It had all the makings of something special. The hard-rocking stadium. The throwback uniforms. The pre-game skirmish. An undefeated start to the season and a rival having already absorbed a few losses.
The Miami Hurricanes jumped out to another home lead against Florida State, but it was the Seminoles who again closed strong, much like they have the last two times these foes got after it, prevailing, 20-19—the foot of a kicker again defining another big moment in this rivalry.
In the end, a seventh-straight loss and the harsh reality that despite the gap closing between the Canes and Noles, the boys from up north are still a few paces ahead of the five time national championship Miami program. Doesn’t matter how or why—FSU’s “rebuild” starting back in 2010, while UM’s just got underway last December; the result continues to be the same.
The Canes are on the right track, but lack the depth, across-the-board talent and big-win experience that championship teams possess.
There are no moral victories and silver linings the morning after are impossible to appreciate. Saturday’s heartbreaker will be forever remembered by a muffed snap and batted-down extra point; The Block at The Rock. Convenient for narrative-sake in a rivalry that has been defined by missed kicks by the guys in garnet and gold—but Miami lost the game well before DeMarcus Walker swatted down a Michael Badgley point-after attempt; the junior kicker automatic in his career up to that moment.
No, this one was surrendered from the get-go when Miami’s supposedly-high octane offense sputtered and punted its first two drives, while settling for a field goal on its third—wasting some big time defensive stops; including a fourth-down stuff of the Noles that kept early points off the board.
A DOZEN OTHER “LOST GAME” MOMENTS TRUMP MISSED POINT-AFTER
Miami’s swarming defense sent quarterback Deondre Francois to the sideline after a vicious takedown by Kendrick Norton. Jaquan Johnson made the Noles pay, intercepting back-up Sean Maguire on a tipped pass and the Canes turned it into seven by way of a highlight-reel touchdown grab by Stacy Coley on 3rd-and-19—giving Miami the 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Still, the where-it-was-lost moments were all over the place; again settling for three when another offensive possession stalled out.
Francois back under center, the Canes’ defense held the Noles to 18 yards on six plays, forcing a punt. Brad Kaaya immediately went to freshman Ahmmon Richards for a 38-yard pick-up. A sure-fire pass interference call on Florida State looked to be drive-defining, but was negated when the intended receiver Braxton Berrios was hit with a facemask call—boneheaded-as-hell and taking the steam out of the Canes.
Incomplete pass to Coley. Four-yard pick-up by tight end David Njoku. Four-yard run by Mark Walton. 51-yard field goal by Badgley and valuable points again left on the field against a squad known for second-half comebacks.
The Noles responded with nine-play, 62-yard drive—including a 3rd-and-12 conversion, though eventually settling for three and cutting the deficit to 10 points at halftime, with Florida State getting the ball to start the second half.
Miami’s defense forced the three-and-out and was primed again to take control, face planted and had yet another where-it-was-lost moment, unable to close on a would-be, game-defining drive.
Kaaya-to-Richards for 12 yards on 2nd-and-7 had Miami midfield and 15 more yards were picked up when Matthew Thomas was ejected for targeting. 1st-and-10 from the FSU 34, Walton picked up three before Kaaya found Coley for 18. Another first down; the Canes in business at the 13-yard line.
False start, Coley. Momentum killer. Incomplete pass to Richards on 1st-and-15, another setback. Then the dagger—a forced pass on 2nd-and-15 with Kaaya went to Richards again; Tarvarus McFadden stepping in front for the end zone interception.
Six plays later, a defense breakdown and Dalvin Cook—the most-dangerous guy on the field, inexplicably wide open— hauling in a 59-yard touchdown reception. What could’ve been 20-3, or at worst 16-3, was now 13-10 in just over three minutes—the energy in the stadium shifting as momentum was slipping away.
KAAYA COMES UP SHORT IN ANOTHER RAISED-STAKES SITUATION
Incompletion, three-yard run, incompletion, punt. The type of unraveling that defined the past half decade of Miami football was rearing its ugly head again—and no one on either side of the ball could stop the bleeding.
A comeback was underway and everyone in the building felt it. The Canes weren’t done, but the lead was set to evaporate and Miami was on its heels. Seven plays and 60 yards later, Francois found Kermit Whitfield for a 20-yard touchdown on 1st-and-10—a brilliant read on a would-be run play, changed when Johnson blitzed for the Canes with three Florida State receivers lined up trips to the left.
17-13, Noles late third quarter—Miami trailing for the first time all season. Here we go again.
Walton, nine-yard run and six more the following play. Tack on a 15-yard personal foul and the Canes were already at the FSU 45 in just under a minute. 1st-and-10, Walton takes it 45 yards to the house. To be filed under, you-can’t-make-this-shit-up; holding on Tyree St. Louis—his “mistake” doing zero to spring Walton loose. (Translation; horse-shit call by the zebras.)
Drive destroyed, next-level dagger and a snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory type moment that Miami simply can’t purge itself of. From taking back the lead to 1st-and-20 and deflated—just like that.
Two runs by Joseph Yearby went nowhere before Kaaya’s attempt on 3rd-and-15 was incomplete.
Miami’s defense held Florida State to a field goal after stopping Cook cold on 3rd-and-2—leaving the Canes yet another final drive-type chance like the past two years, down seven with nine minutes remaining.
Coley for 17 yards on 3rd-and-8. Another pass interference fortunate break, putting the Canes across midfield. First down run with Walton loses one, Kaaya sack loses six and another takedown on 3rd-and-17—Miami’s offense unable to do anything.
The Canes’ defense rises up, sacking Francois on third-and-long—putting the ball back in Miami’s hands for one final go-around with 3:02 remaining after a brilliant 43-yard return from Berrios.
Walton runs back-to-back, netting seven yards, but gets stuffed on 3rd-and-3. 4th-and-5 from the FSU 11, Kaaya hits Coley on a rope for the score—followed by the unthinkable. Muffed hold, blocked kick, ball game.
Even with the extra point, does Miami’s defense stop Florida State’s offense with 1:38 remaining in a 20-20 ball game? Doesn’t matter. The Canes had already been gutted and exposed—a not-yet good enough squad able to seize big moments and close.
YEAR IS ONLY A FAILURE IF MIAMI ALLOWS FLORIDA STATE LOSS TO BREAK THEM (AGAIN)
Bad as Florida State looked at Louisville, or somewhat exposed in a home loss to North Carolina—when the money was on the table and the Canes were across the field, the Noles were able to rely on muscle memory, earning the type of comeback win that can jumpstart a season.
While Miami toiled in misery these past six seasons—firing Randy Shannon, hiring Al Golden, dealing with ponzi-schemer Nevin Shapiro and fighting with the NCAA—Jimbo Fisher was building his powerhouse; taking over a program in much better shape than the Canes, in the process.
Over that span, four Atlantic Division titles, three ACC crowns and one national championship—while Miami stumbled to 43-33, fought off a two-year investigation, absorbed three years probation and saw three different head coaches at the helm. None of that even addressed the negative recruiting that sent quality local kids packing or forced “The U” to miss out on some key players.
Cook and Whitfield killed Miami last night; two kids who at one point looked to be future Canes. Same for the ejected Thomas and suspiciously-quiet Travis Rudolph last night. Losing out on players of that nature each of the past several years—it shouldn’t necessarily define moments like these, but it can’t be ignored. Keep the best talent home, recruit strong and develop good players into great ones. It’s a tried and true formula, but simply hasn’t happened in Coral Gables for well over a decade now.
Under all those circumstances, the fact the Canes have actually hung with the Noles the past three years is a mini-miracle unto itself—though it’s no solace when surrendering late leads and losing 10 of the past 12 to an arch-rival.
However this edition’s script was written, it’s over. Another loss in the books and another learning experience to be taken. Some other morning-after thoughts about these Canes as seven games remain. In no particular order:
— Defensive breakdowns at Georgia Tech last week were brushed off by way of a few exciting sack, strip, scoop and score moments which were the difference in a 14-point victory. Exciting plays, but flukes that arguably aren’t going to occur on a weekly basis or against top-flight talent. Miami had a few blown plays defensively that were indicative of the past half decade of UM football and served as a reminder that the talent and personnel simply isn’t where it needs to be on that side of the ball.
A lot of tipped passes and balls-out play from guys like Corn Elder, Kendrick Norton and Chad Thomas—as well as the trio of freshmen linebackers—but not enough depth or difference-makers over there, yet.
— Exciting as Walton and Yearby have been over their careers, the Canes’ ground attack is suffering from not having a bigger-bodied, Cook-type back who can run hard, get the tough yards and carry a struggling offense on their backs. Gus Edwards hasn’t panned out and Mike James was truly the last slightly bigger, hard-hitting running back the Canes have boasted.
Two guys who are “lighting” aren’t the answer. The rushing attack needs some “thunder”, as well. The Canes lost out on Cook a few years back, but need to ensure that they find a back like him on the recruiting trail each of the next few years.
— For every spectacular grab a receiver has, seems there are a few drops, miscues or setbacks to go along with the good. Painful as the ground game has been, the inconsistencies in the passing game are added pressure for an offense seeking and identity.
— Lastly, with almost two and a half seasons under his belt as a starter, it’s time to assess who No. 15 is and who he isn’t. Kaaya was thrown into the fire as a freshman, has learned on the job and has put up some rather impressive numbers as Miami’s starting quarterback. He’s pegged to be a Top 10 pick in next spring’s NFL Draft, as the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder with the solid head and strong arm checks off most boxes that assure success at the next level.
What Kaaya hasn’t shown yet; the “it” factor and overall leadership great collegiate quarterbacks on championship-caliber teams possess.
Come-up-short moments against a Nebraska, Georgia Tech or Florida State as a freshman are forgivable—but that expected step forward wasn’t taken as a sophomore. Cincinnati and Florida State were would-be, hero-type moments where Kaaya could’ve put the Canes on his back and made a difference.
Even the bowl game against Washington State; an interception on a potential game-winning drive.
This recent showdown with the Seminoles was a growing-up opportunity. Kaaya took a beating behind a suspect offensive line, got his ass kicked and still threw two NFL-worthy touchdown passes to Coley. That said, the second down interception in the end zone was brutal and truly unforgivable based on the moment, the opponent and overall state of the program.
Florida State is suiting up a freshman in Francois, who opened his career with a comeback victory against Ole Miss, had a solid outing in the loss to North Carolina and took everything Miami’s defense threw at him, yet kept making plays and getting the job done.
Time is running out on the Kaaya era. Will this fan base ever see that next-level, clutch-type performance he’s capable of? Tar Heels, Hokies, Fighting Irish and Panthers on deck.
IT’S NOT HOW YOU START; IT’S HOW YOU FINISH—CLOSE STRONG
Two years ago, a blown 23-7 lead against Florida State broke Miami’s spirit and the Canes lost their final three games. A year ago, a loss in Tallahassee was followed by a a home win over Virginia Tech before Clemson came south and delivered the type of ass-kicking that gets a fifth-year head coach fired before he sits down with a coffee and his Sunday paper.
What is this year’s narrative—Miami now 4-1 with first-year head coach Mark Richt; an even-keel guy celebrated for not getting to high after a win or too low after a loss? Golden—always the disheveled, excuse-making post-game mess—proved unable to get his Canes to respond. Can Richt erase five year’s of Golden’s hold on this program five games into his tenure? He better and the hits are coming hard and fast.
North Carolina heads south next weekend—the same squad who took down Florida State in Tallahassee weeks back on a game-winning 54-yard field goal that ended a 22-home game win-streak.
Good news; the Tar Heels were demoralized after falling to Virginia Tech at home, 34-3 yesterday. Bad news; the Hokies are up next for the Canes, traveling to Blacksburg for a Thursday night showdown against the new Coastal Division favorites.
Negotiate that rugged terrain and a road trip to Notre Dame follows; the Irish unraveling, though South Bend ready to come alive when boys from Miami show up.
Losses to Florida State have defined Miami’s season the past few years and if there’s any takeaway from this year’s setback—let it be just that; forget about the Noles until next time around, learn from the mistakes and focus on the remaining seven games.
This was never a championship season for the Canes. At absolute best, a Coastal Division title was in the cards—Miami the preseason number two behind North Carolina. Another loss to Florida State hurts; but it’s only as detrimental as the Canes allow it to be.
Let the next few weeks define this season—not a few setbacks in a would-be step-foward moment in primetime this past weekend.