The Canes didn’t enter the ACC circling their calender for that annual showdown with the Yellow Jackets, but after a few losses in a row and seeing the Ramblin’ Wreck in a BCS game last season, this one officially became a rivalry and it’s great to see UM on the right side of the ledger, taking the last two.
Even more exciting, the fact that Miami is finally hitting its stride in November instead of sputtering to the finish line; an unwelcomed recent trend.
After Virginia Tech took North Carolina out behind the woodshed last Saturday, Cane fans let out a collective groan as the ACC Coastal slipped a little further out of reach.
Frustrating as that is, that’s not where the focus should be. Where this program sits today, something more important than winning the conference occurred these past few weeks – Miami has finally found an identity.
No one is mentioning Stephen Morris in the same breath as “Heisman Trophy” right now (nor should they), but the Canes’ season has taken a turn since the freshman quarterback serendipitously found himself under center.
There Miami sat at halftime, down 14-0 to Virginia and in a real bind. Jacory Harris had just been knocked out in what was later diagnosed as a concussion and back up Spencer Whipple had thrown two interceptions in six attempts.
Third-stringer A.J. Highsmith was out with a wrist injury and the fourth-string Morris hadn’t seen a lick of action all season as the goal was to redshirt him for next year and beyond.
The Canes fell six-points short of a miraculous comeback, putting up almost 200 yards and 19 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, but in the process found a quarterback, a leader and reason to get excited.
For so long Miami fans had been led to believe that if Harris went down, there was no back up plan. Season over. Wait ’til next year.
In fact, the opposite happened.
For whatever reason, things hadn’t been clicking under Harris. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple and his junior quarterback never seemed to be on the same page on or off the field. Cameras have oft caught the two disagreeing with the play call or execution (depending who you ask) as the interceptions piled up.
Almost two years into assuming the starting role, Harris remains an enigma. Solid against North Carolina and pretty good at Clemson – a seven touchdown to three interception ratio over those eight quarters of play – but when he’s been off, his play at times inexplicable.
Four interceptions at Ohio State, each more frustrating than the last. Two picks in what was eventually a 31-3 rout at Pitt, though only a 10-0 lead at the half.
The four-touchdown loss to Florida State was definitely a result of piss-poor run defense (298 yards given up), but it lacked head up, difference-making play under center as third down conversions were missed and so many times momentum was killed.
Coach Whipple has definitely given in these past few games, relying more on a potent ground attack, utilizing all of his main backs – Lamar Miller, Damien Berry, Mike James and Graig Cooper. The Canes ran 46 times in Atlanta, while Morris was only called on for 18 attempts, of which he completed 10 and didn’t turn the ball over.
Critics will say Harris hasn’t see this kind of play calling out of Whipple, but anyone building that case is ignoring the ‘it’ factor and special something that Morris seems to have. Case in point:
– Down two with three to play against Maryland, Morris came out firing. Seven-yard pass to Aldarius Johnson. Nine-yard strike to LaRon Byrd on 3rd and 2. Sacked on first down, Morris again found Byrd for nine on 2nd and 15 and after a false start on Leonard Hankerson, made the play of the game on 3rd and 11.
Morris dropped back, scanned the receivers, found no one open, started to run, pump faked to stop defenders in their tracks, saw the down marker and picked up sixteen yards. A play later, a thirty-five yard strike to Hankerson for the game-winner, with Morris clobbered a second after releasing the ball.
In one season-saving drive, Morris displayed confidence, solid decision-making, a strong arm, good wheels and toughness.
– A week later at Georgia Tech, Morris picked up where he left off – overcoming any confusion the 3-4 defense was expected to throw his way.
To Whip’s credit, Miami’s opening drive was extremely run-heavy, with Berry and Miller carrying the load on eight of ten plays, for 88 yards and a touchdown, though the highlight might’ve been an incomplete pass by Morris.
1st and 10 from the Tech 28, Morris is flushed out of the pocket, sees nothing developing, uses his wheels to get outside the tackle box and wisely gunned the ball out of bounds.
A less heady quarterback takes the sack and faced with a 2nd and long, the play calling for the possession is limited. With a 2nd and 10, Whipple called another run, with Miller going left and picking up 16 yards and a play later, finding the end zone on a 12-yard scamper.
– After forcing a Georgia Tech punt and leading 7-0, Morris was given a chance to make some plays on the Canes’ second drive.
Miami’s next possession was an 88-yard drive, taking three and a half minutes and featuring five runs to four passing attempts.
Miller carried early, for no gain and four yards. Sandwiched between there, another ‘clutch incomplete’ by Morris, getting rid of the ball and avoiding a sack that would’ve given Miami and 3rd and 19 from the three-yard line, which inevitably would’ve meant a draw play and punting situation.
Instead, on 3rd and 10 Morris looked left for Byrd, earned a pass interference call and Miami’s O still had life.
Miller ran for four on first down and on 2nd and 6, Morris fired a quick screen pass to Hankerson which went for 45 yards and broke the drive open. Another penalty eventually gave the Canes second life (4th and 4, it was field goal time before a 5-yard offsides call) and Morris found Chase Ford for 14 yards, setting up a 1st and goal from the five, which Berry took in a play later.
After a loss, it’s easy to get marred down in a mistake here or there – harping on an interception or a missed tackle – but it’s the little heads up plays which keep drives alive that we sometimes miss.
A quarterback eluding a sack or throwing out of bounds, keeping drives alive and avoiding those “and long” situations – able to pass or run on 3rd and short, instead of playing for field position with a draw on 3rd and 14.
Throwing a ball with authority, allowing the receiver to get some separation, picking up yards after catch. Morris had two short passes to Hankerson which went for 45 and 79 yards, respectively. Had there been less zip on the ball, forcing Hankerson to wait on the pass, it’s a short gain and Miami needs to continue plugging away, digging in the playbook and working on finding the end zone.
Most exiting about the change at quarterback is “The Morris Effect”, as the team as a whole has elevated their game and come together – which happens when you’re picking up first downs, moving the ball, having the occasional big play and finding the end zone.
Getting out to a 14-0 start at Georgia Tech and scoring on back-to-back drives – that invigorates a defense and gives them some much-needed breathing room. Both sides are taking care of business and are working, doing their job to help out their teammates.
Miami is finally reaching its potential, utilizing its talent and is finding its game, which has also come from the rebirth regarding offensive play calling via Whipple, who hand-picked Morris out of Monsignor Pace in Miami and has since devised a run-heavy system that works as his quarterback continues moving the chains and not making mistakes.
The Canes put up 504 offensive yards against Maryland and followed up with 507 at Georgia Tech. The Miami Offense Machine is finally alive and well, waking up when this program needed it most.
Randy Shannon was a target of some much-deserved criticism after a 2-2 stretch in October, but the football gods smiled on him, turning a potential crisis into what might be a career-changing victory.
Where does Miami’s season go with a loss at Virginia and no shot in the arm in the form of Morris rejuvenating this team?
Do the Canes beat a hot Maryland team and win a tough road game at Georgia Tech in back-to-back weeks? Would the bleeding have stopped or would this 7-3 team have stumbled to 6-4 or 5-5?
Thankfully that’s a hypothetical that requires no further thought, but Shannon best acknowledge this silver lining in Harris’ injury and the emergence of Morris.
As the past few weeks rolled on, Shannon has remained adamant that “when healthy” Harris will be back under center, with Morris on the bench. What we’ll never know if these are the words of stubborn head coach, or a crafty tale being woven to sell the ruse that no starter will lose his job to an injury.
A week ago I wrote that a savvy head coach would play the game to his advantage – playing up the injury, sticking with the back up and if necessary, reinserting his starter should the back up fail, allowing him to attempt to play the role of hero.
Based on Randy’s past history and hard headed ways, no one knew where this thing would go, but with Virginia Tech on deck and Harris still being evaluated and being limited in practice, it’s getting easier to read between the lines.
Anyone who’s paying attention can see that Miami has gone next level as a whole since Morris became ‘the guy’ and anyone who gambles knows you always stay with the hot hand. With three to four games remaining and with rumblings from a frustrated fan base who wanted more in 2010, Shannon knows he’s gambling to save his job and must continue winning down the stretch.
If I were a betting man, I’d say Harris returns at some point next week against South Florida, with the ACC season in the books and before bowl season, so Miami knows how to prepare for the post-season.
A convincing 25-point win on the heels of a last minute comeback – both were a necessary shot on the arm and are something the Canes must build on. Virginia Tech is undefeated in ACC play, but have proven fallible, losing twice early in the season. The Hokies are praised for Beamer Ball, but even more so for being a disciplined football team, solid in their fundamentals.
Miami has had the athletes all season, but seemed to zig so many times it should’ve zagged. Since “The Morris Experiment” kicked off, the Canes are finally getting the breaks, as well as making their own. Pick up where the last four quarters left off and there’s no reason the Hokies don’t go down at Sun Life on Saturday.
The personnel and play calling are finally there and with two games remaining it again looks like the only team that can beat Miami is ‘Miami’.