The Miami Hurricanes took out the Pittsburgh Panthers, 31-19 on Saturday afternoon at HardRock—three key red-zone stops literally the difference in a 12-point victory. Equally as important—the Canes did this on the heels of a disappointing, undisciplined, out-coached and out-talented, 42-17 setback at Clemson last weekend.
The Tigers continued on their mission towards The Playoffs with a 73-3 rout at Georgia Tech, while Miami slugged it out with Pitt—unnecessary conformation that the Hurricanes lost to a true contender; one with only five combined losses dating back to 2016.
No one of sound mind expected these Hurricanes to bring home any hardware in 2020; not in year two of the Manny Diaz era and not on the heels of Miami’s 7-9 fade under Mark Richt after that 10-0 start in 2017—resulting in UM’s fifth different head coach in 14 seasons; the turnover impacting the 2019 recruiting class, as well—yet another setback in a long line of setbacks.
BOUNCING BACK FROM A LOSS; HUGE STEP FOWARD
History lesson aside, fact remains this is where the Hurricanes have landed after a tumultuous decade-and-a-half—the present and immediate future all that really matter as Diaz looks to right the ship in a way his three predecessors could not.
Knocking off Pittsburgh isn’t a world-beater move that validates Miami, nor does the victory itself cover up some glaring weaknesses with this roster and team overall—but the Hurricanes showed up against a defense-minded conference opponent and did enough to bounce back after a disappointing loss, so let’s dive into that, first and foremost.
If this is 2018 or 2019, Miami loses this game—especially with the anemic offense the Hurricanes ran with Dan Enos last fall, and Team Richt the year prior. Look no further than the 13-13 record over that span, as well as the types of games UM pissed away for proof.
Miami lost a heartbreaker to Florida in the opener last August, only to show up ill-prepared in Chapel Hill a week later—down 17-3 after the first quarter. The slow-starting Hurricanes scrapped back to take a 25-20 lead in the final minutes of the final period, only to fall 28-25 after a defensive breakdown kept North Carolina alive on what should’ve been a 4th-and-17 game-ending close out.
Weeks later Miami eked out an embarrassing 17-12 win over Central Michigan, only to no-show against Virginia Tech—falling into a 28-0 second quarter hole, before a rally fell short.
The Canes also struggled with any modicum of prosperity last year; seemingly turning a corner, only to collapse by way of some pointless big-headedness. A defensive-fueled win over a pretty good Virginia team was preceded by a a low-scoring overtime loss to a Georgia Tech team that rolled in 1-5—including an overtime loss to The Citadel and 22-point road loss to Temple.
Miami bounced back with a win over Pitt and seemed to turn an offensive corner with routes of Florida State and Louisville—by a combined score of 79-37—only to bottom out with a “road” loss to Florida International, a home loss to Duke and a bowl shutout at the hands of Louisiana Tech, all of which were (thankfully) enough to get Enos fired and for Diaz to bring in Rhett Lashlee to run a spread offense.
Richt’s swan song saw Miami stomped out by LSU in the opener, before racking up wins over Savannah State, Toledo and FIU to get back on track. The Canes shone bright in a Thursday night route of North Carolina, before staging a thrilling home comeback of Florida State—Miami’s first home win against the Seminoles dating back to 2004.
From there, a second four-game losing streak in three seasons under Richt—Miami falling to Virginia, Boston College (after a bye week), Duke and Georgia Tech—before a win at Virginia Tech (to get bowl eligible) and home win over Pitt. Wisconsin rolled in the Pinstripe Bowl, prompting Richt to call it a career.
Knowing all this to be the new norm in Coral Gables these past couple of seasons, there was understandable doubt with Pittsburgh on the schedule a week after the Clemson debacle—especially given the Canes’ recent muscle memory in games like these as of late.
PERPAREDNESS & PASSION AGAINST PITT WERE DIFFERENCE
On paper, this match-up with Pitt seemed troublesome—Clemson and defensive coordinator Brent Venables exposing Miami’s very-real offensive line issues, while laying out a blueprint where ratting and pressuring D’Eriq King made the Houston grad transfer look much less heroic than he did in match-ups with UAB, Louisville and Florida State.
Instead, Miami dug in for a grind-it-out type game and managed to be in control from the get-go—the Panthers making it a five-point game midway through the third quarter, before the Canes pulled away.
Pitt starting quarterback Kenny Pickett didn’t make the trip, due to an ankle injury—which was initially a sign of relief, until recalling that Pickett was a true freshman when upending Miami in 2017—so who was to say a Panthers’ back-up wasn’t capable of coming in for a career day?
Another red flag against the Canes in their decade-plus of disastrous play—making sub-par or second string quarterback look like superstars. Hendon Hooker got his first start last fall in Virginia Tech’s visit to Miami—and had one career completion under his belt, before that 184-yard, three touchdown, turnover-free performance as the Hokies upset the Canes.
Knowing this to be the case with Miami, there was little confidence in Joey Yellen getting the nod over the injured Pickett—Yellen hitting the ground running for the Panthers on the ensuing possession, driving 44 yards and picking up two key first downs, before the Hurricanes’ defense made a drive-haltering stop.
Facing a 1st-and-10 from the UM 31-yard line, Jordan Miller and Jahfari Harvey busted through the Panthers’ line and drove Yellen back 12 yards with a monster sack—resulting in back-to-back incompletions before forcing a punt what felt like an open possession set to result in some type of a score.
An offensive line holding penalty shut down Miami’s first drive—putting the Canes in a 1st-and-2o they couldn’t bounce back from, facing an all too familiar third-and-long that set up a monster 60-yard punt from Lou Hedley, who had a masterful day flipping the field for the home team.
Pittsburgh lost 11 yards on three consecutive running plays—and coupled with a kick catching interference call—set the Canes up on the Panthers’ 45-yard line. Two quick King runs led to a first down, before selling the fake on a draw and a quick pass to Cam’Ron Harris—wide open in the middle of the field, where the running back rumbled for a 35-yard score.
Both sides exchanged a pair of punts before Pitt ran a fake punt that Miami sniffed out—Isaiah Dunson tripping up Brandon Hill on what would’ve been a sure-first down if not. The big stop set the Canes up at the Pitt 45-yard line, where King and the Canes got moving—a few quick passes to Mark Pope and solid runs by Harris highlighting the possession.
Where Miami did it’s best defensive work in the red zone, Pittsburgh imploded—this time with a facemask penalty on third down, setting the Canes up with a fresh set of downs from the four-yard line. Facing 2nd-and-Goal, King dumped off to Will Mallory—getting more reps by way of an injured Brevin Jordan—and the tight end barreled ahead for the six-yard score, giving UM a somewhat comfortable 14-0 lead.
Yellen and the Panthers responded with a a 60-yard drive—a few big strikes to Jordan Addison and Daniel Moraga—getting Pittsburgh into Miami’s red zone, where Jalean Phillips helped the cause with a roughing the passer penalty. Still, the Canes remained unfazed and a 10-yard sack by Jared Harrison-Hunte on 3rd-and-3 again kept the Panthers out of the end zone; a defeating stop after moving the ball with relative ease minutes before.
MIAMI OVERCOME ADVERSITY; HUNG IN HERE LATE
The Canes looked to respond, but King was intercepted four plays into the ensuing drive—returned 34 yards by Paris Ford, setting the Panthers up at the Miami 12-yard line. Facing a 3rd-and-1 from the three-yard line—the Canes’ defense flexed again and stuffed A.J. Davis for a three-yard loss; on the heels of consecutive competitions to the back. Alex Kessman trotted on for another field goal attempt and Miami trotted into the locker room with a 14-6 lead, ready to receive.
Lashlee dialed up a run for King to start the second half, which the quarterback took 13 yards—but Miami was quick in another third-and-long, where a Pittsburgh miscue bailed them out; this time a hold, resulting in a new set of downs at midfield. After an incompletion to Keyshawn Smith and a 12-yard hook-up with Pope, King found a wide open Mike Harley streaking down the left sideline—the inconsistent receiver readjusting his body for an acrobatic grab, before sprinting to the end zone and a 38-yard score.
Yellen found Addison for a 55-yard hook-up a few moments later—but again, the red zone proved to be Pitt’s biggest enemy. The Canes stuffed DJ Turner for a five-yard loss on second down and an incomplete pass to Addison on third-and-long had Kessman rolling out for his third kick of the day.
King tossed his second pick of the day—retuned 34 yards by Marquis Williams to the Miami one-yard line—where Yellen dumped to a wide open Moraga, while the defense sold out on the run. Pitt finally found the end zone at the 9:30 mark in the third quarter, cutting the Canes’ lead to 21-16.
Miami responded with a three-and-out—and for those who have suffered through the past decade-and-a-half of Hurricanes football, a realization that this could be where things went off the rails. Theoretically, Pittsburgh was due—and despite all the solid defense to this point, the Panthers were getting the ball and had a legit shot to take the lead.
Instead, the Canes defense lined up for a game-defining 3rd-and-2 where Phillips and Quincy Roche unloaded on Yellen—Roche recovering the fumble, giving Miami a shot to deliver a knockout-style blow. King was sacked on first down, but on 2nd-and-17 Lashlee went back to his bag of tricks—exploiting the middle of the field and setting Mallory loose, much like Harris was on the game’s first score.
King hit the big tight end in stride and with 5:40 left in the third quarter—Mallory ran for the 45-yard score, while the Canes took a 28-16 lead.
Pitt didn’t go down without a fight; overcoming a 1st-and-20 on the ensuing drive and rolling 74 yards on 10 plays—but three incompletions just outside the red zone set up a 4th-and-3 and a field goal attempt, cutting Miami’s lead to eight and keeping it a one-score game.
The Canes bled 7:11 off the clock on a 14-play, 65-yard drive—culminating with a 37-yard field goal from Jose Borregales—pushing the lead on 12 with just over four minutes remaining. A touchdown would’ve been more fulfilling—but the kick proved to be a nice little way to close out considering Miami’s kicking woes the past two seasons—a universal reaction from Hurricanes’ nation and a collective, “No way we make that kick last year”.
Miami racked up 331 yards on the day—to Pittsburgh’s 300-yard outing—and the Canes rushed for 109 yards against a Panthers’ defense that is usually stout against the run. The 31 points scored were the most in regulation against Pitt’s defense dating back to the 34 that Central Florida scored against Pittsburgh in a loss last September.
The Canes turned it over twice—two King interceptions—to the Panthers’ one costly fumble and Miami was penalized five times for 55 yards, while Pitt self-imploded at costly moments and were dinged 10 times for 89 yards.
Still, it was a win the week after a lopsided loss and the type of game Miami has lost in in the past—a disturbing trend as recent as 2019—and in the second year of the Diaz era, these are the incremental steps forward this program needs to take as it works to become a contender again.
NEED A CRACK AT THE BEST TO BECOME A CONTENDER
Same for the loss at Clemson itself; better Miami got a shot at No. 1 this fall and lost, than getting a win up at an average Michigan State or against Wagner—both of which were on the schedule before the COVID reshuffle.
The Canes should also be rooting for another shot at the Tigers in the ACC title game—which remains in reach of Miami can win out. With no divisions this fall, the conference program with the best two records will face off in Charlotte—and with Notre Dame in the mix, as well as a revamped North Carolina (who took a hit with their loss to Florida State), the margin for error this fall is slimmer than usual.
Getting to the big stage and taking lumps—it’s part of becoming a contender and it’s precisely what Clemson went through on their way to the top.
The Tigers reached the ACC title game in 2009—the first full season under Dabo Swinney—where they lost to Georgia Tech for the second time that season, finishing 9-5 on the year. In 2010, some backsliding as Clemson went 6-7.
The Tigers won the ACC in 2011—only to get demolished in their first BCS visit—West Virginia running them over, 70-33.
The margin of error was thin in 2012—a loss to No. 4 Florida State keeping Clemson from the conference title game—but a one-point win over LSU in the Peach Bowl closed out an 11-2 season; another step forward.
Clemson’s next prime-time, big time match-up game mid-October the following year—a battled of undefeateds when the third-ranked Tigers welcomed No. 5 Florida State. This was the Tigers’ moment to show they belonged.
Instead, a 51-14 loss as the Noles rolled their way to a national championship—Clemson again, 11-2 and close—but not yet there.
2014 got off to a rough start when No. 12 Georgia topped No. 16 Clemson, 45-21—proof that the ACC’s second-best couldn’t hang with a quality SEC team. Three weeks later, an overtime loss in Tallahassee—the Tigers fifth loss to the Noles in seven tries and third in a row.
Clemson laid a late-season egg at Georgia Tech—28-6—but rolled Oklahoma, 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl for a 10-3 finish and strong close to Dabo’s sixth full season at the helm. Come 2015, an undefeated regular season, ACC title and a Playoff win over No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, before falling 45-40 to Alabama for a national title.
A year later, Clemson picked up their first national championship since 1981. Two years later, another—while losing two other title games and falling in the Playoffs, to the eventual champs.
Learning how to be a winner, unfortunately starts with learning how to overcome big stage losses.
How do coaches grow in these moments? How do outgoing upperclassmen pass down that sense of urgency to the next crop of greats—“We didn’t get it done, but you guys need to earn another shot and take care of business”. What is the sales pitch for recruits as programs take these small steps forward?
Regarding the latter, it’s not just hanging tough in the big games—it’s showing and winning the games that are supposed to be won, like Pittsburgh last week and Virginia this Saturday night.
CANES MUST WIN ALL WINNABLE GAMES AND CLOSE STRONG
The Canes got a break with the schedule reshuffle as Miami heads to Charlottesville in even-numbered years—but instead gets the Cavaliers in South Florida this weekend.
Last’s season’s win was a defensive slugfest with dominant red zone defense that had the Canes escaping with an improbably 17-9 on a Friday night. Miami was coming off the wrong side of a shootout with Virginia Tech, rallying late after falling into a 28-0 hole but losing 42-35.
A change at quarterback and a few key plays—including a late score in the final couple of minutes—sealed the low-scoring victory against the 4-1, No. 20 team in the nation. A week later, Miami no-showed against 1-5 Georgia Tech—falling in overtime to a Yellow Jackets’ team that finished 3-9 under a first-year head coach.
Inconsistency and no sense of urgency—it did the Hurricanes in often last year, as well as countless times this past decade-plus.
While the loss to Clemson was a setback, a spirited effort against Pittsburgh got Miami back to winning ways—and they must continue.
This 1-3 Virginia squad is not the same bunch that reached the Orange Bowl last season, giving Florida a run for their money in a big bowl game. The Cavs are a double-digit underdog to the Canes and this is must-win territory for Miami if the Canes are to maximize this 2020 season with the experienced Kind under center.
Bronco Mendenhall is as defensive-minded as Pat Narduzzi last week, so it’s a given the Cavs will look to rattle Miami’s quarterback play—forcing mistakes in effort to steal one.
How will Lashlee and King respond? Will receivers create some separation and find ways to help out their quarterback and a porous offensive line that can only buy so much time? Will the defense tighten up—giving up less big plays and making those key third-down and red zone stops—the difference last week, as well as last year’s showdown with Virginia?
A win will get Miami to 5-1 and most-likely in the Top 10 before a bye week and Friday (11/6) showdown at North Carolina State. From there, a road trip to Virginia Tech, a home showdown against Georgia Tech, one final away game at Wake Forest and a regular season finale against North Carolina—the biggest remaining challenge.
A shot at 9-1 going into that Coastal clash with the Tar Heels—it’s within reach and should be the goal of every coach and player on this squad—but it starts with simply showing up this week and delivering the good against Virginia.
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.