If there was any belief the Miami Hurricanes had begun to turn a corner after a recent three-game win streak—it immediately went out the window after an unthinkable “road” loss to Florida International on Saturday night at Marlins Park.
After falling behind 16-0 by the third quarter and 23-3 in the fourth, the Hurricanes rallied for three late touchdowns against the Panthers, but ran out of time in a 30-24 loss as crushing for Manny Diaz as it was redeeming for Butch Davis, the one-time UM leader working to shake the “little brother” stigma for his FIU Panthers—which he did for the night, at least.
Despite all the talk of protecting the Canes’ old turf and UM’s over-the-top marketing efforts to play up a return to the hallowed ground where the beloved Orange Bowl once stood—the message and importance of this game was still somehow lost on Diaz’s squad. Miami dropped to 0-3 in games after a bye week this season, while going down in history as the only team over the past four decades to lose thrice in one season as a double-digit favorite; the Panthers a three-touchdown underdog in a game they controlled from the get-go. Congratulations, fellas.
A few miles west, Davis spent the week-of making it painfully important to his team the magnitude of this game—not just to FIU as a program, but to all of these players individually. He played the underdog card carefully—as few if any of these kids were recruited by any major programs—while giving his squad the belief that an upset was within reach.
Ballsy, considering the Golden Panthers had never knocked off a Power 5 school in their limited history—yet executed perfect for a litany of reasons.
Convincing his kids that Miami was beatable; not a tremendous feat when looking at the erratic nature of Diaz’s inconsistent Hurricanes in season one. Aside from the obvious post-bye week struggles, UM showed its hand thrice now regarding playing down to the level of competition—barely eking out a 17-12 win against Central Michigan in late September, rolling in flat weeks later against a one-win Georgia Tech team; lethargically whiffing on 29 tackles in an overtime loss—and now this latest debacle against a third-rate program Miami simply never should’ve lost to.
The Hurricanes bounced back in recent weeks with a come-from-behind win at Pittsburgh and convincing take downs of both Florida State and Louisville—though the latter two were a direct result of better offensive line play that left first-year quarterback Jarren Williams looking like a completely different player, with extra time to go through his reads.
Still, when pressured, Williams has a tendency to revert back to that rattled, inexperienced, redshirt freshman, first-year starter he is—which beyond having his team emotionally ready to go, was Davis’ second leg-up moment of the evening. Miami offensive coordinator Dan Enos didn’t get his quarterback comfortable until too little, too late—yet another Hurricanes’ blind spot in 2019.
Down 17-3 in a flash at North Carolina, or in a 28-0 hole to Virginia Tech, aided by three Williams’ interceptions—slow starts have crippled these Hurricanes too often in Diaz’s rookie season, and in both cases, late furious rallies fell short.
Again, one would be remised to think that Davis didn’t also work this UM weakness into his overall game plan—hammering his team to bust out the gates with a quick start, pouncing early and keeping Miami stunned for as long as possible. The Tar Heels and Hokies did it unintentionally, while laying out an unintentional blueprint even more-destined to work for Davis—knowing how lightly the Hurricanes would inevitably take the Golden Panthers.
CULTURAL ISSUES AT MIAMI NOT ONLY REAL, BUT ONGOING
Diaz often brings up a culture issue that long-time, frustrate fans love to scoff at—but it doesn’t make the assessment any less true. Especially when seeing so many of the same problems persisting today that have plagued this program going back a decade-and-a-half, for all four previous head coaches post-Davis.
Pre-game logo stomps at Louisville in 2006, en route to a 31-7 drubbing, a faux-swag brawl against this same FIU program that was a PR disaster for UM and 7-6 season that ended the Larry Coker era—to snowball fights on the sideline at the 2010 Sun Bowl while Notre Dame was kicking Miami’s teeth in 30-3 in the third quarter, barely a month after the four-year Randy Shannon era came to an end—Hurricanes teams have been grossly missing the mark for years now.
New head coach Al Golden watched in late 2010 from a suite in El Paso, unsure of what he was about to take over—something outgoing senior Ryan Hill was quick to sum up in an interview days later.
“The first thing he [Golden] probably has to do is weed out the guys he doesn’t feel will be beneficial to the program,” the departing cornerback shared with the Palm Beach Post. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have to do a lot of maturing in this program. We have a lot of guys that act like little boys, just not doing what they’re supposed to do”—which referred to players openly mocking Shannon, while blatantly ignoring his rules.
Lest not forget this was also the same class duped and caught in the crosshairs of the Nevin Shapiro scandal; guys who ignored Shannon’s warning to stay away from the eventually-shamed Ponzi schemer, with Golden inheriting many of those players while dealing with the fallout of a scandal that didn’t happen on his watch.
Mark Richt might’ve commanded a bit more respect as a long-time SEC head coach taking over the Hurricanes in 2016, but a laid back demeanor and unflappable approach certainly hindered Miami from having a team full of alphas and dogs who played with the kind of balls or bark Davis’ FIU squad brought on Saturday night.
“We wasn’t even calling them ‘University of Miami’ during the week,” linebacker Sage Lewis boasted post-game. “We were calling them ‘University of Coral Gables. We’re the true Miami school.”
It’s one thing to openly mock the five-time national champs privately in practice—but when that attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that one can boast about after delivering the goods and putting “big brother” in check; well that right there is the textbook definition of swag and a page out of vintage-era Miami’s playbook.
If it wasn’t the Hurricanes on the wrong end of this upset, every UM supporter would offer up a resounding, “Now that’s the shit I’m talking about, right there. Those kids looked like vintage Miami.”
Even harder to swallow, the fact that Diaz didn’t see Davis coming—the architect of UM’s last rebuild, who orchestrated a monumental upset on those same Orange Bowl grounds 21 years ago next month, which Diaz the super-fan was more than familiar with as a 24-year old fan playing the role of grad assistant at Florida State, weeks before the Seminoles began preparations for a national championship game they’d lose to Tennessee.
DAVIS PROVED UPSET-CAPABLE 21 YEARS AGO; DIAZ STILL UNPREPARED
While few on Miami’s current roster were even around in 1998, safe to assume all have watched The U Part 2 and it’s ten-minute segment on the Hurricanes’ upset of No. 2 UCLA, one week after getting throttled 66-13 by Syracuse in a Big East Championship game. This was year four of the Davis era and just over one year after the laughable-three-years-later “From Chumps To Champs—Thanks Butch!” banner that sailed over the Orange Bowl in a would-be 5-6 season when probation sent the program to rock bottom.
Per a post-game Sports Illustrated article recapping Miami’s improbable 49-45 upset of the Bruins, Davis broke down the week in-between complete disaster and utter redemption—as well as something he saw that gave him a belief that an upset was more than doable.
“This is not just going to be a game of stats,” he told his Canes days after losing to the Orangemen, and prior to taking down the Bruins and their potent offense. “We’re not going to shut down UCLA, they’re too good for that. But we can limit them by staying on the field and wearing them down. You don’t have to get beat just because of their big stats.”
Davis identified a flaw in his opponent; one that reminded him of some legendary NFC showdowns between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers when he was on staff under former UM head coach Jimmy Johnson for a few Super Bowl runs. Davis studied the Bruins offense and saw “a carbon copy of the 49ers that I coached against when I was with the Cowboys”.
“The Niners were a machine against us, ran up all kinds of offensive yardage, punted once the entire game—but we hung in there and beat them,” Davis told Sports Illustrated in the December 14th issue.
Much like FIU did to Miami this past weekend, Davis’ bounce-back Hurricanes tagged the Bruins in the mouth early—eventually taking an unexpected 21-17 halftime lead over a UCLA team that underestimated a battered-and-bruised Miami—much like Diaz’s squad didn’t expect little ol’ FIU to bring the fight it did.
The Canes would fall behind 38-21 late in the third quarter, as the Bruins’ offense was explosive as advertised—but as Davis mentioned, Miami did stay on the field and eventually wore down the west coast visitors on a balmy South Florida afternoon. The Canes went on to outscore the Bruins 21-7 over the final fifteen minutes—while forcing two turnovers that got UM’s offense back on the field against an overmatched defense and by day’s end, the upset was in the books.
That same skills-set that allowed a two-decades younger Davis to identify how to hang in there to take down an unstoppable UCLA squad—those same traits, the on-point scheming and a salesman’s ability to convince a lesser team a monumental undertaking was doable; all on display Saturday night under the same Orange Bowl sky where that other unthinkable upset took place all those years ago.
While celebrating—or even merely tolerating—a loss to Florida International is a monster ask; fact remains this upset is in the books and it can’t be ignored—nor should it be dwelled on, either. Fact remains, Miami got tagged in the mouth and the only answer now is to find a lesson in this while working to move on and grow from it.
CAN’T ERASE OR IGNORE WHAT TOOK PLACE; MUST GROW FROM SETBACK
In reality, once the Hurricanes didn’t roll in with any passion or purpose, nor hellbent on smacking down a lippy cross-town rival—last Saturday night was already “lost”, in a sense. Even eking out a late win in the same sluggish fashion Miami displayed when hanging-on against Central Michigan months back; nothing was obviously learned as these Canes continued dancing with the devil on too many occasions since.
When dealing with yet another first-year head coach and fourth season under a new leader over the past 13 years—sometimes those tough lessons and moments in the valley are what spark growth and change. In this case, it’s up to Diaz to use this as fuel—opposed to his first step towards ultimate failure.
While Miami’s season finale at Duke is meaningless in the division race—just as 7-5 or 6-6 doesn’t make a shit-of-difference regarding bowl game quality—it presents a teachable moment for coaches and players, alike. This staff has all the ammo necessary for a we-told-you-so type moment in regards to preparation and this ongoing cancer of taking opponents lightly, after any modicum of success is achieved.
All that to say, this is more of a learning opportunity moving forward as the 2019 draws to a close and a 2020 campaign is put together—which is where Diaz will take the steps that either seal his fate, or he begins taking steps towards getting this thing turned around.
Lest not forget in the wake of this FIU train-wreck that Davis has a 24-year start on Diaz in the head coaching universe—one where fans wanted to run him off up through the middle of his sixth year, when he made up for a stumble at Washington with his first-ever take down of Florida State. Prior to that, the criticism was deafening and few believed Davis would ever get UM back towards contender status, let alone assembling a champion and the most-talented team in college football history.
They’re called “rookie mistakes” for a reason and one would be hard-pressed to find a quality head coach who didn’t have his early-career stumbles—but it’s how one rebounds from those that separates the contenders from the pretenders.
OFF-SEASON DECISIONS WILL ULTIMATELY SHAPE DIAZ ERA
Diaz showed some huevos when sacking Richt’s entire offensive staff upon taking over in the waning moments of 2018—as 7-6 and the lack of production on that side of the ball wasn’t cutting it. The newly-hired head coach stated last January that he wanted an “offense that creates situations the make defensive players uncomfortable”—yet the only thing uncomfortable this season has been watching Enos operate as if he’s the smartest guy on the field—trying to out-clever the competition, instead of taking what’s right under his nose.
Miami ponied up a reported $1.2M for Enos’ services—unprecedented for a Hurricanes’ offensive coordinator and step in the right direction by the admin—under the guise that Alabama’s “quarterback whisperer” could bring some of his magic south from Tuscaloosa to Coral Gables.
To some, 11 games might not be an optimum sample size—but to others, they feel they’ve seen enough to contend that Enos doesn’t seem to be a solid fit—which is hard to debate as a disappointing 2019 season draw to a close.
I mentioned the concept of thin-slicing weeks back in regards to Enos; a term used in psychology to describe an ability to find patterns in events based on only “thin slices” or narrow windows of experience—allowing an observer to make quick inferences about something, someone or a situation with minimal amounts of information. Strange as it may seem, thin-slicing has proven to be as accurate, if not more, than judgments based on more information (hence terms like “gut feelings” versus “information overload”.)
With five losses already racked up before Thanksgiving—including this disastrous setback to FIU, after a three-game win-streak felt like a step in the right direction—the Miami-bred Diaz knows good-and-hell-well that the heat is on. That, coupled with the general frustration that comes with a 15-year rut for a once-proud program—there is little time for UM’s 25th head coach to dick around.
In other words, Diaz better thin-slice his way to some hard decisions with his current staff, because he can ill-afford to let guys hopefully grow into their positions—as a slowed-down time table will ultimately cost him his dream job.
Aside from what he must do staff-wise, it’s time for a hard look in the mirror regarding the brash talk on social media, properly defining with The New Miami really means, as well as celebratory hardware that started off as college football’s greatest motivational tool in 2017, yet has not only lost all meaning two years later—but might actually be having an averse effect on this broken culture he’s trying to fix.
DIAZ’S BRASH TALK & SHINY HARDWARE NEED TWEAKING FOR CULTURE-SAKE
Like many of us, Diaz is a parent—so he’s more-than-familiar with the concept of tough love when it comes to child-rearing. A lot of times parents are faced with doing things that hurt us more than our kids—knowing that act itself is part of an evolution and will promote much-needed growth.
What do many parents do when their kids are either taking advantage of something, or not appreciative of a gift or privilege? They take it away in a point-proving moment, use their words to explain why and then offer up the opportunity to earn it back through hard work and proof of a lesson learned—the entire process often proving a growth experience for a guardian, as well.
Miami is now 37 games into the creation that is the Turnover Chain and 11 into this season’s seemingly-forced Touchdown Rings—which even the biggest supporter of swag and the third-generation Cuban link-holding pendant—felt was a big egregious. When the chain was first introduced in 2017, Miami jumped out to a 10-0 start—and was the story of college football that fall under Richt and Diaz’s blinged-out creation; one that had an immediate-impact on his defense.
The Hurricanes were 67th nationally in turnovers-forced in 2016, but made the leap to 13th in the nation after 2017 was in the books. The positive impact was undeniable then—but the current impact seems to be having averse effect, or at minimum is nothing more than a soulless prop that has become somewhat embarrassing to trot out when the Miami is creating turnovers in losing efforts; now an dismal 13-14 since that exciting start in two years back.
This current era has too many Miami players taking to social media and posting successful, individual moments from losing efforts—armed with some faux motivational quote or lyric about being humble, hungry or starting with nothing, but now getting “here”—as if just suiting up for the Hurricanes and playing sub-par football was ever a destination for anyone whose played for this program.
None of this is to say that Diaz even needs to permanently shelve the hardware, but at minimum—rewrite the rulebook he created and make the Miamiesque bling even more situational; creating a culture where a guy is prone to deny the chain and sacrifice an individual moment of mugging for crowd and sideline cameras—instead rallying his offense to go out there and turn a bonus possession into points.
Honestly, the only thing that would’ve been more embarrassing than actually losing to FIU would’ve been a defensive player posing with that chain after a late turnover when down 23-3, after Williams had already coughed it up three times—even having already seen Miami players dancing on the sideline like In Living Color fly-girls when down 16-0 early third quarter, after a three-and-out and on the heels of the Canes’ third interception.
Just like the art of comedy and being funny—timing is everything, and Miami’s lightheartedness in the face of adversity couldn’t have been more out of place. Aside from revamping the hardware rules, a message needs to be sent in regards to all and any look-at-me guys clowning on the sideline in losing efforts—hoping to trend on social media—while their teammates are getting their teeth kicked in by a commuter school with a roster full of kids UM didn’t even bother recruiting.
TRUE GROWTH COMES OUT OF FAILURE, NOT INITIAL SUCCESS
Saturday’s setback against Florida International was ugly any way it’s sliced or diced, but anyone who’s followed this Miami program diligently over the years is aware that sometimes out of the shit is where the flowers grow.
Davis’ late nineties rebuild; his players’ “enough if enough” moment came in Tallahassee on the wrong end of a 47-0 beating. The Canes survived a double overtime thriller at Boston College the next time the took the field and starting to find themselves from there—upsetting UCLA a short 14 months later.
Johnson stumbled to 8-5 his first season in such fashion that had social media and a 24/7 sports news cycle existed then—he might not have seen year two.
The now-legendary JJ blew a 31-0 halftime lead to Maryland, only to fall to Boston College on “Hail Flutie” in Miami’s next game. Toss in a bowl loss to UCLA in Tempe and an earlier season 38-3 waxing via Florida State at home—St. Jimmy had painted himself into a nasty little corner with the defending national champions; fueling disgruntled fans’ fire, as many wanted defensive coordinator Tom Oliviadottito get the gig over the middle-of-the-road Oklahoma State guy who never beat Nebraska or Oklahoma.
The future-Hall-Of-Famer also dropped the 1985 season-opener to Florida—Miami’s last home loss until falling to Washington in 1994—but finally got his first career win in Norman five weeks later when the unranked Hurricanes knocked off the third-ranked Sooners, 27-14 and ended the regular season with a 58-7 pasting of Notre Dame, before getting brought back down to earth with a 35-7 Sugar Bowl loss to Tennessee.
Undefeated the next regular season, before a fatigue-driven misstep at the Fiesta Bowl and choke against Penn State—Johnson’s Canes adopted an “Unfinished Business” approach for the 1987 season, which led to a year-four championship, against an absolutely brutal schedule—another huge step in Miami solidifying itself at the team of the decade.
While it’s impossible to undo what’s already been done—this setback is most-definitely a teachable moment for these players, while also a case-building opportunity for Diaz to part ways with any on this staff who aren’t aligned with his personal championship-related goals.
The only thing that would make a loss to Florida International worse—not finding a way to use it in a motivational sense, or a building block in Diaz’s attempt to resurrect this Miami program from decade-plus long coma.
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 for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.
This was the type of game that the Canes easily could’ve let slip away due to a slew of reasons—but none bigger than showing up unprepared and not bringing the fight; which thankfully hasn’t been the case the majority of this inaugural season for Manny Diaz and staff. Even in early losses to Florida, North Carolina and Virginia Tech—Miami played scrappy, overcame early error and was in position to win all three games late, before ultimately not getting it done.
To Louisville’s credit, it brought the fight, as well—496 yards on the day, while dominating time of possession—but three turnovers, sloppy-as-hell play (14 penalties for 121 yards) and an inability to stop Miami’s offense, ultimately led to the 31-point blowout.
MIAMI OFFENSE ROLLED ALL DAY; CANES’ D LIMITED CARDS
Early on, it appeared nobody was going to stop anybody; the Canes marching 92 yards on its opening drive—highlighted by a 41 yard hook-up from Jarren Williams to Mike Harley; low-lighted by back-to-back face-mask penalties on the Cardinals that set DeeJay Dallas up for any easy five-yard punch-in on 1st-and-Goal.
Louisville answered with an 80-yard strike to speedster Tutu Atwell; the former Miami Northwestern product shining early back home in front of the local crowd, tying things back up—despite some early self-implosion from the Cards.
If there was any oh-shit-type-feeling that Miami was in for a shootout and questions about the offense bringing it, they were quickly answered when Williams went back to Dee Wiggins on a 67-yard touchdown strike on first down—a play similar to last weekend’s dagger in Tallahassee; the 56-yard early fourth quarter strike that pushed the Canes’ lead over the Noles to, 24-10.
Special teams delivered for Miami, as well—K.J. Osborn helping flip the field in the return game, while Al Blades Jr. partially blocked a punt—both leading to short fields and quick scores—which was ultimately the theme of the day; the Hurricanes showing up in “all three phases of the game”, which coaches especially love to go on about in the wake of a lopsided win.
Diaz touched on this, as well as what finally sparked a turnaround after a slow start to the season.
“The best part is the players get it. They know it is all about their accountability and connections to one another. It is in the little things. We see it in practice. It is like parenting a child. At some point they have to learn and they have to mature,” Diaz explained post-game.
“We have a very young football team. We did not honor very many seniors. We have some young guys that are maturing and starting to get it and they recognize what wins. That has been the most encouraging part.”
CANES TURNED A CORNER AT PITT; HAVEN’T FLINCHED SINCE
After a loss to Virginia Tech, followed by a gritty win over Virginia, only to backslide with an inexplicable loss to a one-win Georgia Tech squad—this season was in disarray, leaving many to openly wonder when these aforementioned young guys were going to mature, get it or recognize what wins. Thankfully that flip soon switched.
The same DJ Ivey that was caught slipping on two plays against the Yellow Jackets that directly cost the Canes 14 points—strutted into Pittsburgh the following week and hauled in game-changing interceptions in a 16-12 slug-fest that Miami pulled out. That road game against the Panthers is also where the season changed at quarterback, with Williams re-entering for a ceiling-hitting N’Kosi Perry, tossing the game-winning touchdown to Osborn; a 32-yard strike with under a minute remaining—Williams coming in cold and delivering.
Where Miami looked like it might’ve turned a corner that Friday night against the Cavaliers, it took two more weeks for things to finally come together—setting the stage for that “perfect storm” moment in Tallahassee the first weekend of November. Florida State’s rough season aside, Miami finally put together what was its most-perfect performance to date; improved offensive line play, Williams hitting the deep ball and a spirited defensive performance—highlight by Greg Rousseau, the one-man wrecking crew.
The Canes took another step forward against the Seminoles, showing they could handle not just adversity, but prosperity—winning a key rivalry game and coming in hot off the comeback at Pittsburgh, opposed to flat, like it did against lowly Georgia Tech days after topping Virginia.
This win over Louisville—again, not a perfect outing—was another big moment for this rebuilding-type season under a first-year head coach. The Cardinals aren’t world-beaters, coming off a 2-10 run last fall that saw the second coming of the Bobby Petrino era coming to an end late in year five.
POTENTIAL TO GET ‘OUT-COACHED’, DIAZ & CREW CAME WITH A PLAN
Scott Satterfield was tossed the keys in the off-season—after a successful five-year stint at Appalachian State, where he won the Sun Belt Conference title three years in a row. A combined 29-9 record over that successful run and known as one of the more-successful, on-the-rise offensive minds in the game, Satterfield had an immediate impact at Louisville his inaugural season—bringing a 5-3 record to HardRock this past weekend; those three losses coming against Notre Dame, at Florida State and Clemson.
Based on recent history and Hurricanes’ muscle memory; it was hardly a stretch to think Miami might not roll in prepared against Louisville. Despite some solid defensive play by Diaz’s squad the past few weeks, the Cardinals’ offense was averaging just over 444 yards-per-game going into this showdown—meaning this wasn’t the week the Canes could afford to struggle moving the ball—and they didn’t.
Five of six offensive possessions in the first half, Miami scored touchdowns—only punting once, with 9:24 remaining in the second quarter, after an incompletion on 3rd-and-7. Leading 28-14 at the time, the defense forced a quick three-and-out and the offense stayed aggressive—Williams scrambling for 12 yards on a 3rd-and-9, setting up a 17-yard touchdown pass to back-up tight end Will Mallory on a 3rd-and-8.
When the Cardinals got back after it, trying to trim the lead before halftime—a seven-play, 57-yard drive was thwarted by way of an end zone interception by the surging Ivey, on 1st-and-Goal from the UM 18-yard line; a ten-yard holding call the play prior, putting Louisville and quarterback Micale Cunningham in a lurch.
Up 35-14, the Hurricanes received the opening second half kickoff—driving 66 yards on six plays, for another score; a 36-yard strike from Williams to Harley—made possible by offensive coordinator Dan Enos finally committing to the run these past few weeks; Dallas scampering for 20 yards on the first play from scrimmage and Cam Harris picking up 12 more, two plays later.
The Cardinals answered on the ensuing drive and the Canes punted, only to be bailed out by more clutch special teams play; this time Jimmy Murphy diving on a ball muffed by Atwell—the fan-favorite, senior walk-on getting his first Turnover Chain moment in his final home game. Three plays later on a 3rd-and-15, Williams found Harley again—this time for a 28-yard score, that proved to be the dagger, putting Miami up 49-21 with 6:59 remaining in the third quarter.
Camden Price tacked on a field goal for good measure in the waning moments of the third quarter—getting the Hurricanes to a nice looking total of 52 in the box score—though a 58-yard touchdown run by Hassan Hall middle fourth quarter gave the Cardinals a meaningless score, making things look slightly less lopsided.
POTENTIAL TO WIN FIVE STRAIGHT; CLOSE BOWL SEASON STRONG
With two games remaining—a bye this weekend before Florida International at Marlins Park and a road finale at Duke—Miami is in very good position to finish 8-4, which seemed almost unthinkable late day on October 19th after the Hurricanes slipped to 3-4 after falling in overtime to the Yellow Jackets.
There were a few different trains of thought coming into the 2019 and year one of the Diaz era—those who expected #TheNewMiami to be some instant-fix, screaming about an undefeated season and rolling Florida game one—and then the more-logical crowd; frustrated with 15 years of irrelevance, but realizing nothing was getting fixed overnight.
For the latter, the season goals weren’t as clear-cut definition-wise—win x-amount of games, win the Coastal and beat both in-state rivals, as anything less is unacceptable—or things of that nature the win-now crowd was demanding. Progress can get lost or ignored in a loss, just as a win can mask deficiencies few (outside the coaching staff and players) take time to dissect when basking in the glow of victory.
Realistically speaking, the goal for this year needed to be growth, progress and the Hurricanes taking steps towards looking like the Miami of old. Yes, there were still three conference losses in the books by late October; the Canes still carrying on the annual tradition of reinventing new ways to drop winnable ACC match-ups—but the recent habit of fading down the stretch after those disheartening Coastal Division setbacks has dissipated.
Miami won four of its past five conference games, against the meat of the schedule most expected to be the most-troubling—Virginia on a short week, at Pittsburgh, at Florida State and Louisville, on the heels of a rivalry game.
All that’s left to do now is close strong; putting in on Florida International—former head coach Butch Davis on the other sideline, in a monstrosity of a stadium built on the hallowed grounds of the beloved Orange Bowl—and taking care of a Duke team that’s lost four of its past five games going into this weekend; the Blue Devils most-likely 5-6 for the finale against the Canes, needing a win for bowl eligibility.
While the Coastal Division is still a mess, Miami’s three losses mean at least a half dozen things have to fall into place for the Canes to back into a match-up with Clemson—something that’s completely moot without a win at Duke, so no reason to put any pointless energies towards what is nothing more than a pipe dream right now.
Crazily, the Hurricanes might actually be in better shape by not winning the division—as an 8-4 record is prettier than 8-5, which most-likely is the result of a showdown with the defending national champions—leaving Miami an outside shot at reaching the 2019 Capital One Orange Bowl; insane as that sounds.
If no ACC team is ranked in the College Football Playoff Committee’s Top 25, sans Clemson—the Orange Bowl gets to choose its ACC team to face a foe from the Big Ten, the SEC, or Notre Dame—and the way things are playing out, Wake Forest doesn’t look like it will be ranked (barring an upset of Clemson this weekend); all of which would leave the hometown Hurricanes the most-attractive ACC match-up for the Orange Bowl, despite a four-loss season (should UM win out.)
Improve, get better and look more like Miami. It didn’t seem like that would be the case as recently as a month ago—but credit to Diaz, the staff and these Hurricanes players for a mid-season hard-reset that looks set to save year one, setting up for a strong recruiting haul and step forward in 2020—which is precisely what the University of Miami needs to (finally) get back to contending ways.
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 for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.
The Miami Hurricanes knocked off the Florida State Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday afternoon on a national ABC broadcast; a one-sided beatdown that could’ve been worse as the Canes struck early and the Noles never found their footing.
Pro tip; marinate on that statement for a little bit and find a way to enjoy the moment, as it hasn’t been the norm. Not this season and not in recent history. Aside from Miami already racking up four losses this fall, Florida State has dominated this rivalry over the past decade—blowing out the Canes on occasion, while stealing some close ones when they were the better team, or things were evenly matched.
For those saying, put this game in the rearview—on-to-Louisville; let the team take that approach. Fans should bask in the glow of beating a rival. Made this point last fall with the on-to-Virginia crowd, only to see Miami drop four in a row after the comeback against the Seminoles; which made savoring that home win against Florida State—the first since 2004—all the more important.
Miami has now taken three-in-a-row in the series; winning in Tallahassee in 2017 behind a gritty Malik Rosier—ending a seven-game losing streak to the Seminoles with a last-second touchdown—as well as overcoming the rivalry’s biggest deficit in 2018 when N’Kosi Perry helped the Canes overcome a 27-7 hole, en route to a 28-27 comeback win.
This time around, it was a confident Jarren Williams—another first-year starter in the series—throwing for 313 yards, two touchdowns and protecting the football in the 27-10 rout. Yanked weeks back after a three-interception first quarter against Virginia Tech, Williams yielded to Perry before entering late in the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh last weekend, where he delivered the game-winning strike to K.J. Osborn.
Williams’ performance against Florida State wasn’t perfect, but there was a lot to like as No. 15 finally connected on two big deep balls for touchdowns—an early 39-yard strike to Jeff Thomas that kicked off the scoring, followed by a 56-yard dagger to Dee Wiggins that pushed Miami’s lead back to 14 points early in the fourth quarter.
There was also an effective 34-yard strike to Mike Harley on a 3rd-and-4 late in the second quarter, setting up a six-yard DeeJay Dallas touchdown run, extending the lead to 14-3 at the half—Dallas deservedly cashing in after a huge block that afforded Williams the time to find Harley.
Better pocket awareness, coupled with an improved offensive line and better blocking schemes—Miami, to its credit, is showing signs of improvement going into the final third of the season, while Florida State is in full-blown disaster-mode.
While both teams have seen their share of offensive line struggles, the Hurricanes have finally reached a respectable level of play—unlike the Seminoles, whose line was reminiscent of Miami’s in the season-opener against Florida. The Gators smacked Williams around all night back in August, tallying up 10 sacks—while here in early November, the Noles let the Canes’ front seven in their backfield—where Miami notched a season-best nine sacks; four of which were credited to freshman defensive end Greg Rousseau, who was become virtually unstoppable.
Miami tossed quarterback Alex Hornibrook around like a rag doll all evening; a welcomed sight to see the Seminoles’ starting quarterback harassed from start to finish—but a bonus as the Wisconsin transfer played the game of his career against the Hurricanes in the 2017 Orange Bowl, where he earned MVP honors. This time around, sent home battered and bruised—and deservedly so.
As much as Miami rolled in with a stellar effort and solid overall game plan, the complete opposite can be said of Willie Taggart—who dropped to 9-12 overall since taking over Florida State last fall. Having seen what inexperienced mobile quarterbacks have done to the Hurricanes’ defense this fall—even a newbie like Virginia Tech’s Hendon Hooker—Taggart still opted for the immobile, average-armed Hornibrook, over the erratic-yet-athletic James Blackman.
Similar knocks apply to offensive coordinator Kendal Briles; a name that had some Miami fans overly-concerned as a threat when hired by Taggart in the off-season. Briles spent the first half forcing Hornibrook to throw too often, with Miami’s safeties dropped deep—instead of trying to establish something on first down with the electric Cam Akers—only to put it all on Akers’ shoulders early in the second half; overly-reliant upon their WildCam direct-snap package, too little too late.
Admittedly, not much offensive good was going to come behind Florida State’s porous offensive line play—especially with Miami’s all-out aggression on defense—but both Taggart and Briles deserve criticism for going with Hornibrook and not finding more creative ways to involved Akers.
In the midst of writing this piece, news broke that Taggart has been relieved of his duties; the Florida State brass having seen enough after a 9-12 run since last fall—to the point where they’ll eat his remaining $17M contract and hope to reel in a better fit next time around.
Tallahassee burning and another Seminoles restart aside, the Hurricanes have now won three of their last four overall; games circled on the pre-season schedule and considered the most-defining of the year—Virginia, at Pitt and at Florida State. Losses to lesser squads like Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech definitely took some shine off of this mid-season run—but in looking at how things have played out, it appears both of those games served as cautionary tales and motivational tools that ultimately seems to be helping these Hurricanes turn a corner.
Having given up 42 points to the Hokies; a sloppy five-turnover, 11-penalty outing—head coach Manny Diaz reinserted himself into the defense’s preparation and days later Miami clamped down hard on Virginia— stuffing the Cavaliers in the red zone and holding them to nine points. After a lethargic outing against Georgia Tech the following week, where the Hurricanes whiffed on 29 tackles and DJ Ivey fell asleep on two plays—costing the Canes 14 points—Ivey hauled in two interceptions at Pittsburgh, while the defense allowed another field goals-only performance, in a 16-12 victory.
A road victory against the Panthers is also where an unintended quarterback quandary ultimately played itself out, sans any controversy—Perry seemingly hitting his ceiling over the course a few starts, with Williams saving the day with a game-winning drive that obviously played into his getting the nod for Florida State week.
Diaz’s choice of Williams as QB1 was confirmed in the rolling of the Noles, as there were enough flashes of what coaches felt this Miami team was capable of months back with No. 15 at the helm. Improved offensive line play (finally), receivers growing up, a secondary coming together and a kicking game that isn’t a full-blown liability—the Canes have somewhat dispelled the myth that a team is what their record says it is; looking and feeling better than the 5-4 staring them back in the face.
Of course all that’s left to do now it continue winning and building off of what’s taken place over the past four weeks; the mostly-good (Virginia, Pittsburgh and Florida State) as well as the bad (Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech), that led to some hard resets and ultimately helped right the ship.
One big knock on Miami in 2019 has been a lack of an identity; who are the Hurricanes and how do they react and respond? Over the first half of the season, it was a question impossible to answer—but over the past few weeks, things are coming into clearer focus.
Defense is again proving to be the calling card as the line has found an ace in Rousseau and others like Nesta Silvera and Trevon Hill are finding their groove and playing with a nasty streak. At linebacker, Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney quietly continue taking care of business and making plays—while a secondary that was tentative early, has seen player like Ivey, Gurvan Hall, Al Blades Jr. and Bubba Bolden finding their identity, which has helped a veteran like Trajan Bandy fall back into the type of player he was as a freshman in 2017 while playing along side guys like Sheldrick Redwine, Jaquan Johnson and Michael Jackson.
Offensively, the Canes were completely identity-less the past few years; right up through 2018 where Miami ranked 104th in total offense. As this year took off, a shoddy offensive line didn’t much help any inexperience at quarterback with Williams—which lent itself to Perry getting a few mid-season starts, as his mobility helped mask line deficiencies. As things have started to level out a bit there, Williams is looking more like the guy coaches expected when giving him the nod back in August—especially with the deep ball now added to his arsenal.
Days after the win, Hurricane Sports rolled out their post-game social media content—where a pre-game quip from Diaz set the tone for the highlights that would soon unfold.
“I don’t know if you can feel it, but there’s something different, man. I have not see this type of focused-aggression, to be honest, since Notre Dame . Guys, today is the day it all comes together. Offense goes down the field. Defense get the stop. Kicking game makes the game-winning play. All three phases start clicking today in Tallahassee,” Diaz shared, before his Canes aggressively took the field.
The win seemed to mark the first time this season the pre-game chatter matched the product on the field—coaches’ expectations and desires meshing with the belief of the players, as well as their overall effort and execution. The fact it happened at Florida State, sending the Seminoles to their version of rock-bottom; a third head coaching change since a three-game win streak for the Canes got underway—priceless.
With three-quarters of the season in the books, Miami has three remaining—Louisville at home for Senior Day and one final bye week to rest up, before a quick crosstown jaunt the Orange Bowl’s old, hallowed grounds to take on Florida International at Marlins Park—before a regular season-ending road trip to Duke. Mathematically, the Canes are still technically in the running for the Coastal Division—but it’s hardly worth touching on as a dozen things would have to fall into place; starting with winning out.
As Diaz continues building The New Miami—again, a long-term attitude and culture adjustment; not a quick-fix—a huge step forward is taken every time the Hurricanes can show up ready to play, coming off a win or a loss. Miami has struggled in times of prosperity, as well as despair—ill-prepared the week after a big win, as well as multiple-game losing streaks—unable to pump the failure breaks.
Winning at Florida State in that environment at Tallahassee was big for this Miami squad; equally as big, hitting the ground running against an upset-minded Louisville squad. The Cardinals are 5-3 on the season; losses against Notre Dame, Clemson … and at Florida State, while wins have come against Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Boston College, Wake forest and most-recently, Virginia.
Much like Florida State going between Hornibrook and Blackman, Louisville has played musical quarterbacks with Evan Conley and Micale Cunningham since starter Juwon Pass had season-ending surgery back in September. Conley mostly led the charge in a shootout win against the Demon Deacons, while both were used (rather ineffectively) when the Tigers routed the Cardinals. Cunningham got the majority of the snaps in the recent win over the Cavaliers; throwing an early touchdown to Tutu Atwell to tie the game in the first quarter and running for another in the fourth to take the lead for good.
Cunningham is precisely the type of shifty, athletic, mobile quarterback that has given the Hurricanes fits all season—moving the chains on third down, while doing enough with his feet to buy receivers time to get open—while Atwell is another of many Miami natives (Northwestern) over the years, who will return and look to break big playing in front of the hometown crowd this weekend. The Cardinals’ roster has roughly a dozen kids from what would be considered the State of Miami; all with a chip on their shoulders.
Louisville are hardly world-beaters, but lesser teams have given the Hurricanes fits a week after a gritty win or a shitty loss. Saturday represents another step-up moment where Miami has been prone to step-down. Take care of business against the Cardinals and handle the Panthers, which would put these Canes at 7-4 entering a finale at Duke, with a chance to accomplish a hell of 2019 rebound; especially based on how things looked at 3-4 a few weeks back.
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 for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.
The Canes’ offense held the Panthers to four field goals and the Cavaliers to three, while scoring 16 and 17 points respectively—clamping down defensively in the red zone, while managing to eke out enough scoring to outlast the competition.
The biggest difference between these two victories over the Coastal Division’s best competition; the State of Miami … quarterbacks. N’Kosi Perry held it down against Virginia—leading an early drive and punching in another late, though stagnant-as-hell in-between.
Against Pitt, another early score—but Miami only had 10 points on the board at halftime, despite the defense forcing three turnovers. The Canes’ lone touchdown came with 12:00 remaining in the second quarter when Cam Harris punched it in from a yard out, capping a four-play, 17-yard scoring drive courtesy of a second DJ Ivey interception.
Perry also had a short field on 30-yard drive that ended with a Camden Price 22-yard field goal; unable to get anything going—which had Manny Diaz and Dan Enos going back to Jarren Williams for a mid-fourth quarter spark.
After a quick three-and-out, Miami’s defense immediately got the ball back and Willams took over at the Canes’ 38-yard line, driving 62 yards—including a quarterback run on 3rd-and-2 to keep the drive alive. The play was reminiscent of a fourth down scramble Perry had against Virginia; a play that fit the narrative that he deserved to start over the less mobile Williams.
A first down pass to tight end Brevin Jordan fell incomplete, but on 2nd-and-10 from the Pitt 32-yard line, Williams found KJ Osborn through a tight window; the receiver bouncing off of two Panthers’ defenders as he scampered for a 32-yard game-winning score; Pitt unable to get anything going in the final minute, especially after a few dropped passes—a Miami opponent finally un-clutch with the game on the line.
THE U : BETTER RESPONSE TO ADVERSITY THAN PROSPERITY
The win upped the mood a bit, though only slightly as 4-4 is nothing to celebrate and too many remain caught up in the ones that got away. Understandable, but in all reality—the early Florida and North Carolina losses aside—it’s hard to not picture the same record for the Canes after the last month of football.
Had Miami come back against Virginia Tech, hard not to believe there’d have been less intensity against Virginia—opposed to the next-level defensive focus in practice that led to a more spirited effort. Same to be said for last weekend. Missed tackles against Georgia Tech and an overall lackadaisical effort—cemented by Ivey taking two plays off that resulted in touchdowns—had the Hurricanes dialed in tackling-wise, while Ivey hauled in two interceptions.
Translation; it took Miami getting burned to wake up and react accordingly. These Hurricanes needed to learn the hard way this fall, for whatever reason—but the fact they’ve responded to the adversity is a big step forward for a program that’s been stepping-down for years when backs were to the wall.
Of course all this begs the question—with four games remaining—what happens next?
In the wake of those early two losses and Miami getting back to 2-2, the hope was that the Canes would shake off those stumbles and quickly autocorrect into the best-case scenario type team coaches hoped for in the preseason; quarterback play setting in, a green offensive line playing better, a young secondary tightening up and a kicking game finding its way.
Instead, Williams unraveled against the Hokies and none of those other areas of inexperience rose to the occasion—causing mid-season chaos that continued for a month, but legitimately might’ve subsided with the win at Pitt.
Each week has felt like it’s own one-game season in 2019, halting any turn-a-corner talk as Miami was picking and choosing when it would, or wouldn’t show up. Beat Virginia, mail-it-in against Georgia Tech.
That said, something felt different about Pitt and talk of a lay-it-all-on-the-line team meeting the Thursday prior-to; it explained the feel and energy Miami had at Heinz Field last Saturday—with manifested in a belief the Canes were finally going to get that late fourth quarter, game-winning drive that’s alluded them all season.
CANES’ CLOSED DOOR BREAK-DOWN; OWNERSHIP TAKEN
“Pretty much everybody you think of as a leader on this team said something,” said offensive lineman Jakai Clark, days after Miami returned home victorious. “And it all meant something to everybody, especially me.”
Osborn, who caught the game-winner, was vocal—as was fellow transfer Trevon Hill; another one-year Miami guy, while Shaq Quarterman was the lone four-year starter who also embraced a leadership role and spoke up. Beloved walk-on Jimmy Murphy was also called upon; a favorite of fans and teammates for his passionate play and love for the program—everyones words still resonating with Clark almost a week later.
“Obviously after a meeting like that, first day, everybody is gonna be locked in—trying to do their best,” Clark said. “But seeing it in practice today and seeing it carry over is a great thing. And seeing it in the locker room. After that meeting, guys started talking more. Before that, we talked, but it wasn’t like a family type thing. After that, everybody got their feelings out. I feel like we’re more of a family now.”
Wide receiver Mike Harley admitted he spoke directly to two talented, albeit selfish players and did what he could to try and help set them straight.
“Not calling anybody out, but I pointed out two talented guys on our team that play a major role. I told them you have to step up,” Harley shared. “You have to work harder than what you’re doing because you’re talented and we need you on this team.”
While no names were mentioned, hard not to imagine fellow receiver Jeff Thomas—suspended for Georgia Tech and Pitt, but back for Florida State—wasn’t one of those targets. In hot water last fall—to the point where he parted ways with the Canes, appeared Illinois-bound and retuned after having a sit-down with the recently-hired Diaz—it’s been a disappointing comeback for the junior; starting with a muffed punt against Florida that led to a touchdown, right up through this recent sit-down.
Whether Harley’s words resonated with two self-absorbed teammates, or not—Diaz appreciates that his team is starting to understand what it takes to be successful, but is quick to point out that all problems are far from solved.
“Any one’s individual success is tied to our collective success and if somebody is not pulling their weight, it is hurting their fellow teammates,” Diaz explained. “I think what we know now at least is we know the roadmap—and I think our guys understand what works and what doesn’t work … You’re either being a Cane, or you’re not being a Cane.”
Part of that heavy burden; knowing what Florida State represents and the importance of this game on deck.
UM & FSU; EACH NEED WIN AS BAD AS COUNTERPART
While nothing can erase the four losses already racked up by late October, Miami has the ability to close this season strong—which all starts with a third-consecutive takedown of a Florida State program that had won seven straight before the Canes’ comeback victory in 2017; that streak-ending game completely changing false invincibility narrative that kept Miami from closing late so often in the rivalry over recent years.
Emerge victorious on Saturday and games against Louisville, Florida International and Duke immediately feel conquerable—where a loss to the Seminoles allows doubt to creep back in; as well as the fear of a hangover for the home finale next weekend against the Cardinals.
Records-wise, Miami and Florida State are both sitting un-pretty at .500—but it’s hard not to feel like the Hurricanes are slightly more well-rounded and presently stable program; even with this year one of the Diaz era and a sophomore season for the maligned Willie Taggart up north.
Both programs have weak-sauce offensive lines, though Miami’s feels like it’s made some sight improvement over the past few weeks. Each also has been playing musical quarterbacks; the Canes settling on Williams for this week—riding the momentum from last Saturday’s comeback win.
Alex Hornibrook—the Wisconsin transfer who carved Miami up in the 2017 Orange Bowl—did the heavy-lifting last weekend as Florida State rolled a sub-par Syracuse squad; throwing for 196 yards on 26 attempts, while protecting the football. James Blackman showed up on the final drive—a 35-17 game already in the bag—after a 27-for-43, 280-yard, two-touchdown outing in a road loss at Wake Forest a week prior.
Where Miami welcomes back DeeJay Dallas and has a two-headed monster regarding #13 and his counterpart Cam’Ron Harris, Florida State has seen Cam Akers go next-level the past two weeks; going for 144 yards and four touchdowns against Syracuse and 157 yards with a score in the loss at Wake Forest.
Akers ran for a pedestrian 46 yards and was held in check during last year’s match-up at HardRock, but did put up 121 yards against the Canes in Tallahassee in 2017. The skills are there; it’s simply a matter of Miami keeping the talented back in check—which truly is the name of the game all together.
While Miami incredibly held the Cavaliers and Panthers to a combined seven field goal, while keeping both out of the end zone over eight quarters—it inexplicably surrendered 70 points to the Hokies and Yellow Jackets; turnovers the backbreaker in the former, poor tacking and shit overall defense effort the culprit in the latter.
The Canes dug themselves into a 27-7 hole last fall against the Seminoles, which resulted in an epic comeback for Miami—who hadn’t beaten their arch-rival at home since the 2004 season; four years before abandoning the Orange Bowl and moving north.
As thrilling as comebacks can be, trailing by 20 points early in the third quarter and only having seven points on the board—relying on stout defense, two forced turnovers and a couple of short fields—it isn’t something you can bank on; especially on the road in a rivalry game.
Going punt, punt, touchdown, punt, fumble, punt, turnover on downs, punt and punt—before a forced fumble turned things around; it was one of those games where winning saved everything, but certainly didn’t cure it—and in many ways masked the offensive deficiencies that would’ve been under a microscope without the comeback.
LEAST MISTAKES/BIG MOMENTS; KEYS TO VICTORY
Mid-game offensive lulls or falling into early holes; both have reared their ugly heads this season in all four losses—as well as the last two victories, where stalled drives mid-game were thankfully bailed out by solid red zone defense, as well as clutch scoring late.
The X’s and O’s of this one aren’t hard to figure out. Williams needs to protect the football for Miami, while looking more like the clutch performer he was last weekend in Pittsburgh, opposed to the game-manager he was earlier this year—not getting the Canes in trouble (prior to Virginia Tech), but not driving the offense, either.
Offensive line play needs to stay at the level it’s been, as the Hurricanes absolutely need to establish the running game with Dallas and Harris—something Enos has been quick to bail out on, impatient and relying on a one-dimensional, while completely ignoring the backs he has at his disposal.
All that aside, defense is again the key for Miami. Whereas the Hurricanes used to only go as far as their quarterback would take them, this program in present day is shackled to the success of its defense and the ability for that side of the ball to take over the game.
Turnovers were the difference in the road win against Pittsburgh last weekend, as were red zone stops that thwarted both the Panthers and the Cavaliers, weeks back—including a late third quarter fumble by Virginia on a drive that looked destined to result in points.
The little things; they obviously matter to great teams—but might even be more important for a program trying to rebuild (yeah, the r-word—deal with it) as the margin for error is less, as can be the resolve in moments of adversity. Miami and Florida State—once powerhouses in the truest sense of the word—are in that similar place on-the-mend spot, where both will bring fight Saturday afternoon, where the one who makes that big time play, or avoids that disastrous moment, will most-likely prevail.
On paper—as well as on the national level—it might lack the luster of years passed, but all that critiquing seems to go out the window once the pregame skirmish gets underway and that ball officially gets kicked off, as Canes versus Noles just brings out the dog in both these teams.
For both, a chance to *save* a season that’s had some bumps and bruises—but for Diaz and a Hurricanes’ squad that feels that some air-clearing and recently stepped-up play was a mini-milestone—a chance to prove Miami is closer to the team it thinks it is, than the hit-or-miss squad on display so often this season.
Turn that corner. Beat the Noles.
The Miami Hurricanes have managed to go from bad to worse, recently suffering what can be considered rock-bottom loss—falling 28-21 to an 18-point underdog; a one-win Georgia Tech squad that already lost to The Citadel, as well as a sub-par Temple program the Yellow Jackets’ first-year head coach Geoff Collins knew and coached the past two seasons.
Manny Diaz and Miami are now 3-4 on the season; having lost heartbreakers to Florida and North Carolina, while following up with inexplicable losses to Virginia Tech and now Georgia Tech—both of which make the Canes’ recent take down of division-leader Virginia all the more improbable. The only given right now for Miami; each match-up is proving to be its own one-game season; zero carryover—good, or bad—from the previous week.
Recapping the Georgia Tech debacle is a pointless, painful exercise at this point—so let’s get in and out as quickly as possible, moving on to a macro view of this entire first-year situation.
Miami realistically should’ve led 28-7 at the half, had it merely showed up and seized the opportunities in front of it. Instead, the Hurricanes missed 29 tackles, as well as three chip-shot field goals—rolling through the afternoon in lackluster fashion.
Lack of effort a common theme; though none more egregious than cornerback DJ Ivey flat-out giving-up on two plays that resulted in 14 points—not staying with his man on a fake punt, while half-assing his coverage on a more conventional touchdown pass, believing Miami’s front seven had quarterback James Graham wrapped up. They didn’t and Graham flung it to a wide open Ahmarean Brown, who had Ivey beat by a mile and tied the game in the final minute of the first half.
A scoreless second half; partly due to Miami whiffing on two chip shot field goals—the other directly related to way-too-clever red zone play calling from offensive coordinator Dan Enos that fell flat. The Canes should’ve found the end zone more often—not just last Saturday, throughout this shit season; many of these games never coming down to these soft-ass kickers. As a result the Canes inexplicably wound up in overtime against a garbage 1-5 football team.
Georgia Tech quickly scored on four running plays, while Miami couldn’t convert a 4th-and-4—coming up a yard “short”, according to ACC officials who don’t understand forward progress. Regardless, UM should’ve put the game away ten times over by that point, so to hell with the bad spot.
NITPICKING COACH-SPEAK & TRUE DEFINITON OF A ‘REBUILD’
The aftermath proved even worse as Diaz used the phrase “rebuild” in his post-game presser; something he attempted to walk-back by saying it was in regards to his “players’ confidence”—but still resulting in a full-blown meltdown by detractors who will take any shot to bury the Canes’ fifth coach over the past 14 seasons.
Diaz did initially say in spring that he and his staff didn’t “look at this as a rebuild thing” and that they were “trying to get competitive for championships right away”—though painfully aware he was taking over a program 7-9 dating back to a 2017 road loss to Pittsburgh and wrecked 35-3 the last time it took the field under former head coach Mark Richt.
The 7-6 season brought heat on the third-year leader; who was pushed to make changes to his offensive staff, as a complete revamp was required for a group that ranked 104th overall in the nation for 2018.
The long-time Georgia coach bowed out after year-three at Miami; leaving a reported $20M buyout on the table—a parting gift to his alma mater—as he simply didn’t have the gusto for a “rebuild”. Defensively, the Hurricanes were undoubtedly going to take a step back, as well—having lost the leadership and experience of Jaquan Johnson, Sheldrick Redwine, Gerald Willis, Michael Jackson and Joe Jackson—as these modern day Hurricanes are nowhere near reload-mode in this present state
Losing five key upperclassmen on a recently-stout defense that lacks a contender-level two-deep—as well as starting from scratch on offense—you rebuild; there’s no other applicable word for it.
Like many a rookie before him; Diaz got tangled up in some optimistic coach-speak—which due to the embarrassment and frustration so many feel about this program’s ongoing irrelevance—is being treated as some type of fireable, next-level deceit. In reality, it was simply an attempt invoke a belief in his players, while merely oping to avoid a worst-case scenario, which is what ultimately how things are playing out.
2019 is proving the be the polar opposite of 2017; another squad with an anemic offense and quarterback woes—but one that got out to a 10-0 start when it just as easily could’ve gone 6-4 if not for some fortuitous bounces; the type of breaks these Hurricanes aren’t seeing in 2019.
BROKEN CULTURE HAS BEEN ON DISPLAY FOR YEARS, YET DENIED
Incredibly (not really), many are harping on the use of “rebuild” while completely ignoring the constant use of the word “disease” that Diaz has used to discuss the broken culture he’s working to fix; that disease a huge reason a weak-willed Miami bunch has struggled to overcome adversity for years, pissing away winnable conference games to beatable teams every fall—to the point this program entered this fall with a 97-71 record dating back to the 2005 Peach Bowl against LSU; a 40-3 massacre that officially kicked off this downward spiral.
Even with those hard-to-swallow facts, the currently-disgruntled still expected an insta-fix; calling for a win over the eighth-ranked Gators in the opener, en route to taking the Coastal Division and being seasoned enough to give Clemson a game in December.
Where Diaz coined The New Miami as a long-term mindset, recruiting philosophy and final destination he’s building towards—too many misinterpreted it, turning the phrase into a misguided 2019 rallying cry with hit-the-ground-running expectations.
News flash; first-year head coaches and in-flux programs go through growing pains. Even the legend Nick Saban stumbled to 7-6 year one in Tuscaloosa; his bottoming-out moment a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe in late 2007—to the point where Crimson Tide fans were ready to run his ass out of town by Thanksgiving; despite a dozen years head coaching experience and a national title four years prior at LSU.
WHERE HAVE THE TRUE LEADERS GONE?
A lack of leadership and accountability is as much a part of this disease as anything. Look back at past great Miami teams; the Hurricanes’ best with the ability to self-police and keep teammates culpable, while coming down hard on guys who weren’t holding up their end of things.
All those greats in the nineties who were part of the last rebuild; to a man would tell you they’d rather be in hot water with coaches, than with teammates who took on leadership roles. Compare that to present day and a lack of old-school upperclassmen that lead by example—having learned from the greats who came before them—seizing defining moments.
To think of those competitive and prideful teams of yesterday in comparison to a group today—one that seems more interested in building their personal brands, while flooding social media with post-game images (personal highlights in losses) and quotes about being humble, hungry or blessed—the whole thing has gone completely off the rails.
Shaq Quarterman returned for his senior season—but where is that next-level, cultural impact from a fourth-year guy on his way out?
Last Saturday, a fourth quarter fumble recovery against Georgia Tech—in the midst of a tied ball game and scoreless second half—#55 sprinted to the sidelines, seeking out his Turnover Chain moment; like so many others, playing to the crowd and swarmed by teammates that wanted in on the celebration.
As Quarterman sat on the bench with his oversized bling, Miami’s offense marched down the field, got to the eight-yard line and missed a field goal that would’ve retaken the lead. On Georgia Tech’s ensuing drive, Quarterman read Graham’s eyes and looked like he had a sure-fire interception—but dropped it after it hit him in he mitts; an 80-yard swing after the Yellow Jackets punted on fourth down.
The chain was a game-changer in 2017 when Quarterman was a sophomore; an on-brand motivation tool that had an immediate impact on Diaz’s second-year defense. Two years and 13 losses later—dating back to a Pitt road trip late November of a lucky-break 2017—the luster and magic has worn off; which Miami’s senior middle linebacker should understand better than any underclassmen getting their first crack at sporting it.
There was zero to celebrate at any point as Miami struggled both offensively and defensively against a shitty Georgia Tech team—as well as a moment where an outgoing senior could’ve helped shape the culture if he had the maturity to think big picture, instead of the now.
What if Quarterman made a statement and waved off the chain after the fumble recovery and instead summoned his offense and said, “Get out there, score and let’s win this mother**king football game.” Send a message to these underclassmen that haven’t proven they know how to win or close—making it clear that individual glory only comes when the team is taking care of business as a whole.
Sacrificing one micro-moment of personal stardom for something that can be built off of long after one is gone; that’s what the greats do. Start a new trend where the hardware-wear becomes situational—as there are times to celebrate, versus moments where you dig in and remind teammates to refocus as there’s something bigger at stake.
This goes for all veteran players, by the way—not just Quarterman. Everyone has their statement-making moment; go make one.
EASY TO GET LOST IN THE FOG WHEN TAKING ON FIRST-TIME CHALLENGES
It’s a tricky balancing act to build team optimism and culture—while also needing to acknowledge the realities of the task at hand; a sub-par 15-year run, constant coaching turnover, zero consistency and years worth of incompetence that left this program hitting ‘reset’ every few years; one step forward, ten steps back.
Fact remains, fans can’t handle the truth—they want to hear best-case-scenario, as that’s precisely how so many personally predict every new season. Honestly, what happens if Diaz jumped off that 88-foot yacht back in April and delivered the following message to 400-plus boosters, tired of writing checks while consistently losing:
“Heads up, y’all—2019 is gonna be a shit-show. Just letting you know. We have to revamp this entire loser offense that’s been a disaster for years; plugging in a brand new staff that might or might not work over in the long run. Also need to find a quarterback ready to put this thing on his back; both talent and leadership at the position a problem for over a decade. Oh yeah, and two-thirds of this offensive line was blocking high school defenders last year—so that should be a treat for whoever we have under center. Also lost all our heart and soul on defense; three in the secondary and the only two on the d-line with a mean streak— while still relying heavily on grad transfers for depth, as our two-deep is nowhere near where it should be. Also, our kicker is still a total head case. Go Canes. It’s all about The U.”
>For the record, Diaz isn’t alone in these rookie stumbles. Even some of the greats have been tripped up in their early years, en route to greatness.
September 12th, 1997—a vintage-era, old-school pre-game breakfast on-campus before Saturday’s showdown against Arizona State. Third-year head coach Butch Davis got up in front of all of us in that room and boldly told everyone in attendance that the University of Miami would “compete for a national championship” in 1997; 1-0 at the time, having rolled at Baylor, 45-14 in the season opener.
Instead, Miami dropped four in a row and two weeks into the losing streak, that now-infamous banner flew over the Orange Bowl thanking Davis for turning the Canes from champs-to-chumps. Miami finished 5-6 on the season; the program’s worst run since 1997—while also getting clobbered 47-0 in Tallahassee, as the effects of probation were brutally felt.
Of course this all took place in a pre-social media era, so Davis’ bold prediction wasn’t dug back up a month later and shared by way of message board vitriol, lose-your-mind podcasts, know-it-all blogs, snarky tweets, or lay-up topics for beat writers to use as click-bait—nor was the drought anywhere near as long; Miami winning a national title six years prior and playing for another the following season.
Fans lambasted Davis that season, the next (1998) and the next (1999)—and even early in his sixth and final year (2000) after No. 4 Miami fell on the road at No. 15 Washington, in a year expectations were sky-high; eventually coming around early-October after his Canes broke a five-game losing streak to Florida State and took down the top-ranked defending champs in a thriller.
Prior to that, the anger was just as real—there simply weren’t as many vehicles and avenues to give everyone a real-time voice, nor was the overall concept of patience, logic and reason within our society at an all-time low.
Unfortunately for Diaz, his inaugural season is off the rails. The only save at this point, improbably winning five in a row—including a must-win victory at Florida State—and an 8-4 finish, going into bowl season; which seems as unrealistic as any “12-0!” cries from the delusional back in August.
Second to some miraculous, pipe-dream turnaround—at worst, Miami has to find a way to pull three wins out its ass as this squad needs a month of December practices like few other programs in the nation.
Outside of that, everything else lies on Diaz’s ability to realistically assess what he has staff-wise and determine if he believes this is the crew to ride-or-die with going into year two—as another dismal season spells impending doom and year three might be too late to make changes that will have time to stick.
To his credit, he proved able when firing the entire offensive staff back in January, retaining nobody from that regime—but how will Diaz handle critical assessments of guys he hired one year in?
DIAZ WON’T BE DEFINED BY YEAR-ONE RECORD, BUT BY HANDLING OF STAFF
Famed author Malcolm Gladwell is best-known for his “10,000 hours” concept in his third book Outliers; the amount of time one must invest to become a true master of their craft—but it was his deep dive into”thin-slicing” in his second read, Blink that applies here.
Thin-slicing is the ability to find patterns in events based on narrow windows of experience; taking a quick inference about the state, characteristics or details about an individual or situation—these judgments oft proving as accurate, if not more, than ones based on more information.
A few weeks into the season, Diaz realistically could’ve begun thin-slicing his way into figuring out who on this staff has a shared-mindset and is built for the long-haul, versus who should be replaced for someone to help with the movement.
Make no mistake—this exercise in itself and an ability to cut-bait with assistants who aren’t the right-fit, opposed to giving guys time to “figure it out”; precisely what will make or break Diaz’s time at Miami, even more this rocky first season. A new head coach will get his standard 3-4 years to get his fingerprints on a program, while wrong-fit assistants are immediately expendable as time is of the essence.
OFFENSE NOT IMPROVING, DESPITE “IMPROVED” ASSISTANTS
Based on the reported $1.2M annual payday, no bigger bullseye right now than on the back of offensive coordinator Dan Enos; hired for his short-stint at Alabama and supposed quarterback-whispering ways with Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa in Tuscaloosa last fall.
The bar was set highest for Enos, as he came in fresh of a national championship-caliber season with the Crimson Tide—some of that magic expected to translate on some level year one—yet seven games in, it’s not a stretch to question if he is a fit, due to an inability to do more with what he currently has.
Offensive line is young and struggling? Rethink the play-calling and figure out more ways to get the ball out of quarterbacks’ hands, instead of long-developing, low-percentage plays that have Miami worst in the FBS regarding sacks. Drive down field to get inside the red zone? Find ways to punch the ball in at all costs, instead of putting the offense in the hands of garbage kickers.
Jarren Williams got the nod to start the season; seemingly based on the future and quarterback he could grow into, versus who he was two months back as a redshirt freshman who played a matter of minutes last fall—Enos’ choice, approved by Diaz.
Factor in Miami’s porous offensive line play; something coaches expected to jell at some point—yet hasn’t; Enos continues coaching based on what he wants these Hurricanes to become, instead of finding ways to move the ball better with what he has.
Thin-slicing away as a frustrated observer, it didn’t take long to come to a conclusion that Enos has air about him as if he’s the smartest guy on the field; preferring to out-clever the competition, opposed to accepting that the shortest between two points is a straight line—and simply zigging where they expect you to zag. Some lowlights from the past few weeks:
— Four consecutive passing plays from four-yard line when trailing Virginia Tech, 28-0 late second quarter—despite two quality running backs available. Low-percentage fade routes and running same drag route with covered tight end two plays in a row, while Perry had limited options on fourth down. Similar type of play calling on final red zone possession that could’ve forced overtime against the Hokies.
— Against Virginia, Canes reach seven-yard line—again with the low-percentage fade that rarely works, followed by a tight end sweep with Jordan on third down. Miami settled for three in moment where it needed seven; bailed out only by fact Virginia even more disastrous in red zone—nine points on five attempts.
— Most recently in loss to Georgia Tech, a slow-developing double-reverse on first down from the eight-yard line, losing a yard and back to the fade on third, instead of running to center the ball to bail out Miami’s garbage kicking game; Baxa missing a 26-yarder from the right hash. The Canes would get another crack after the fumble recovery; Enos calling back-to-back run plays from the 11- and 10-yard line (while rarely running when inside the five) a lack-of-feel for what to call, when.
After firing the entire offensive staff last January, Diaz was asked what type of offense he wanted to run at Miami—needing instant improvement for a group that ranked 104th in the nation in 2018.
“The word I want is to be cutting edge,” was the answer. Diaz avoided saying “spread” but did state that he wanted “an offense that creates problems for the defense”.
Unfortunately the only problem thus far—Miami consistently finding the end zone when in the red zone, while pissing away a handful of winnable football games.
Enos is also responsible for offensive line coach Butch Barry, who rolled south from a four-year NFL stint with Tampa Bay, but worked under Enos at Central Michigan prior-to. Like Enos struggling to get the most out of his offense, Barry’s line has been abysmal since week zero and has shown minimal improvement two months in.
Barry is also drawing heavy criticism from former UM greats Bryant McKinnie and Brett Romberg, who took the Canes’ offensive line woes to task in a recent podcast in regards to technique issues, as well as how things are being taught to the entire group—and the immaturity of some current players who weren’t even dialed in to a few former national champions trying to coach them up. McKinnie and Romberg also touched on being treated like spectators by Barry, opposed to valuable, proven football alum with a heart to help the cause—which is obviously a fine line, but worth noting.
Between Enos and Barry, a common thread as both had the most-impressive resumes of Diaz’s offensive staff—and both appear to be underachieving the most; doing little with what they have, while neither of their units is showing much measurable improvement as Miami passed the season’s halfway point last weekend.
Blake Baker hasn’t set the world on fire in his defensive coordinator role, but his willingness to welcome Diaz back into the fold to help on that side of the ball—coupled with Diaz’s successful three-year stint coaching the Hurricanes’ defense—makes change less imperative; especially with all the key losses in the off-season.
Offensively; that’s where Diaz officially has some hard questions to answer.
Gone is the era of coordinators getting year after year to find their footing. Head coaches are afforded the luxury, but with slow start to 2019 and Diaz already feeling the heat—no bigger off-season decision that determining if this current offensive staff will be the one that makes or breaks him.
Clock is ticking. Stakes are raised. Nothing can be done to change the past seven games—but decisions made after the next five are the most-important in Diaz’s football life. Innovate, or die.
Despite knowing the result will usually be a train-wreck, I still find myself perusing Canes-themed message boards during football season—which is always dangerous when Miami is going through another rebuild and the losses are piling up.
Outside of August through December, beyond easy to disconnect—but in-season, a somewhat normal way to keep up with everything U-related. A handful of logic-driven fans helping the cause and bringing some sanity to what is otherwise has become a college football insane asylum full of the most-disgruntled 1% of every fan base.
Recently, a lot of chatter about Manny Diaz being in over his head; hardly a shocking take after a 3-3 start, complete with a few heartbreaking losses.
The Miami Hurricanes first-year head coach was beloved as a defensive coordinator for three years—some excited when he returned from an 18-day stint as Temple’s head coach, replacing Mark Richt after an out-of-nowhere, late December retirement—others frustrated that the University of Miami didn’t so a full-blown head coaching search; a blind belief that the head coaching gig at UM is more-desirable than it really is. We’ll see how it all play out..
Regardless, the digs seem to pile up every week—some surprised that a rookie head coach is making some newbie mistakes. Even worse, the revisionist history and short memories that seem to cloud peoples’ vision as to what currently is and what was, back in the day.
Miami safety Jamal Carter was ejected for targeting against Virginia last Friday night; a bullshit play as Carter led with his shoulder, pulled up and hit helmets with Cavaliers’ receiver Hasise Dubois in the end zone late in the third quarter. Carter’s looming presence helped save a touchdown, as Dubois started losing control of the ball before he and Carter collided—but it was a game-defining play as Dubois was the Hoos’ leading receiver (seven receptions for 93 yards) on the night and he never caught another pass after that stick with :58 remaining in the period.
The purpose for bringing this up; Carter not leaving the field and Miami getting hit with a substitution infraction that moved Virginia to a 1st-and-Goal from the four-yard line—which they immediately gave back on a false start; the Canes ultimately forcing a field goal. For some reason, this play was taken to task on the message boards—the egregiousness of it so much, that a few in the thread are “done” with Diaz and “can’t even” anymore.
Whether is was the noise and confusion that led to Carter not leaving the field—HardRock losing its collective shit, reigning down boos and warm half-full beers after the call—or something else; all the shots are fired in Diaz’ s direction by the disgruntled, entitled portion of this fan base; the group that expected to be “back” by now and is blaming the new guy for the 15 years of incompetence that happened before he took over.
DIAZ MAKING ROOKIE MISTAKES; JUST LIKE PAST ROOKIES BEFORE HIM
Below is a clip from 1996; a mid-November home game at where No. 18 Miami took on No. 21 Virginia Tech. It was year two for Butch Davis; who too over a 10-2 squad from 1994 that finished No. 3 after falling to No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. UM had officially been slapped with probation, but the effects weren’t fully being felt yet year two, nor in this 21st game of Davis’ career as a head coach.
The Canes had already fallen at home to No. 3 Florida State, 34-16 back in October—and followed it up with an embarrassing 31-6 home loss to East Carolina the following week; taking a 6-0 lead before the Purple Pirates with on a 31-0 run.
This match-up with Virginia Tech had a BIG EAST title on the line; something the Hokies ultimately locked down after beating Miami, 21-7 in a very winnable football game that got away —due to a second-year head coach looking all the part of an amateur, a few short seasons before he became a Hurricanes legend.
The clip below is shows the entire game, but for the sake of the portion of the story we’re telling, push ahead to late in the second quarter with about two minutes remaining in the half; a 7-7 ballgame. Miami was driving before the half—Ryan Clement under center, still feeling the effects of the same separated shoulder on display two weeks prior for a heroic win at West Virginia, punctuated by a blocked punt by Tremain Mack returned by Nate Brooks for the Canes’ lone touchdown of the night in a 10-7 comeback victory.
— 1st-and-10 from the UM 34-yard line, Clement completes a pass to tight end Mondriel Fulcher, taken own at the nine-yard line.
— :08 remaining, no timeouts left, Clement spikes the ball into the ground—looks to the sidelines (where Davis and staff were prepping to send in the field goal unit) and proceeds to lose his shit in front of a national CBS television audience, unhappy with his coach’s decision—commentators calling out Davis for letting his quarterback effectively push him around.
— Once reaching the sideline, Davis sends Clement back out onto the field to go for it—yielding to his quarterback. Virginia Tech called a timeout to get their defense in order; cameras panning back to Davis and Clement on the sidelines in a stare down before Clement converges with Rob Chudzinski and some offensive players for the play call.
— Clement gets off a quick pass to Yatil Green, who falls out at the one-yard line with :03 remaining—Davis deciding to send the field goal unit back on the field, despite field position and a chance to punch it in.
— Another Hokies’ timeout results in another change of heart for Davis, who then sends the offense back out onto the field; Miami lethargic in getting to the line of scrimmage (despite no time outs)—play clock running down to zero, resulting in a delay of game and a five-yard penalty.
— Davis again sends his field goal unit back onto the field for the 22-yard attempt, which Andy Crosland missed wide right by a mile.
— Second half, CBS commentators are still discussing the incompetence just before the half and Davis not having control of the situation.
— Fast-forward to the second half (literally, skip to the 2:16:15 point in video—late fourth quarter); Scott Covington had replaced the injured Clement, who left in the third with an ankle injury. Covington lofted a game-tying, 15-yard touchdown that went through the hands of Magic Benton on the left side of the end zone with just over two minutes remaining in the game.
— One play later, Covington went right to a wide-open Tony Gaiter on second down; the ball hitting him in the hands right at the goal line, which he inexplicably dropped.
Hokies’ head coach Frank Beamer also subbed out freshman cornerback Anthony Midget (who was getting torched by Green, who had nine catches for 152 yards) for safety Torrian Gray (who was assigned Green and locked him down on third down), while subbing back-up safety Keion Carpenter in as well; one of many strategic moves Beamer would make against Miami over an era where Virginia Tech would rattled off five wins in a row.
— Facing a 3rd-and-10, Covington tried to run for it when nobody as open, setting up a 4th-and-5 from the nine-yard line—Covington looking right for Gatier, when Carpenter jumped the inside route at the goal line and returned the interception 100 yards for the score. 21-7, ballgame—Miami driving with 1:54 remaining, getting back in the redzone, before Gray picked Clement off to put this one out to pasture.
DAVIS CLOSED STRONG AT MIAMI, BUT NEED TIME & TWEAKING TO DO SO
For those around in this long gone era; they remember that Davis took over at a time when Miami’s three previous coaches—Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson—all left over the previous dozen years for greener financials pastures; each winning championships and passing the program off to the next guy.
Davis was absolutely under fire from his start in 1995 in Pasadena, until he took down No. 1 Florida State in 2000—a few weeks after losing at Washington with the No. 4 Hurricanes.
From that opening 31-8 loss at UCLA year one, to Miami’s first-ever loss to Virginia Tech a few weeks later in Blacksburg, to the start of a five-game losing streak to Florida State; the Noles rolling in Tallahassee, 41-17—a year after the Canes looked to have taken the power back with a thrilling 34-20 victory at home—Davis was Public Enemy #1; his game day coaching and first-year mistakes lambasted in local newspapers and articles that can barely be found online all these years later, due to where online technology was during his tenure.
Miami won out after that 21-7 loss to the Hokies in 1996; Davis earning back some favor with a respectable 9-3 season and his first bowl victory, taking out Virginia in the now-defunct Carquest Bowl, 31-21.
All that was lost a month into the 1997 campaign after the Canes dropped four in a row to Arizona State, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Florida State; fans flying the infamous champs-to-chumps banner high above the Orange Bowl on September 27th, 1997 for the home loss to the Mountaineers—probably wishing they’d saved their efforts for the following weekend at Doak Campbell, where No. 4 Florida State rolled a then 1-3 Miami squad, 47-0.
The Canes would drop two of their last three—Virginia Tech and Syracuse—en route to a 5-6 season; Miami’s worst since 1979. Understandable due to the program being ravaged by probation, but the way some of those games played out; just plain embarrassing—especially considering Davis saying at the pre-Arizona State game team breakfast, that he expected this squad to compete for a national championship, 1-0 at the time with a lone win over Baylor.
Come 1998, Davis’ Miami squad was 2-3 out the gate—dropping an overtime game to the unranked Hokies, as well as a fourth straight to the Noles, before a hard-fought win at No. 13 West Virginia; the Canes finally showing some signs of life and semblance of becoming a decent football team. Miami rattled off three more to get to 7-2 for a defacto BIG EAST title game at Syracuse, where the Orangemen rolled 66-13. A week later, the program-changing upset of No. 2 UCLA at the Orange Bowl in a make-up game, where the Canes held on for a 49-45 win.
The true step forward came in 1999, where a 9-4 Miami squad upset No. 9 Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic, but dropped close games to No. 2 Penn State, No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Virginia Tech. The improvement was there and the talent was returning—though Davis did suffer another blunderous outing between the Nittany Lions and Seminoles showdowns when the 13-ranked Hurricanes blew a 23-3 third quarter lead on the road against East Carolina, falling 27-23.
Davis’ fingerprints were all over University of Miami football after year six was in the books; ending with an 11-1 season and Sugar Bowl rout of No. 7 Florida that was good enough for a No. 2 ranking in 2000—though subbed for a shot to play No. 1 Oklahoma for a national championship; the Hurricanes most-likely dismantling those Sooners with a bevy of offensive talent and a stout-as-hell defense.
Lost in the Davis narrative and all that “The U Part 2” 30-For-30 glory; just how much Davis struggled out the gate as a first-time head coach—one of many moments show in the Virginia Tech clips above.
Davis suffered through four seasons with Bill Miller as his defensive coordinator; fans ready to run the veteran former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator out of Coral Gables by year two—but Davis stuck with him until the end of 1998, after Miller’s defense surrounded 134 points over the final three games of the season (Syracuse, UCLA and a bowl game against NC State).
Greg Schiano got on board in 1999, bringing an attacking defense more in line with vintage Miami teams and over the next two years the Canes morphed back into a more familiar version of themselves; so good, Schiano parlayed it into a head coaching gig at Rutgers.
Still, it took time and Davis had to suffer through his first three years before the ship began to get righted—probation definitely to blame in 1997—but nothing more than rookie mistakes and uncharted waters his first two seasons trying to learn on the job.
Year one for Diaz is nothing more than a dress rehearsal; learning on the job like so many before him. Next season, a step forward—where things start to take hole and the Canes take a slight step forward.
By year three, almost fully his team and another step forward is expected, while year four the excuses end and Miami has to start looking like a much better version of itself; similar to what Davis did to help his Canes take that step forward in 1999—recruiting having taken hold, coordinator changes made and ‘The U’ making the much-anticipated leap from pretender to contender.
Until then, rookie mistakes will continue—just as they did early on for one of the greatest this program has ever seen.
The Miami Hurricanes broke a two-game conference losing streak and notched their first ACC victory of the year, knocking off Coastal Division favorite Virginia in a defense-minded, primetime home showdown. Brutal to be in must-win territory by mid-October, but such was the case—Miami never starting worse than 0-2 in conference play; a loss to the Cavaliers leaving the Hurricanes in full-blown meltdown-move. Crisis averted.
The Hoos were a slight underdog, according to Vegas (-2.5) but in real life, predicted by most to take out the Hurricanes. Virginia was also the pre-season favorite to win the ACC’s Coastal Division; having jumped out to a 2-0 conference start before heading south to Miami. The lone loss on the season; a 35-20 setback in South Bend—a four-point ball game late in the third quarter before Notre Dame returned a fumble for a score and started to put the game out of reach.
Bronco Mendenhall led his squad to an 8-5 run last year and appeared to have taken a step forward this season, fielding a stout, mature defense and getting solid play out of senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who matured after his first year in the program. For Miami to hold their own against a fundamentally-sound squad like Virginia after the way the past few weeks have gone for the Hurricanes; this was an impressive victory, all things considered.
This was another game of momentum; something the Hurricanes snatched early, after pissing it away on a few occasions earlier this season—down 17-3 in Chapel Hill in a flash, as well as last weekend’s quick 28-0 deficit against visiting Virginia Tech. This time around, it was Miami that got out to a 7-0 start, scoring on the opening drive—which seeming gave the defense a refreshed attitude and some bounce in their step; playing with a rare lead, opposed to digging out of an early hole.
In the end, it was a perfect blend of solid red zone defense for Miami, as well as Virginia self-imploding in almost every scoring opportunity, that proved to be the difference in a 17-9 battle.
The Hurricanes forced a three-and-out on the Cavaliers’ first possession, came up with a crucial 4th-and-1 stop from the UM 24-yard line—Greg Rousseau sniffing out and blowing up the play for a loss—as well as a blocked 38-yard field goal on the ensuing drive.
QUICK START REPLACES SLOW-TO-GO; SETS TONE FOR CANES
Any who have watched this program over the past year and a half—or even the past week—painfully aware that the Canes could’ve fallen into a fast 21-0 hole over that same span.
Instead, a confidence that came from going up early, as well as Diaz reinserting himself into Miami’s defensive, after the 2-3 start—the week’s practice, overall strategy and in-game calls; oft seen huddled with defensive coordinator Blake Baker and the rest of the staff Friday night—which ultimately paid off.
Still, one would be remised to not point out the biggest change for Miami; the offense picking up from where it left off last week when N’Kosi Perry entered for Jarren Williams, on the heels of a three-interception first quarter against Virginia Tech. Perry would throw for 442 yards and four touchdowns, in relief—rallying the Canes from a 28-0 deficit to an eventual 35-35 tie, before the Hokies scored late and Miami came up a red zone possession from forcing overtime.
In the following days, a mention that Williams was suffering from a throwing-shoulder injury, sustained against Central Michigan and re-aggravated early against Virginia Tech—keeping him out of Monday practice and paving the way for Perry to get the Friday night nod against Virginia. Whether the Williams’ injury was played up to avoid drama, or was simply convenient timing—Diaz has landed in a quarterback quandary, whether he wants to admit it, or not.
Generally speaking, Canes supporters—and maybe football fans, in general—have a way of judging a game’s entire body of work based on a win, or a loss, with no other discernment. Fight valiantly in a loss and do some good things along the way; most can’t be objective in regards to the game’s positives—venomous over the loss and treating any open-mindedness as lowering standard or celebrating moral victories. Conversely, in the wake of a win, any mistakes or glaring weaknesses are generally swept under the rug, with all the focus on what went right.
Whether Miami hung in there against Virginia, or couldn’t hang in all those red zone situations, falling 27-17—it doesn’t change the fact that Perry is currently the Hurricanes’ best option at quarterback for the duration of 2019.
Yes, after a score on the opening drive, Miami punted on it’s next six possessions and didn’t score again until a 19-yard Turner Davidson field goal with 10:06 remaining in the fourth quarter. Lots of three-and-outs, as well as some overthrown deep balls that could’ve easily been long touchdowns and game-changing plays. Perry’s timing with receivers and lack of touch; coming in too hot on some slants and short routes, while sailing some deep passes well out of reach—all problematic and in need of repair.
All that to say, Perry’s athleticism and elusiveness behind a porous Miami offensive line; the only qualification that means anything at this point of the season. Seven quarters in and there’s no debating the fact that the only counter to the sub-par offensive line play is a quarterback with the moves and awareness to slip away from defenders in the back field.
PERRY’S MOBILITY BEHIND SHODDY LINE; A GAME CHANGER
4th-and-7 at the 10:25 mark in the first quarter and the third down no-gain just before; the plays that defined the game—and possibly the season, so far. Eighth and ninth plays of the drive, with Perry and Miami moving the ball relatively well, after starting the Canes’ own 22-yard line—an early 13-yard hook-up with Brevin Jordan, as well as a nice 27-yard deep ball to K.J. Osborn; Perry standing in the pocket, getting the pass off and absorbing a big hit.
Perry picked up another first down with a 10-yard pass to Jeff Thomas, immediately going back to the receiver in the end-zone on a play-fake; Thomas beating defender Nick Grant, who made up some quick ground late, giving him time to get hands on the ball, throwing Thomas off from hauling in the score.
After a designed run where Perry picked up three yards, a 3rd-and-7 where the Cavaliers’ defense came in hot; Noah Taylor blowing by freshman left tackle Zion Nelson, untouched. Perry stood in, aware and dumping it off to Mike Harley last second, for no gain—on what would’ve been at least a seven-yard sack setting up a 4th-and-14.
Kicking game woes aside, Diaz and Miami were probably going for it on fourth down no matter who was under center, but the offense had an extra gear with Perry’s mobility; the r-sophomore immediately seeing a running lane to the left and scampering for the first down.
A quick run with Dallas lost two yards on first down, but a delayed screen allowed the running back to slip right as the Cavaliers’ defense got after Perry on second-and-long; the dump-off to Dallas the perfect call as Miami blocked downfield and sprung the running back to a 17-yard score.
Fast forward to midway through the fourth quarter; the Cavaliers held to three field goals, despite moving the ball well against Miami—it was the Hurricanes’ offense that finally broke through; riding the momentum from the previous drive where it settled for three, despite a 35-yard gain by Jordan that got Miami to the UVA seven-yard line.
Leading 10-9 and in position to put the game further out of reach, Perry and the Canes embarked on a 10-play, 75-yard drive—highlighted by a 24-yard hook-up with Mark Pope that put Miami in long field goal range. The running game stifled most of the night, Dallas tore of back-to-back runs of eight and 17 yards, setting the Canes up with a 1st-and-Goal opportunity at the UVA four-yard line.
Perry took a sack on first down, but only lost a yard—but rushed for two on second down and on 3rd-and-Goal from the three-yard line, kept again and scampered in for a punctuating score, pushing the lead to 17-9 with 2:31 remaining.
COMMON SENSE & LOGIC WILL HELP DIAZ AVOID ANY “CONTROVERSY”
Diaz took to the South Florida airwaves on Monday morning, doing his usual Joe Rose Show fly-by—where Rose was quick to point out Perry’s success in Williams’ absence, asking UM’s first-year head coach if the more successful offense “teased” him in regards to staying with the hot hand.
“It’s doesn’t tease us.” Diaz responded. “It lets us know what we’ve been saying all along, that we can win games with N’Kosi. N’Kosi just beat the 20th-ranked team in the country and the week before led a 28-point comeback. And last year he led a comeback against Florida State from down 20.
“I mean, N’Kosi has done some things now on his resume that are impressive. It’s what I’ve been saying all along: Jarren Williams is our starter but it’s still up to Jarren to come back from the issues he’s been dealing with and also to come back [from] the adversity of what he faced in the Virginia Tech game and to prove to everybody that he’s ready to go … and if for whatever reason he is not, we’ve got all the faith in the world in N’Kosi to get it done.”
WQAM co-host Zach Krantz pressed the point a little further, asking point blank if a healthy Williams will get the start over the more comfortable looking Perry, to which Diaz held a long pause before responding.
“If he’s healthy and if he’s ready,’’ Diaz said. “Again, it’s two parts to it. If he’s healthy and he’s ready to bounce back in essence from… You know, look, when you’re the quarterback everybody is watching everything you do. So the idea of getting back there and getting back on the horse and saying, ‘Hey, let’s ride.’ Once he’s ready for that, then we’ll be ready to go.”
One has to hope this is nothing more than coach speak from Diaz and a delicate balance to not imply that he’s lost faith in Williams, while keeping Perry in check, as UM’s most-experienced quarterback hasn’t handled property well in the past.
As the head of this Miami program year one, Diaz has to be delicate with his dealings—as the unspoken is as important as what’s being said; namely in regards to an offensive line that has performed well below anyone’s worst expectations this season.
Reading between the lines, or imagining oneself to be a fly on the wall on any conversations between offensive coordinator and Dan Enos, let’s say what both are thinking—but what neither can verbalize.
OFFENSE LINE ISSUES GIVE CLEAR ANSWER RE: QUARTERBACK CHOICE
In a perfect world, with the offensive line playing up to par—both seem to think that Williams is Miami’s future; the 6-foot-2, 210-pound redshirt sophomore looking all the part of your prototypical drop back quarterback, signal caller and leader of the offense.
Williams has a solid football IQ and is progressing … as much as he can behind an offensive line that is literally worst in the country in regards to sacks given up; some of that obviously on Williams and Miami’s coaches for starting a quarterback with limited mobility behind an underperforming, green line.
A safe bet that coaches also feel, but would never verbalize, what they have in Perry—a strong-armed, gifted quarterback who seems more prone to rely on his athleticism and improvisation, opposed to being more of your student-of-the-game type quarterback, who is going to learn the playbook in and out; pliable in a way that coaches can mold him into what they think he should be.
There’s a reason last year’s staff chose a “reliable” r-senior over Perry, while this new crew gave a r-freshman the nod; Perry obviously lacking something that should make a clear-cut talent like him the obvious go-to.
I’m often critical of the segment of this fan base that can’t accept the state of the Miami program and this ongoing rebuild; often projecting where they think things should be, rooted in 15 years worth of irrelevance and their being tired of the Hurricanes as an average ACC team. I implore them to start leaning on logic, over emotion and to take macro view of where things are, opposed to this micro, quarter-by-quarter assessment of The U.
Halfway through 2019, Diaz and Enos must go through the same exercise; acknowledging what they have personnel-wise, versus what they hoped this group would look like six games in—as well as the importance of finding ways to win now, versus force-feeding the line-up of tomorrow, today—and dealing with the setbacks that could result in that approach.
Fact remains, Miami’s offensive line is not getting the job done and as far as 2019 goes, there is no Plan B. Knowing that to be the case, which Hurricanes’ quarterback can be most-successful with that glaring limitation? Perry, or even third-string Tate Martell—but not Williams, the least mobile of the bunch.
Rewatching the past seven quarters of Miami football, Perry simply brings another dimension to the Hurricanes’ offense—if nowhere else, simply his ability to move in the pocket, avoid sacks and to buy more time for playmakers to get open; all of which have a ripple effect that impacts field position, how much time the defense is on the field, as well as the overall momentum and flow of the game.
Perry had his issues against Virginia, as proven by the low-scoring game and long droughts where the Canes were forced to punt drive after drive. Without the Cavaliers stalling in the red zone—partly due to good defense, but also due to incompetence on their part—there’s no way 17 points wins that football game and this week’s debate shifts to a rock bottom 2-4 start; quarterback play the least of anyone’s concerns (again, wins tend mask more-important subjects, while losses negate any good to come from a game.)
PLAY FOR NOW, WHILE ALSO BUILDING FOR THE LONG TERM
Paraphrasing something Diaz touched on weeks into taking the Miami job; the Catch-22 coaching staffs deal with on the recruiting front—mid-tier programs who need to win to attract better players, but struggle to get those victories as they lack the next-level playmakers across the board to have them contending week in and week out.
If building for next year, it makes sense to go with the quarterback coaches feel is the long-term guy—which appears to be Williams—but there will also be some lumps to take if sticking with a first-year starting quarterback behind a disastrous offensive line. But if the goal is to continue competing in the Coastal Division, while trying to win out and pull a 9-3, or even 8-4 season out of a 2-3 start—there has to be a shift in thinking; a focus on the micro, as well as the macro.
Williams played the role of game manager the first four games of this season; games that had Miami not shot itself in the foot with penalties, mistakes or breakdowns in the secondary, would’ve legitimately had the Hurricanes 4-0 going into Virginia Tech week, setting a less desperate tone for the Hokies’ visit.
Instead, with three losses in the books by the first week in October, Miami learned that a game manager learning on the job is probably going to have more limitations than an athletic, improvisational, less-pliable quarterback—one that might get you into some hot water, but also has the magic and moxie to bail you out.
I was critical of Perry last season, starting with the loss at Virginia—up through a second social media misstep before the bowl game. The immaturity and laissez faire approach to how he worked to earn the role as starting quarterback at Miami; something was off and the kid didn’t appear ready to lead a program that’s been looking for the guy for almost two decades now.
Mid-way through 2019, I’m yet to jump the Perry bandwagon, but I’ve seen enough—4.1 games with No. 15 and 1.3 with No. 5— to keep the keys in Perry’s hands, until he gives reason not to.
Practice is practice and even if Williams shows the grit and growth in practice coaches want to see in the wake of a poor performance against Virginia Tech, Greentree can’t be the only factor in deciding on a starter for Georgia Tech this weekend.
Perry gave this team a spark the past two weeks that it’s lacked since the opener against Florida—so riding the hot hand makes sense, right now. The Yellow Jackets are a hot mess this fall; off to a 1-5 start year one under Geoff Collins, who abandoned the triple-option for a more traditional offense and is off to a slow start.
One final home game for Miami, until a home season finale November 9th against Louisville. Lean on the home “crowd” and inferior opponent to get things settled once and for all.
Perry has proven to be the better fit with the current line limitations—and with an almost-comeback starting 28 down, as well as a quick start and late dagger against Virginia—any other move feels like a forced agenda, while ignoring feel, flow and the gut-instinct Diaz has shown to date.