Miami’s recent home win over Toledo won’t look like much on paper. Anyone who missed the showdown and went no further than the, 52-30 box score would most-likely chalk it up to a power conference beating up a lesser program, while assuming the Rockets tacked a on a late score for one of those closer-than-it-appeared finishes.
For the outsider with no vested interest, so be it. That’s all they saw and need to know regarding what was utterly a meaningless game on what turned out to be one of those early-season, “Survival Saturday” situations—where it was all about the win and less about style points.
While a contingent of Miami’s fan base will praise the 42-point second half and comeback, others won’t be able to shake off the 16-10 halftime deficit and slow start. In reality, neither should be the focus as the true takeaway had less to do with point totals and everything to do with the Hurricanes taking another steps towards becoming a resilient, win-minded bunch that believes in both themselves and the coaches, but also the message and approach.
Everyone has their different measuring stick in regards to Miami being “back”. Beat Florida State. Take the Coastal. Win the ACC. Bring home a sixth national title. While none of those cries are out of line, for consistency-sake the true measure and jumping-off point comes with the attitude and effort witnessed last Saturday at HardRock Stadium. Those are the necessary first steps in regards to again becoming a contender.
HOW U GOT HERE; HOW U GET OUT OF HERE
Soon after Miami’s turn-of-the-millennieum dominant run, the Canes became a watered-down version of the giant Butch Davis rebuilt them into. Short version for history-sake; Larry Coker was the nice-guy chaperone who couldn’t recruit, Randy Shannon was the low-cost, low-risk, hire-from-within option and Al Golden proved to be smoke and mirrors; a resume full of padded stats, as well as an all-around shit fit.
That decade-plus of incompetence took it’s toll on both the Canes’ brand, as well as the style of football played in South Florida. Outside of that “U” on the side of the helmet, or ceremonial run through the smoke—nothing about Miami truly looked like Miami. “The U” felt trapped in some type of Bizzaro World; talking the talk, but incapable of walking the walk.
The slow start this past weekend was almost inevitable; a 21-day layoff due to the effects of Hurricane Irma—the Canes’ world getting turned upside down days after a season-opening win over Bethune-Cookman. Since then, a closed campus in repair, a cancelled game—and another rescheduled—while Miami trekked north to Orlando to practice; seeking some semblance of normalcy and routine.
Hours before Miami hosted Toledo, Florida State—also looking to rebound after a three-week layoff—fell to North Carolina State, 27-21. The Noles also started sluggish, down 10-0 after a quarter, while breaking in a freshman quarterback—insult to injury after losing starter Deondre Francois in a season-opening loss to Alabama.
While the ACC’s Wolfpack are a more-formidable foe than the Mid-Atlantic’s Rockets, the common theme for the Canes and Noles was the same; how does one shake off the dust after not playing full-contact football since September 2nd? Florida State didn’t solve that riddle, but Miami—after a spirited, confident halftime—came out guns blazing for the game’s final thirty minutes.
“We’re going to win this game”—those six-word scrawled on a grease board by defensive coordinator Manny Diaz in the home locker room set the tone for a comeback. No desperation, stat-padding or manufactured rah-rah. It was a simple statement that embodies a new, old-school culture and the type of core values that made “The U” such a dominant force years back.
“It was important that we believed it,” Diaz told the Miami Herald, regarding the message he wrote. “It was important that we felt like for as much adversity as we faced to be only down by six and to realize that we were just one stop, one score away from being in the lead, which is in essence what happened, I want to say this: As a coach you can write [things] down, but the players have to go out and make it happen.
Diaz elaborated—touching on the unexpected, extended break between the season opener and this eventual home showdown with Toledo.
“We were having a hard time the second quarter of putting 11 functioning defensive football players on the field because of getting back to just the conditioning level of being able to play in a game. We couldn’t think straight. We couldn’t play a base coverage. We could hardly do anything there for probably the second half of the second quarter. A lot of that was self-inflicted because of staying on the field on third downs. You’re looking at halftime, you’re telling them the path back and how we’re going to win the football game. But for those guys to go out and take control of the third quarter—is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen from the sideline.”
While that last statement may come off to some as blowing smoke, or hyperbole—a look back at the Hurricanes’ recent history proves otherwise.
PUTTING TO REST THE DAYS OF SLIPPING AWAY
Richt’s squad let a few slip away year one, but still put enough together for a 9-4 season and the program’s first bowl win in a decade. Steps were being taken in the right direction and a spirited second half against the Rockets helps underscore the shift.
While most would love to bury or flush the last decade of Miami football, for the sake of this example a trek down memory lane seems necessary.
Weeks before Golden was canned in October 2015—after a historic 58-0 loss to Clemson—an embarrassing Thursday night loss at Cincinnati; an eventual 7-6 squad smoked 42-7 by San Diego State in the postseason. A week later, the Dalvin Cook show, as the Miami native and Seminoles’ running back torched the Canes for 222 yards an three scores. UM took a brief lead early in the fourth—but as has happened so many times in that era, Miami bent, broke and stumbled home a loser.
The season prior; a collapse for the ages as the Canes pounced on the defending national champs early, taking a 23-7 lead over the Seminoles. Fear of success crept in and Miami played tight, while Florida State—a come-from-behind squad in that Jameis Winston era—chipped away, eventually prevailing, 30-26. Even worse—the Canes’ inability to rebound moving forward.
A no-show against a four-win Virginia the following week, pushed around by Pittsburgh at home in the finale and outworked in a suck bowl game against a six-win South Carolina squad. Coaches oft talk about not letting last week’s opponent beat you twice—carrying that hangover into the next contest. During the Golden era, a late season heartbreak to the Noles cost the Canes the next three games and ultimately the season.
Lest all the blame fall on the last guy, Shannon was no prize in this department, either—his final season marred by a 7-6 run in a year where Miami was primed to build off of a 9-4 finish in 2009. Instead, shellacked at home by Florida State as the No. 12 team in the nation, 45-17, and losing three of the next five—falling at an eventual four-win Virginia, at home against a pedestrian Virginia Tech squad and a back-breaking, tenure-ending overtime loss to lowly South Florida.
Those awful memories relived to underscore two points; that a comeback against Toledo shows a culture shift and new set of beliefs, as well as a justification for the pit in Canes fans’ stomachs last Saturday when the Rockets took a halftime lead—muscle memory kicking regarding a decade-plus of stepping down instead of up.
The slow start after the layoff wasn’t optimum, but Miami eventually found it’s groove, took control and survived—and within that; a ton of positive moments that deserve highlighting.
MORE SILVER LINING AT ‘THE U’ NOW THAN IN YEARS
Malik Rosier has over-exceeded early expectations two games in. Yes, there have been some errant throws and newbie mistakes—but the former 3-star prospect out of Alabama with a lone career start before this season, looks more than capable of leading this offense. There’s a maturity, a poise and a quality about No. 12 that many didn’t expect to see—including Richt, who famously told Rosier (after anointing him the starter) that he never expected the junior to be the guy.
The loss of would-be senior Brad Kaaya felt like a blow early-on. The Canes had so many other pieces in play and instability at quarterback seemed a cruel way for this comeback season to play out; to the point where unrealistic expectations began surrounding true freshman N’Kosi Perry before he’d even arrived on campus over summer.
Rosier has a long road ahead, but appears to have more upside than many originally thought—a godsend when you see what a squad like Florida State is now suffering without Francois under center.
Same can be said for the running back position; a question mark as the season got underway. Hopes were high that Mark Walton would pick up where he left off after a brilliant sophomore campaign—but a lack of depth behind him with Joe Yearby declaring for the NFL and Gus Edwards transferring to Rutgers—was downright scary. How would Walton’s durability fare and was anyone ready to step into the number two slot behind him?
Walton hit the ground running in the opener; going for 148 yards and two touchdowns against Bethune-Cookman. Against Toledo, an 11-carry, 204-yard outing and a score. Even more impressive; the fact Walton absolutely brought the Canes back to life when re-entering the game in the second half. Miami has some bonafide leaders and spark plugs on both sides of the ball—again, something that’s been missing for way too long.
The Canes also found a true compliment to Walton’s game in sophomore running back Travis Homer, who looks the part—carrying 11 times for 108 yards in the opener, while plugging in nicely last Saturday when Walton was temporary sidelined. Toledo’s defense was focused on stuffing the run and forcing Rosier to carry the offense. Homer carried eight times for 32 yards and punched in two scores, while hauling in three receptions for 46 yards.
A 20-yard hook-up from Rosier to Homer opened the second half and lit a fire. Two plays later, a 19-yard grab. Rosier spread it around—and used his legs—on the 91-yard drive that eventually ended in a 12-yard Homer touchdown run. Walton was back later in the quarter, but the message had already been sent; the Canes have two capable cats who can pound the rock.
Another early-season bonus; tremendous play at wideout despite star sophomore Ahmmon Richards being sidelined the first two games of the year. Losing receiver Stacy Coley and tight end David Njoku to the NFL—there was an expected drop-off regarding who to spread the ball around to, as well as Richards’ production level slipping due to double teams and defenses focusing on him.
Instead, it’s been eight quarters of production out of a bevy of receivers. Darrell Langham, Dayall Harris and Lawrence Cager are putting their height and reach to use, while speedster Braxton Berrios is looking more and more like the player many expected the former 4-star prospect to be earlier in his career.
Dionte Mullins is also emerging in his second season, while true freshman Mike Harley is emerging as a threat. Chris Herndon is also picking up at tight end where Njoku left off—and all of this without Richards taking the field yet this season.
If there’s any knock thus far, it’s been the slow defensive start—guys reading their headlines, believing the pre-season hype and what not—but seeing the Canes clamp down in the second half against the Rockets proved reassuring. No, Toledo won’t soon be confused with some of the offenses Miami will see throughout the season—but the Canes defense responded and furthermore, is responding to their leaders.
Be it the “Turnover Chain”, a halftime message on a grease board, or watching clips of the fabled 1986 Miami defense—to learn unity and ball-swarming—Diaz, line coach Craig Kuligowski, safeties coach Ephraim Banda or cornerback coach Mike Rumph, the Canes are in good hands and are responding as such.
Put it all together over the next nine games and 2017 could truly mark the season Miami turned a corner it’s been unable get around in what feels like a lifetime.
Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello earns a living helping icon Bill Murray build a lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter @ItsAUThingBLOG or @ChristianRBello.