In the span of three plays a scoreless game was a fourteen-point UM lead Saturday afternoon at Kenan Stadium, but in the end, another down to the wire thriller between the Miami Hurricanes and North Carolina Tar Heels, marking the fourth straight Chapel Hill nail-biter between these two ACC foes.
The difference today; the good guys finally won.
Miami seems to have invented ways to lose this season. Down two against Maryland and driving, a pick-six resulted in a 32-24 loss. Weeks later, one yard proved to be the difference against Kansas State, with the Miami offense stopped on the goal like in a 28-24 heartbreaker.
Last week a monster comeback was trumped when Virginia Tech scored from nineteen yards out on a 4th-and-1 with under a minute remaining.
The Canes took a 27-10 halftime lead into the locker room and in the end, escaped with a 30-24 win.
After a scoreless third quarter, the Tar Heels won the field position battle early in the fourth. After Miami stopped North Carolina on a 4th-and-2 from the UM nine-yard line, the Canes took over and gained no yards on first or second down. A brilliant pick-up on 3rd-and-10 was wiped out due to a holding penalty and UM was unable to convert on 3rd-and-14.
A forty-one yard punt by Dalton Botts was returned eighteen yards, setting UNC up at the UM twenty-seven and four plays later Giovani Bernard plunged into the end zone for the three-yard score, making it a 27-17 game with over eight minutes remaining.
The Canes and Heels traded back-to-back defensive stands, with Miami again bowing up and making another fourth down stop. With 4:38 remaining, the Canes turned to Lamar Miller, who carried five straight times. On 4th-and-8, Jake Wieclaw booted his third field goal of the day and Miami was up 30-17 with just over two to play.
North Carolina answered with a seven play, 70-yard drive, ending when quarterback Bryn Renner threw to a wide open Reggie Wilkins for a 20-yard touchdown. With under a minute to play, the Heels attempted and recovered an onside kick and down six, too over on their forty-four yard line, looking to complete the miracle comeback.
Renner found Dwight Jones for fifteen yards on first down and went to Bernard for eleven the following play. Facing a 1st-and-10 from the UM thirty and without any time outs remaining, senior linebacker Sean Spence made the defensive play of the game, sacking Renner for a seven-yard loss.
The clocked ticked, the Heels spiked the ball on 2nd-and-17 and with the clock rolling on third down, it was gimmick time. Renner to Bernard and two laterals later, this one was in the books and Miami earned its first-ever win at Kenan Stadium.
It proved to be another tale of two halves for the Canes, this time starting with their best and fading late. Against Kansas State, Miami trailed 14-3 after two and in Blacksburg last weekend the halftime deficit was 21-7.
This time around, 27-10 as North Carolina scored in the final moments of the second quarter. The Hurricanes’ defense held strong for the majority of the second half, but the Tar Heels buckled down, as well, forcing back-to-back three and outs to start the second half.
Entering the final offensive possession for Miami, the Canes only had one second half first down, coming on a late third quarter 1st-and-10 when Jacory Harris hooked up with Travis Benjamin for a 17-yard connection, picking up where they started.
Early on Harris was masterful. Back-to-back connections with Benjamin on the opening drive went for 13 and 21 yards. Harris then found Phillip Dorsett for eight, Miller for four, Benjamin for three and James for a four-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-4.
Peppered between Harris’ passes, some runs with Miller and brilliant playcalling by offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, including different Wildcat looks with James and Benjamin, as well. Benjamin finished the day with eight receptions for 99 yards, one touchdown, while rushing three times for thirteen yards.
A huge hit by Denzel Perryman on special teams gave Miami the ball at the North Carolina twenty-seven on the Tar Heels’ would-be ensuing drive and a play later a double-fake reverse allowed Harris to find a wide open Tommy Streeter for a 27-yard touchdown, putting the Canes ahead, 14-0.
After forcing a punt on 4th-and-4, holding the Tar Heels to forty yards on eight plays, the Canes again moved the ball with ease, though penalties put Miami in a hole. Facing a 2nd-and-22, Harris threw a strike to Streeter for a twenty five-yard pick up. On the ensuing 3rd-and-6 from the UNC twenty-four, Allen Hurns had his second drop of the drive, forcing UM to settle for three.
Hurns bounced back with two receptions on the day, but leaving points on the field when the offense was humming proved frustrating as the Canes only found the end zone once more.
Harris turned in a 20-of-30, 267-yard, three-touchdown performance and was against interception-free. Harris’ last pick came early in the second quarter against Kansas State in game three, marking fourteen quarters of football without an interception.
On the ground, Miami was ineffective for the first time in a long time. The Canes rushed for forty-four total yards, with Miller only getting twenty-nine. Miller was looking for his sixth straight 100-yard game, but was shut out. North Carolina played the run, putting the game on Harris’ arm and the quarterback delivered where the running backs couldn’t.
Defensively Miami was solid early and sputtered late, but had some key stops along the way which kept North Carolina in check. Two huge fourth down stops kept points off the board and in the end, with the game on the line, the Canes found a way – which will help psychologically. Especially after a handful of heartbreaking losses to start the season.
Another notable stat. Miami was penalized three times for 19 yards on the day. Much better than last week where the Canes were dinged nine times for 84 yards at Blacksburg.
Miami now sits at 3-3 and 1-2 in ACC play, but could just as easily be 6-0, or more realistically, 5-1. Losses against Kansas State and Virginia Tech truly came down to one game-changing play in the end and hopefully that’s something head coach Al Golden can build on, without turning it into an excuse.
This season will be all about the Hurricanes’ offense setting the tone so that the defense doesn’t have to go blow-for-blow all game. An offensive cushion takes the pressure off, though today it killed that second half sense of urgency which propelled Miami’s O against Kansas State and Virginia Tech.
The Canes outscored the Wildcats 21-14 in the second half and got all over the Hokies to the tune of 28-17 the final two quarters. Against the Tar Heels, the Canes were outscored 14-3 the final thirty.
As the season reaches the halfway mark, Miami’s first-year coaches sit at .500 and truly know what they have and what they lack. Offensively the Canes have firepower. Defensively this team has holes. On special teams, there are some hitters, while the kicking game has been reliable and consistent.
Miami has also proven it’s a first- or second-half team, depending on the game, but hasn’t put together four quarters of football all season. The Canes also haven’t shown that they can manage prosperity, proving today that they couldn’t build on an impressive lead, while in other cases, starting sluggish and needing a second half wake-up call before inevitably falling short.
Wins over Ohio State and now North Carolina have shown Miami coaches what needs to be done as the second half of the season kicks off. Score first. Score fast. Run the ball. Protect the ball. Smart quarterback play. Smart football. Less penalties. Solid special teams.
Crushing losses cannot define a season and wins absolutely have to be built on. There is much to be taken from today and this can be a turning point and building block for a team looking for something good to rally around.
Every game remaining on the schedule is as winnable as it is losable, but if Miami can duplicate what it did in the first half today, there should be more W’s than L’s down the stretch. – C.B.