first half lead that evaporated back in a 30-26 loss in 2014? Paled in comparison over the lifeless 30-13 loss days later in Charlottesville to a four-win Virginia team. Back home the following week, a five-win Pittsburgh squad rushed for 226 yards and topped Miami by a dozen. Insult to injury came in the bowl game when a six-win South Carolina squad played second half chess while the Canes played checkers, ekeing out the three-point win.
From 6-3 to 6-7, just like that.
MIAMI UNABLE TO RESPOND IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY AS OF LATE
Last year was no better—falling to a garbage Cincinnati team on Thursday night, before giving one away in Tallahassee against a beatable Florida State squad not firing on all cylinders. The Canes responded with a home win over an eventual six-loss Virginia Tech squad before Clemson rolled in and obliterated the home team, 58-0.
Then-head coach Al Golden was fired 24 hours later, tight ends coach Larry Scott took over in an interim roll and Miami rah-rahed its way to a miracle win at Duke and ugly home win against Virginia before North Carolina went apeshit on the Canes in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels put up 487 yards, while quarterback Marquise Williams threw and ran for a combined 210 yards and two touchdowns—throwing down “U” hands as a sign of disrespect to the Canes; something wide receiver Ryan Switzer echoed when returning a punt 78 yards for a score.
North Carolina led 31-0 at the half. Halfway through the third it was 52-7 before Miami got a few late garbage scores. A beat down quite possibly more embarrassing than the one second-ranked Clemson delivered as the Tigers at least reached the College Football Playoffs and took out the Tar Heels in the ACC Championship.
Clemson wasn’t 58 points better than Miami, but as a true power last season it’s almost easier to process. Zero excuse for such a lopsided performance at North Carolina.
Fast-foward a year and where do these two conference rivals stand? The Canes brought on Mark Richt and an entirely new staff—as well as a 4-3 defensive scheme more conducive to Miami-style play, while it’s business as usual for the Tar Heels. Larry Fedora still runs the show while former Auburn national champion head coach Gene Chizik continues revamping a defense seemingly backsliding this year.
Both programs have lost some talent, while adding some new role players, as well.
SEASON-DEFINING MOMENT FOR BOTH THE CANES & TAR HEELS
Miami’s narrative this season is pretty cut and dry; beat up on some nobodies out the gate, relied on a few defensive turnovers to take out Georgia Tech and came up a few plays short when hosting Florida State. North Carolina’s storyline is a bit more confusing.
After falling to Georgia in the opener the Tar Heels knocked off Illinois and James Madison—while giving up 23 and 28 points, respectively. North Carolina topped Pittsburgh on the game’s final drive and went on to upset Florida State the following week, by way of a 54-yard field goal as the clock hit zero.
The four-game win-streak came to a crashing halt last weekend in a rain-soaked affair against Virginia Tech; the Hokies dominating time of possession and holding the Heels to 131 total yards. North Carolina also coughed up two fumbles while the usually solid Mitch Trubisky was a disaster under center. The quarterback threw two picks, going 13-of-33 for 58 yards.
Almost makes you wish another monster storm was on the radar this weekend.
Miami is an 8.5-favorite going into Saturday’s showdown, but that’s little solace for those who have watched this rivalry over the years since the Canes joined the Atlantic Coast Conference. In good times and bad, the Tar Heels have always had a strange edge in this quirky series.
Besides the obvious—year one in the ACC when third-ranked Miami fell, 31-28 to a garbage North Carolina squad—there have been crazy comebacks on both sides; the Canes usually falling short while the Tar Heels miraculously pulled some magic out their asses.
Some of that may have been the Butch Davis effect; the former Canes’ head coach spending four seasons in Chapel Hill and going 3-1 against then-UM leader Randy Shannon—Shannon playing under Davis at “The U” in the 1980’s and three years as a defensive assistant in the late 1990’s.
Down 27-0 at the half in 2007, the Canes rallied for 20 in the third quarter, only to choke late in a 33-27 road loss. The following year, an early 24-14 four quarter lead blown in a 28-24 loss. 2009 was another gut-punch; the Canes down 23-7 mid-third, pulling to within six, driving and coughing up a fumble that went the other way for a score.
Things somewhat leveled out once the Davis-Shannon dynamic was no more, but things remained unorthodox—two-point conversion attempts changing the strategy in an 18-14 loss for Miami in 2012, yet a miracle comeback in Chapel Hill the following year, overcoming a late 23-13 deficit while relying on back-up role players.
SATURDAY’S LOSER CAN ALL BUT KISS COASTAL DREAMS GOODBYE
All of that history is somewhat moot as these two face off on Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium—a must-win Coastal Division showdown both both squads. Miami and North Carolina are each coming off of losses and need a bounce-back win as much as the other.
For Miami, the strategy itself could almost be cut and pasted from last week’s blueprint. Disrupt the quarterback—in this case, Trubisky—as he’ll pick you apart with too much time. When rattled, the junior is a mistake-prone mess. When comfortable back there, damn-near a Heisman candidate.
From there, the Canes’ secondary needs to crank things up a few notches. Switzer is Trubisky’s go-to—and he’s hurt Miami in the past. Set the tone early and let the speedy, undersized senior know he’s in for a long afternoon.
The x-factor on Saturday; Tar Heels’ running back Elijah Hood—questionable after missing last weekend’s game against the Hokies. Theoretically it’s always about the highest-level of competition and going against the best—but as the Canes look to rebound from the Noles’, loss—no issues with Hood being out our limited, making the UNC offense a bit more one-dimensional.
Offensively for Miami, it’s all about balance—as well as not letting up. The Canes’ first half last weekend was a bit more aggressive, while things seemingly got conservative in the second half against the Seminoles.
Knowing the Tar Heels’ defense has been a bit spotty; a great opportunity to take more downfield shots with Kaaya and to open things up a bit. Fact remains the Canes lack a power rushing attack; fielding a pair of number two-type guys in Mark Walton and Joe Yearby, while lacking a bigger-bodied bruiser who can move the chains.
Both Walton and Yearby are threats, but the key is avoiding more up-the-middle runs—relying on a shoddy offensive line to deliver—and getting two speedy backs the ball in space, allowing them to work some magic.
The tight end was also somewhat non-existent last week. Would like to see more touches for guys like David Njoku and Chris Herndon.
All that armchair-quarterback strategizing aside, it’s all about finding a way to win—at all costs. Pretty, ugly, lucky or a perfect strategy—Miami simply has to deliver and forge ahead.
Lots of chatter about the Coastal Division and how the Canes should win it—the sentiment based more on emotion than logic, as well as impatience as this marks Miami’s thirteenth season in the ACC without repping the division or sniffing a conference championship.
The margin for error down the stretch is damn near zero—especially when factoring in Virginia Tech’s weak-ass Atlantic Division foes; Syracuse on Saturday, but no Florida State, Louisville or Clemson on the schedule. Meanwhile Miami already lost to Florida State and has a road game against a good North Carolina State squad late November.
A loss this weekend and the Canes can all but be counted out of the Coastal race—resulting in a must-win situation in Blacksburg on Thursday night and then relying on Virginia Tech to drop one of four remaining ACC games, with Miami forced to win-out.
All of that to be filed under getting-ahead-of-oneself as it’s all about responding against a good North Carolina team this weekend—one that embarrassed the shit out of the Canes, last fall.
The blueprint for success is there; it’s simply a matter of Miami showing up, executing and knocking out a North Carolina team seemingly on the ropes and struggling defensively.
The University of Miami severed ties with the freshman wide receiver on Monday morning, stating that the former 4-star out of St. Thomas Aquinas was dismissed “based on multiple violations of team rules and a failure on his part to meet the clear expectations established to be a part of the Miami football program.”
Way to f**king go, Sammy.
Bruce was currently serving a three-game suspension for the way-too-common-amongst-today’s-athletes social media gaffe; in this case, posing in a photo holding a firearm. The situation got Bruce booted from St. Thomas, where he wound up finishing his high school career at Westlake Prep.
It’s believed that the three-game suspension at Miami was related to that event, though Bruce worsened things by not being truthful with coaches regarding a non-football season-ending injury. Bruce was playing basketball—not prohibited, though a hobby football players are suggested to avoid—yet told coaches he was injured riding his bike.
Sources at UM have stated that there have been a long list of disciplinary issues with Bruce in his short time as a member of the program. In hearing that, a swift dismissal is truly the only option as first-year head coach Mark Richt looks to fix a broken culture and rebuild the Canes, proper.
For Miami faithful; that never-ending feeling that the hits just keep on coming. The karmic aspect of losing to Florida State due to a blown kick is lost on no one, but it’s bigger than that.
Porous offensive line play, boneheaded, game-changing penalties and a few personnel-related breakdowns all serve as a reminder that the Canes are lacking the type of depth needed to compete nationally, as well as conference-wise.
The Tar Heels head south as Coastal Division champions, having put a 59-21 pasting on Miami in Chapel Hill last fall. Are they as good as last year’s squad? A recent home pasting courtesy of Virginia Tech says otherwise, but it came on the heels of North Carolina upsetting Florida State in Tallahassee.
Regardless, a reminder that the Canes next two opponents—the Heels and Hokies over a six-day span—are serious road blocks in Miami’s quest for a first-ever division crown.
The recently-dismissed Bruce would have zero impact on any of this in 2016; having injured himself outside of football prior-to today’s dismissal—but the parting-of-ways is indicative of a bigger problem; too many would-be greats pissing away potential legacies at Miami for moronic reasons.
Manny Navarro of The Miami Herald went in-depth on the player retention topic two Septembers ago and the numbers were staggering as 27 players were lost between 2011 and 2013; be it transfers, dismissals, not qualifying or being forced to quit football all together.
Eddie Johnson. Gionni Paul. Alex Figueroa. Derrick Griffin. Angelo Jean-Louis. The list goes on regarding players who could’ve helped do something about that 21-15 run over a the three-year span. Instead, more leaks sprung as the Canes’ program kept taking on water.
Tack on a few casualties in the 2014 class, as well as the loss of Bruce and it makes Florida State’s six-year head start on rebuilding—and seven-game win-streak—that much harder to accept.
All that bullshit these past few years; blame Al. Blame Randy. Blame Shapiro, the NCAA and anything else that fits the narrative of a down cycle. While you’re at it, make sure to blame the self-absorbed players who put self, stupidity and immaturity above team, potential and future success.
Bruce blowing a golden opportunity to be the next great Miami speedster—unacceptable in 2016 as the Canes are supposed to be past bullshit like this. That big push to keep local talent home and to rebuild the program; it was to be on guys like Bruce.
Now he’s gone—heartbreaking for him as a lifelong fan of “The U” and brutal for the University of Miami as he’s yet one more pointless casualty on the road from mediocrity to relevancy.