It It really is an afterthought, for fans and players alike. Saturday evening in late November, “Rivalry Week” and a six-win Miami team (riding a two-game losing streak), getting amped up for Pittsburgh squad seeking bowl eligibility.
Across the nation it’s Alabama/Auburn, Ohio State/Michigan, Florida State/Florida, etc. and for the Canes, a visiting Panthers squad and a thin line between 7-5 and 6-6 for the home team.
Miami and Pittsburgh—former Big East foes—renewed their rivalry last season when the Panthers joined the ACC and the Canes got the 41-31 road win, courtesy monster outings from Stephen Morris, Allen Hurns and Stacy Coley, as Duke Johnson was on the shelf with a broken ankle.
Prior to that, the teams last faced off in 2010 for an out of conference showdown where Miami rolled 31-3 at Heinz Field on a Thursday night in September.
Damaged as the Hurricanes appear eleven games in, the Panthers are even worse, having dropped six of their past eight. The lone bright spots; wins over Boston College, Virginia Tech and Syracuse, as well as Delaware and Florida International.
Chad Voytik is under center for Pittsburgh; a throwing quarterback who can also run the ball. Voytik has played well in some recent losses, keeping the mistakes to a minimum with only one interception the past four games. His favorite target—receiver Tyler Boyd—has been on fire as of late with 28 receptions for 563 yards and two touchdowns over a four-game span.
Defensively the Panthers have had their struggles since late October, giving up 56 to Georgia Tech, 51 to Duke and 40 to North Carolina, with Pittsburgh proving rather susceptible to both the pass and run.
All that said, throw the opponent out the window as the biggest battle Miami will fight is with itself. Which group of Hurricanes shows up tonight in another “meaningless” game as the ACC Coastal is out of reach, a three-game win-streak is long gone, the outside negativity continues pumping and this team is playing for one average bowl, versus another?
Furthermore, how does Miami handle the emotions of Senior Day as so many key Hurricanes are playing their final home game this afternoon?
While this is a common theme amongst countless programs today, few have endured what these UM players have over the past four years—many recruiting by Randy Shannon, but playing under Al Golden, the NCAA investigation, a lot of house cleaning regarding teammates (re: over 30 players leaving the program since 2011) and so many team goals going unachieved.
Key players like Denzel Perryman, Anthony Chickillo and Clive Walford contemplated going pro last spring, but returned for one more go-around. While they suit up one final time at Sun Life Stadium, an opposite fate looks to be the case for Duke Johnson and Ereck Flowers—a pair of juniors that will most-likely take their talents to the NFL next year.
Outside those five, Miami will also say goodbye to Shane McDermott, Jon Feliciano, Ladarius Gunter, Olsen Pierre, Thurston Armbrister and a few others, certainly impacting overall depth and leadership next season.
For those kids alone, a hope that enough fans show up this Saturday night to pay their respect and show some support. Issues with the coaching staff and way-too-many-losses aside, these kids gave their all to the program the past few years and deserve a standing ovation.
If nothing else, the fact this will most-likely be the final time No. 8 runs out of the smoke—that in itself deserves a packed house, though that won’t be the case.
Even worse, a belief amongst some fans that boycotting games and hoping for a loss will equate in off-season firings. Not going to happen. Not with a changing of the guard at president this off-season. Golden is here at least one more year, unless he chooses to pack up and take another gig.
Rooting against this team in the finale proves nothing and is a slap in the face to every kid on this team, so let’s shut that down immediately, despite the boiling-over frustration.
Yes, Miami failed its biggest test of the season last weekend with an embarrassing loss at Virginia, on the heels of a heartbreaker against Florida State. Worse than getting thumped, 30-13—the fact that the Hurricanes rolled into Charlottesville ill-prepared and reverting back to early-season mistakes.
A passive defense was rolled out, penalties were abundant, third-down-conversions were again sub-par and time of possession grossly favored the opponent. Virginia in November may as well have been Nebraska or Georgia Tech months back.
Eleven games into the season, letting a four-win team impose their will and dictate the course of the game—it was a backbreaker for the season and a tipping point for the fan base.
While the anti-Golden contingent is past a point of no return, there were still some folks with a wait-and-see approach, attempting to see the good and growth that appeared to be the case after wins over Cincinnati, Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
Losing to a Florida State team that was riding a 25-game win-streak as defending champs—worth a mulligan, at least, based on the way Miami played balls-out and aggressive; but Virginia? Even the most vocal Golden supporter can’t come up with any excuse for what happened against the Cavaliers. It was a completely and utter failure on every level.
After back-to-back letdowns, can these Hurricanes block out the noise against a below average Panthers squad? If coaching this team, where does one even turn for motivation? Playing for pride? That was last week’s message and it was missed completely.
The game plan against Pittsburgh—same as every other game against average conference competition this year. Get the offensive line to show up (which it didn’t last week), establish the run (which the Canes couldn’t at Virginia), protect Brad Kaaya (again, wasn’t the case last week), create turnovers (opposed to giving the ball away) and winning battles regarding time of possession and third down conversions (no bueno at Virginia.)
While the phrase “must-win” has been used often for the Hurricanes this season, such is the case again this week.
Golden won’t earn any credit should Miami knock off a five-win Pittsburgh squad (nor should he), but with a third-straight loss the criticism will be deafening between tomorrow and the eventual bowl game.
All tonight does is stop the bleeding, end the regular season on a good note and send a handful of quality players off as winners in their home finale.
Regarding said players, game plan and schemes aside, it’s on them to bring the passion—many of their suiting up in the regular season for their final time. Play like champions, despite the average record.
For Miami, all of that in itself should serve as motivation enough.
Will it? It damn-well better.