In time, this game will be remembered as a step forward for the Miami Hurricanes program under second-year head coach Al Golden; they key phrase being “a step forward” as the thrilling 42-36 overtime win over Georgia Tech was a great building block, but in no way should imply that Miami is “back”.
That’s in no way a slight. It’s simply a reality check for anyone getting too high after this loss and the same message to those who deemed the program “done” after that thumping at Kansas State a few weeks back.
As Miami continues “the process”, remaining even keel is the key. Wins and losses must come in stride because no weekly result is permanently defining – good or bad.
These Canes have a ways to go, but wins like these put a smile on your face as they prove things are indeed working. An outcome like this keeps kids believing in everything their coaches preach, week in and week out. Fight hard. Never quit. Keep grinding. One play at a time. One game at a time.
A lesser team would’ve collapsed under the mid-game avalanche. An injured teammate. A crucial turnover. A special teams gaffe. A quirky offense that came alive and was temporarily unstoppable. Giving up thirty-six points unanswered. Mounting a comeback. A field goal attempt sailing wide right. Giving up twenty-four yards in the first overtime possession.
But not this Golden-led team; a young group taking on the personality of its head coach – everyone with strong resolve and believing in something bigger and rooted in the long-term.
Miami had a dozen reasons to lose this showdown.
Road game against a two-touchdown favorite that had put up 115 points and over 1,000 yards in back-to-back games. A triple-option offense that appeared nightmarish to a defense that had been decimated two of the past three weeks. Defensive all-everything, Denzel Perryman sidelined with an injury, making an already-thin linebacking corps even thinner.
The Yellow Jackets had dropped three straight to the Hurricanes and this was truly the best shot they had at getting the big win – home game against a young UM defense, while appearing to have made defensive advances on their own under third-year coordinator Al Groh. A veteran offense that had their option-brand of football down pat.
All of that combined had many outsiders calling for a rout. Instead, a spirited effort by both teams with Miami proving they wanted it more, stepping up, believing in themselves, never quitting and in the end, proving they were a few plays better.
So many things stand out in this win – to the point where Saturday’s game film can all but serve as a blueprint for everything Golden’s been selling since arriving on campus twenty-one months ago.
For starters, the message of never give up was lived out and the result was a comeback where every snap mattered. Golden wants his kids to never let up and whether that means fighting through what appears to be an insurmountable deficit, or players being buried on the depth chart, the message is the same; keep fighting like hell.
With so much (deserved) hype surrounding freshman running back Duke Johnson, it was the veteran, team captain and senior Mike James who was “the man” on Saturday.
James carried fifteen times for eighty-nine yards, had three receptions for twenty-four and found the end zone four time – including the game-winner, a twenty-five yard scamper in overtime.
After three games this season, Duke owned the headlines, but when a gritty, tough-as-nails performance was needed, substance, experience and seniority were the answer and James helped paved the way to victory.
At wideout, a slew of young talent and stars in the making, but in crunch time it was a virtually unknown senior in Davon Johnson who blew up. Johnson had seven receptions for 107 yards – including four-straight during the final drive in regulation, picking up fifty yards – including back-to-back nineteen-yard haul-ins.
Some were ready to cast off James in favor of The Duke, while Davon was simply “another Johnson” on this team, expected to end his career with a whimper. Instead, he’s making a name for himself in the twilight of his collegiate career.
Both James and Johnson have been praised by this coaching staff as two hard-working veterans who take care of business in the weight room and on the practice field, which is why they saw so much action this past Saturday. With the game on the line, both shined.
Golden also showed what he’s made of on this balmy Atlanta day. His group came ready to play, pounced early and when crisis hit – in several forms – the second-year Miami coach remained the leader everyone looked to; a quality general in full control of his troops.
Up 12-0 Miami was driving late in the first quarter and on a 2nd-and-5 from the Georgia Tech sixteen, quarterback Stephen Morris gunned one into the arms of receiver Malcolm Lewis. It was Lewis’ first reception of the game – a twelve-yard reception – and his last, as the freshman receiver was rolled up when tackled and dislocated his ankle.
It was one of those freakish injuries where everyone immediately knew something was wrong. Medical personnel rushed the field, players immediately took a knee and in the midst of it, Golden dropped his headset and rushed towards his ailing player.
While medical professional re-set the ankle on the field, Golden cradled his injured players, shielded him from what was going on down below, and spoke calming words. In an instant Golden went from head coach to parent-on-the-field, losing himself in the moment.
As soon as Lewis’ situation was under control, Golden beelined for his “other kids”, knowing he had a fragile bunch on the sidelines whose attention he needed to re-gain. Golden assembled his players, had them take a knee and with a finger raised and pointed, barked out something motivational that proved inspiring with James punching it in two players later after the teams reconvened.
After one quarter of play – Miami 19, Georgia Tech 0.
It would be the last time the Canes would score until early a Jake Wieclaw field goal late in the third quarter, on the heels of the Yellow Jackets putting up thirty-six unanswered.
Georgia Tech took a 22-19 lead into halftime, coming alive in the second quarter. Facing a 1st-and-10 from their own thirty-six, quarterback Tevin Washington connected with running back Tony Zenon, who rumbled fifty-seven yards to the Miami seven.
One of those vintage triple-option-as-intended moments – flawless execution, perfect pitch, everyone nailing their blocks. The crowd came alive and two plays later, a 19-7 ballgame.
The Miami offense returned and came out swinging. Morris went right back to Phillip Dorsett, who hauled in a sixty-five yard touchdown on the game’s third play, the the sophomore receiver rumbled twenty-five yards before disaster struck.
Dorsett, poorly cradling the ball, had it stripped while being tackled. Georgia Tech recovered, just shy of mid-field and a few plays later, another one of those triple option back-breakers when Robert Godhigh ran thirty-seven yards to the Miami three. A play later, Washington slipped in.
In upwards of six minutes of play Miami saw a beloved player brutally injured, gave up a huge play, turned the ball over on the next possession, gave up another monster play and in a flash saw a nineteen-point lead cut to five.
With 8:57 left in the half, the Canes were momentarily timing. Offense coordinator Jedd Fisch went to the ground, despite so much success in the air. The Duke entered and picked up nine and two on back-to-back plays. Facing a 1st-and-10, his next lost a yard. A play later, Morris dumped one off to him for a two-yard game.
Five straight plays to Johnson netted little and a 3rd-and-9 attempt from Morris to tight end Clive Walford was broken up. Dalton Botts came on to punt and more catastrophe as the Canes’ special teams allowed a fifty-six yard return. Georgia Tech started the drive at the Miami twenty-three and six plays later, on a 3rd-and-Goal from the ten, Washington kept it, scampered in.
Insult to injury came when a two-point conversion was deemed no good, but after a review, was overturned – despite no sideline camera angle showing any breaking of the plane.
Overcoming adversity proved the common theme on Saturday. A feisty opponent. A rowdy crowd. An injured teammate. A large lead lost. Down seventeen late in the contest. Seemed whatever was thrown at the Canes, Miami responded – which is a sign of growth.
In a rebuilding year, ‘growth’ truly is the most valuable commodity – even more so than actual wins.
In this case, the growth was in the comeback and it was brought home in the overtime period when Miami finished. So many times in recent memory, the Canes faded. Not this time.
It’d have been easy to pack it in after Wieclaw’s kick sailed wide. Miami was grinding. The defense was getting its stops and the offense had just driven eighty-eight yards in ten plays. A touchdown was called back on 3rd-and-Goal after James scampered in, with Georgia Tech calling a timeout, blowing the play dead. Morris then threw an incomplete pass and the Canes had to settle for three.
Make the kick and it’s 36-32, meaning a defensive stop and you’re playing for a game-winning touchdown. Miss and all the momentum seemingly shift to the other side of the field.
Georgia Tech took over on their twenty with 7:03 remaining and picked up a few first downs before forcing a punt situation on 4th-and-1 from mid-field. The Yellow Jackets attempted to draw the Canes off-sides, wound up punting and UM got the ball on the nine-yard line with two-minutes remaining.
Morris to Johnson for eight and out of bounds. Back to him for four. Then for nineteen and again for nineteen. In a flash Miami was at the Georgia Tech forty-one, aided by an officials review, allowing Fisch and company time to draw up a handful of plays, keeping the Canes in an effective hurry-up.
After an incompletion to Rashawn Scott, a dump-off to Duke went for sixteen yards. Miami was now at the Georgia Tech twenty-five, and quickly moved to the twenty after an off-sides call.
Morris went back to Dorsett, who was jammed-up by Rod Sweeting on 2nd-and-5. Pass interference and automatic first down. 1st-and-10 from the ten. Half a minute remaining. Morris dump-off to James. Ten yards to paydirt. Wieclaw stutter-step but extra point sails through. Tied ballgame. Are you kidding me?
Squib kick. A Washington nine-yard run. Concession on the part of Georgia Tech and playing for overtime. Coin flip. James calls tails. Miami goes on defense. Godhigh runs for fourteen, Laskey for five and Zenon for three.
3rd-and-1. Washington gets half a yard. 4th-and-1. Decision time. Yellow Jacket elect to punch it in, knowing three most-likely not enough against an awakened Hurricanes offense.
Washington calls an audible. The Canes defense shifts. He calls another and goes right. He’s met by an Atlanta native, linebacker Eddie Johnson, who comes in untouched and stands him up. The refs bring out the sticks. No gain. Turnover on downs. Miami ball.
Morris hands off to James. Up the middle for one. The Ramblin’ Wreck thinks the Canes are playing for the field goal. Back to James. Defensive line crowds the middle. James bounces outside, sheds two defenders and scampers for the end zone.
Ballgame … and a cathartic release as Miami players erupted and just like the season opener at Boston College, rushed the end zone where visiting fans were raising some orange and green hell.
Players jumped in the stands. Freshman safety Deon Bush head-bobbed and flashed a “U”, while mobbed by fans.
Anthony Chickillo, who had a monster game and several key tackles for loss, found his dad – second-generation Hurricane, Tony Chickillo. Father mobbed son, and shook him silly while the exhausted freshman was seen mouthing the phrase, “we did it” over and over and over.
Golden, doused in ice water, rushed the field, chest-bumped Sebastian The Ibis and celebrated with his players. When interviewed by Fox Sports, he was hoarse, wet and spent, but accomplished.
No, it wasn’t a national championship – nor was it quite the statement game like a win over fourth-ranked Florida State would be, if Miami manages to pull a miracle on October 20th at Sun Life.
On paper, it was merely unranked, one-loss Georgia Tech – but in the grand scheme of “the process” and in regards to a team two weeks removed from 52-13 at Kansas State and coming off a somewhat lethargic showing (sans Duke) against Bethune-Cookman, it was a right-here-right-now statement-type at moment when this program needed it most.
Some folks have whispered “2-0 in ACC play” while the media is playing the, “don’t look now, but check out what’s brewing in Coral Gables” card the past few days. Stop all of that nonsense right now as that’s not “the process”.
There’s only one thing to focus on right now and that’s North Carolina State at 12pm ET on Saturday and for fans, the lone thought should be what time to arrive at Sun Life, where to park and what’s on the tailgating menu, because a Bethune-like showing for this weekend simply isn’t acceptable.
From there, start thinking Notre Dame. Then it’s on to North Carolina. Next up, Florida State. And then, and then, and then. You get the point.
Brick by brick, that’s the mantra here. For “the process” to work, remain in the moment, take care of business, celebrate – or regroup – and keep moving forward.
Christian Bello has been covering Miami Hurricanes athletics since the mid-1990s. After spending almost a decade as a columnist for CanesTime, he launched allCanesBlog.com. – the official blog for allCanes.com : The #1 Canes Shop Since 1959. Bello has joined up with XOFan.com and will be a guest columnist at CaneInsider.com this fall. Follow him on Twitter @ChristianRBello.