In the face of a global pandemic and forced quarantine—does one have the ability to find some positives, where others will only focus on the negative?
The inconveniences are obvious—social lives limited, masking-up whenever venturing out into public—but what about the bonus time with family that wouldn’t have existed under normal circumstances; this forced-slow down giving us all the ability to reevaluate and to plan for a new-new when the time comes.
Relating that to football—and the Miami Hurricanes, specifically—some are overly critical of the way in which this squad is underperforming, while others are simply appreciating the wins that keep racking up. Truth be told, the answer probably lies somewhere in between the two polar opposites.
Miami survived at Virginia Tech this past weekend—eight days after eking out a come-from-behind win at North Carolina State. Four combined points were the difference in these eight quarters of football and both games saw the Hurricanes rallying late on offense, while getting necessary stops on defense, in order to get out alive.
Even more impressive, Miami did it with one quarantined arm behind its back—13 players out for COVID-related matters. The Hurricanes were without a handful of starters, a well as some key reserves. At one point, the game itself was almost called off—but Miami pushed to play, showed up, hung tough and prevailed—which is a real footnote to this season and testament to how the Hurricanes have handled a very odd 2020 campaign.
Virginia Tech jumped out to a 14-3 lead on Saturday afternoon, as a sparse Lane Stadium. Miami moved the ball early, but missed a scoring opportunity by way of an oddly-timed and strangely-execute fake field goal on a 4th-and-3 from the Hokies’ 30-yard line. In what would’ve been a makable 47-yard attempt by Jose Borregales, Miami instead had holder Lou Hedley flip the ball to the immobile 205-pound kicker, who was stuffed after scrambling for a year.
It was one of those plays that had it worked, no one would’ve batted an eye—but regardless of it’s success, there’s no debating that the Hurricanes would’ve been better suited keeping the ball in the hands of the immovable D’Eriq King, or one of three bruising running backs, a both Cam’Ron Harris and Jaylan Knighton took a few handoffs on the previous eight plays of the drive.
The early aggressiveness on the opening drive wasn’t even the game’s biggest head-scratching moment. Save that for an ill-timed and poorly-executed two-point conversion attempt late third quarter, which could’ve cost Miami the win, had Hendon Hooker and Virginia Tech’s offense not self-imploded on their final few possessions.
MIAMI OFFENSE COMES ALIVE LATE; DEFENSE CLOSES STRONG
Trailing 24-13 halfway through the third quarter, the Canes offense finally came to life on a 13-play, 75 yard drive—Harris punching in the six-yard run on a possession where Miami executed on 4th-and-1 and 3rd-and-3 to stay alive—the fourth down conversion coming on the heels of 2nd-and-17 after King was sacked on first down.
With a chance to pull within four, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee chose overthinking over common sense, calling for a throwback to left tackle Zion Nelson, which was doomed from the start—ending with Nelson not just getting stuffed, but the Canes penalized for an ineligible receiver on the boneheaded call, as well.
Had Miami logically kicked the point after, it’s a 24-20 ball game, and the ensuing 10-play, 82-yard drive—stamped by a 36-yard strike to Mark Pope, where King avoided the blitz and signaled to Pope to be ready—would’ve seen the Hurricanes take a 27-24 lead with just under six minutes reaming, barring Borregales made his kick.
Instead, another failed two-point attempt—a better call, but poor execution as Don Chaney Jr. wasn’t able to haul the pass in—and a 25-24 lead that was not only too close for comfort, but one that would’ve left Diaz and staff lambasted had Virginia Tech been able to kick a game-winning field goal late, opposed to one that would’ve tied the game and sent things to overtime.
Thankfully the Hurricanes defense stepped up while Hooker and the Hokies stalled out.
On the first play from scrimmage after Miami took the lead, Hooker air mailed a deep ball in the diving arms of Te’Cory Couch—the first time the Hurricanes picked off the Hokies since the final minute of a 38-14 route in Blacksburg in 2018.
Miami took possession with 5:48 remaining, only to go three-and-out—punting the ball back to Virginia Tech in just over a 90 seconds, as another sack of King left the Hurricanes in an undesirable 3rd-and-15.
The Hokies rattled off 19 yards in back-to-back plays—getting out of the danger zone after Hedley bombed a 52-yard punt downed at the nine-yard line, but a timely sack by Jaelan Phillips retuned the favor, leaving Virginia Tech to try and fight out of a late and-long situation. An incompletion by Hooker was made worse when the quarterback lost his footing on 3rd-and-15, his knee hitting the ground for a nine-yard loss.
Miami again took possession with an opportunity to close—Gurvan Hall with the fair catch at the UM 43-yard line—only to see Lashlee predictably and conservatively running back-to-back with Harris and Chaney Jr., before King was run down on a 3rd-and-5 attempt that lost three yards. The Hurricanes forced the Hokies to burn all three timeouts on the possession, but only took 13 seconds off the clock—Virginia Tech with the ball back and 1:45 on the clock with a chance to kick a game-winning field goal.
A first down would’ve put Miami in kneel-out mode—while an incomplete pass would’ve saved the Hokies a timeout—so running the ball wasn’t the crime; it was the vanilla manner in which Lashlee went with back-t0-back handoffs into the teeth of a front seven most of the afternoon.
By the time a designed run was called for King on third down, Virginia Tech knew with 100-percent certainty was was on deck and snuffed it out immediately—Lashlee whiffing on an opportunity to call a safe pass to a running back, or calling a designed run for King earlier, when the expectation was to pound the rock with Chaney Jr. or Harris.
Hedley’s leg again saved Miami, as his punt was downed at the four-yard line—the Hokies taking over with 1:37 remaining and zero timeouts.
Hooker found Tre Turner for a 19-yard pick-up, getting out from the shadow of his goalpost—using both his arm and legs in an attempt to pull off the comeback. The Hokies picked up three first downs over the next minute-plus, stopping the clock momentarily—though time was still the enemy.
Facing a 4th-and-10 from the VT 43-yard line with :05 remaining—the Hokies chose miracle mode, over a Hail Mary—dumping it off to Tayvion Robinson, who played hot potato with three others on offense before being dumped for a six-yard loss that ended the game.
BACK-TO-BACK COMEBACKS DEFINE LATTER HALF OF SEASON
The rally against the Hokies—where the Canes didn’t see their first lead until the 5:59 mark in the fourth quarter—was the opposite of what took place at North Carolina State the Friday night prior, outside of trailing by double digits and rallying to victory.
A bonafide shoot out, the Canes and Wolfpack traded blows all evening—North Carolina State striking first, Miami responding and eventually taking a 21-14 lead before UM’s offense cooled and the home team went on a 10-0 run to close out the first half, 24-21.
The Hurricanes tied things up early third quarter with a field goal—only to allow the Wolfpack to drive 75 yards on the ensuing drive; Bailey Hockman hooking up with Emeka Emezie for a 34-yard haul-in on 3rd-and-4, followed by a big 14-yard tear-off by Hockman, setting up Zonovan Knight on back-to-back runs and a one-yard score.
Miami responded with an 85-yard drive of their own; back-to-back plays to Pope for 39 yards and a game-tying 17-yard score to knot things up, 31-31 late in the third quarter. Momentum immediately went out the window one play later, as Knight returned the kickoff 100 yards for the score. The Canes next possession stalled out; Miami settling for a 38-yard field goal from Borregales—the deficit cut to seven.
The Hurricanes defense flexed-up and forced a much-needed three-and-out—the offense back in action and looking to tie things back up–which looked to be the case when Harris punched it in on 4th-and-Goal from the one-yard line, though the play was blown dead as replay took a second look on a third down run by King that came up a half-yard short. Harris go the call again on fourth down, again scampered in but Miami was hit with a false start and moved back to the five-yard line.
Much to the chagrin of some, Diaz and Lashlee correctly took the three points—trotting out the automatic Borregales for a 22-yard put-through that made it a 41-37 ball game; putting the onus on the defense to get a stop. Tying the game up was obviously the preference, but Miami could ill afford to not score on that possession, with just over six minutes remaining.
It would take two scores to win—the safe choice on this drive simply meaning the Canes would need a game-winning touchdown, opposed to a field goal on their next possession—whereas getting stuffed on fourth down would’ve put Miami in position where a touchdown would at-best tie the game and force overtime.
The defense bowed up—Couch with a monster sack on 3rd-and-9—giving Miami the ball back and their own eight-yard line with 3:50 remaining and 92 yards between a comeback victory, or an agonizing defeat. King found Mike Harley for a 35-yard pick-up on 2nd-and-8, getting the Canes near midfield and after a 3-yard run by Harris and incompletion to Dee Wiggins—went back to the well and caught a streaking Harley for a 54-yard touchdown.
For a receiving corps that slept-walked for a few weeks, starting in Clemson—Harley, Pope and Wiggins began coming alive and haven’t let up—starting with Harley’s 170-yard outing against Virginia and rolling into a 153-yard outing in Raleigh—all of which obviously make King’s job easier; the transfer quarterback finally finding the deep ball again at North Carolina State.
LATE RALLY IN RALIEGH; SHOT IN THE ARM CANES NEEDED
Hockman and the Wolfpack took possession from their own 25-yard line with 2:43 remaining—where much like Hooker with his late first-down gaffe—Hockman put too much heat on the ball, which was deflected into the arms of DJ Ivey for a game-sealing win. King’s wheels got Miami 12 yards on a 3rd-and-6, putting the Canes in victory formation with 1:40 remaining.
The late turnover marked the second straight game where Miami forced a late turnover to close out—Virginia down 19-14 with the ball: 23 on the clock and no timeouts, relying on some end-of-game trickery, resulting in a fumble that Quincy Roche recovered. The Canes escaped, after giving up a 32-yard run by Brennan Armstrong, followed by 35-yard touchdown strike to Ra’Shaun Henry on the next play—cutting Miami’s lead to 19-14 with 5:27 remaining.
Much like this weekend’s win over Virginia Tech, Miami was in position to close out against Virginia with a couple of first downs—but looked to have stalled out on 3rd-and-8, before Wiggins drew a pass interference call at the 2:56 mark. With new life, the Canes and Lashlee ran a series similar to the 13-second possession in Blacksburg; fourth-string back Robert Burns up the middle for one, Knighton up the middle no gain and a King run on third down the lost a yard.
With the Cavaliers already out of time outs, the Canes shaved over two minute off the clock—setting up the need for a miracle finish if Virginia was to drive 80 yards in :23—securing a victory that ultimately staved off any critique, which winning often does.
Nitpicking after a win is always better than the same effort after a loss. Taking shots at fake field goals, poorly-timed two-point conversion attempts and conservative late play-calling; the type that allows team to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory—it’s done with the desire to see the mistakes corrected moving forward, opposed to with the understandable venom that would’ve come had these decisions led to losses.
WINNING CLOSE BATTLES; FIRST STEP IN CONTENDING AGAIN
Much like the 2017 season, these Hurricanes are winning the type of close games that they blew in 2018 and 2019—which in this season of transition, ultimately was the biggest goal. Prior to the COVID-fueled reshuffle, Miami was gunning to with the Coastal Division, en route to a ACC Championship game berth.
Instead, teams like Temple, Wagner and Michigan State were dumped from the schedule—with Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina State all added. The Canes also saw Duke removed, when those three Atlantic foes were added. Notre Dame was also welcomed into the ACC temporarily this fall and with the top two conference foes facing off in December—opposed to the best from the Coastal and Atlantic—Miami will most-likely be on the outside looking in, even if it takes out Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina to close out the regular season.
Getting to Charlotte this December; Miami wanted to see how it matched up with Clemson in the Trevor Lawrence era—as these two different division foes weren’t set to meet in the regular season again until 2022, when the heralded quarterback will be long gone.
The Canes got that crack at the Tigers during the regular season, weren’t ready for primetime and we’re outplayed, 42-17—all questions answered—and in a rematch with Clemson one win away from reaching the College Football Playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, does anyone really believe this overachieving Miami team is going to lay down a roadblock?
With Notre Dame beating a Lawrence-less Clemson in double overtime weeks back, Miami’s hope of a rematch took a massive hit—as the Irish seem on pace—as both teams seem destined to win out; Clemson facing Florida State, Pitt and Virginia Tech, while Notre Dame closes with North Carolina, Syracuse and Wake Forest.
Even if one of the two stumble, no doubt that these are are the most-balanced and deep team in conference this year. If Miami fans are rooting for anything, it should be the combination of winning out—with Clemson falling to either Pitt or Virginia Tech—which would set up a showdown with Notre Dame for a conference title.
All that to say, Plan B isn’t too shabby, either. Should Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson all win out—with the Tigers topping the Irish in Charlotte—both will most-likely reach the Playoffs, leaving Miami to represent the ACC in the Orange Bowl, most-likely against hated rival, Florida.
Of course all of this is moot, should the Canes shit the bed against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest or North Carolina—just the type of games Miami seems to drop down the stretch in the ACC, when looking ahead and trying to do conference title game math.
LATE SEASON ACC STRUGGLES HAVE PLAGUED UM FOR YEARS
Back in 2005, an eight-game win-streak after dropping the opener at Florida State—Miami was hyper-focused on winning out and getting another crack at the Noles. Then two weeks after upsetting No. 3 Virginia Tech in Blackburg, the Canes lost at home to a three-loss Georgia Tech team, 14-10—sending the Hokies to Jacksonville, instead of two-loss Miami. It was the season that proved to be the beginning of the end for Larry Coker, whose Canes got wrecked 40-3 in the Peach Bowl and stumbled to 7-6 the following fall, resulting in his termination.
Come 2009—the third year of the Randy Shannon era— Miami started strong with conference wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech—and an out-of-conference upset of Oklahoma—before falling at Virginia Tech. A month later, an overtime loss at home against Clemson served as the knockout punch—as the Yellow Jackets won the rest of their ACC games and topped Clemson in the conference title game, before losing to Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
Year three under Al Golden, the 2013 Hurricanes jumped out to 7-0 and No. 7 in the nation, before getting wrecked at No. 3 Florida State—and then sleepwalking through losses against Virginia Tech and at Duke. The road loss in Durham proved the deciding factor for the Coastal that fall, as the Blue Devils survived road games at Wake Forest and North Carolina down the stretch, hanging on with two ACC losses to Miami’s three.
Mark Richt and crew blew it in 2016, as well—4-0 out the gate, before a missed point-after kept Miami from upsetting No. 10 Florida State, 20-19. The hangover continued with a lifeless 20-13 home loss to North Carolina the following week. Virginia Tech routed the Canes, 37-16 a week later—only to see Miami choke away a comeback at Notre Dame, 30-27, capping off a four-game losing streak.
Those back-to-back-to-back conference losses against the Noles, Tar Heels and Hokies were the difference-maker as a Virginia Tech earned a trip to Orlando with only two conference losses, where Clemson held on for the win.
Water is wet, fire is hot, grass is green—and anytime the Hurricanes are looking too far down the road, or doing funky math when dreaming big about the ACC title game—you can bet the house that getting-ahead-of-itself Miami will choke.
While a win isn’t always a win—as the way, the why and the how that victory was secured are always worth analyzing—in this 2020 season, prevailing in any way, shape or form is truly the ultimate goal.
ON PAR TO EXCEED ORIGINAL 2020 GOALS
Miami was never set to be true contender this year; not national and not even in conference. Winning the Coastal—for the second time in 17 seasons—and getting a measuring-stick match-up with Clemson; that was the ceiling for year two under Diaz. Doing that meant Miami would have to win the close games it gave away last year, to the likes of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Florida International and Duke.
The wins haven’t been pretty this fall, since losing at Clemson. A shootout at Louisville and rout of Florida State gave reasons for optimism early, but that loss to the Tigers was definitely the type of moment that can take the wind out of a team’s sails.
In years passed, Miami would’ve arguably gotten tripped up by a defensive team like Pitt the ensuing week—showing up flat and not ready to deal with the adversity. Instead, the Hurricanes’ defense clamped down in the red zone—which proved to be the difference-maker in a 31-19 victory.
Miami jumped all over Virginia a week later, by way of a two-play, :28 scoring drive—only to manufacture 12 points the rest of the evening. It what turned out to be a gritty, low-scoring affair—the Canes with only two field goals, until Chaney punched in a touchdown early fourth quarter—the home team took the Cavaliers’ best punch and hung on for the win.
Folding on a Friday night in Raleigh after a bye week; not far-fetched for modern-day Miami. Two years ago, the Canes did just that at Boston College—shut out in the second half and falling 27-14, still smarting from a 16-13 loss in Charlottesville two weeks prior. This time around, Miami outscored North Carolina State 23-17 in the second half and closed strong with a 13-3 fourth quarter run.
Riding high off that comeback against the Wolfpack, a danger game on-paper at Virginia Tech loomed. The Hokies were reeling from Liberty upsetting them at home a week prior—a game Virginia Tech looked to have in the bag, after returning a blocked field goal for what looked like the game winner.
Instead, the Flames got a do-over by way of an icing-the-kicker time out going wrong—and after an eight-yard pick-up on 4th-and-6, drilled a 51-yard game-winner as time expired.
Virginia Tech showed up looking to prove a point on Saturday—but so did Miami, who even after a slow start, never mailed it in—which is ultimately the biggest growth opportunity for this 2020 season. Before the Canes can start winning the big games again, it must take care of business week-in and week-out against average conference foes.
That mid-September win at No. 18 Louisville? Miami’s first victory on the road against a ranked team since a the eight-lateral, last second comeback at Duke in 2015. This most-recent win against the Hokies? The Canes’ first road victory as a Top 10 team since hanging on at North Carolina in October 2017.
Is this 7-1 bunch a truly legit Top 10 team? The pollsters don’t seem to think so—the Canes dropping from No. 9 to No. 12 in the latest AP poll (though the Coaches Poll kept Miami at No. 9.) despite hanging on to win. That said, do the polls even really matter at this point? Not really. Winning football games matter—and if the last three showdown were decided by a combined nine points, or nine touchdowns—fact remains the Canes are 4-0 since stumbling at Clemson.
Baby steps. It’s not what a frustrated fan base necessarily wants to hear—but one’s desire to be a contender again doesn’t change the timeline it will take to get back on top. Not after a 13-16 run from the end of 2017 to the beginning of this season, not when this program has looked like a mid-tier ACC team for a decade and a half and not when losing the types of close games it’s re-learned how to win this fall.
Another shot at revenge against Georgia Tech next weekend, followed by what look to be two shootouts against the likes of Wake Forest and North Carolina—who combined for 112 this weekend, with the Tar Heels hanging on for the 59-52 victory.
Should King and these Canes hang on for an 10-1 regular season, it will be Miami’s best since 2017. Prior to that, one has to go all the way back to 2002 to match the output.
Stay the course, appreciate what’s taking place and know that closing strong is the perfect remedy to success both on the recruiting trail and the Transfer Portal—both of which are the Canes’ key to again becoming a true contender, in due time.
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.