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.