Months back has someone offered up a scenario that unranked Miami would find themselves down four, ball in hand mid-field with just over four minutes to go against No.8 Florida—one of any three quarterbacks without a turnover in their first start, while the Canes’ defense forced four turnovers—most would’ve considered it a dream scenario; especially considering the state of ‘The U’ the last the University of Miami played a football game.
Incredibly that was the exact situation Saturday night in the season-opener against Florida, but Miami couldn’t close—out-slopping the Gators, who scored late and held off the Canes for a 24-20 win—complete with five lead changes.
We mentioned last week around these parts that most opening games between quality teams tend to be lost, or given away more than one team stepping up and truly winning it—which was precisely the case here. Miami was 2-of-13 on third down conversions, Florida was 2-0f-10. The Gators turned it over four times, while the Canes’ lone turnover ultimately turned out to be the biggest of the game—both timing- and field position-wise.
Miami’s young offensive line struggled mightily, giving up an ungodly number of sacks—10—while roughly the entire team missed the “play smart” message delivered by Jimmy Johnson weeks back when he dropped by campus; UM with an obnoxious amount of penalties—14-for-118 yards.
UF wasn’t much better, getting clipped nine times for 100 yards—which should’ve been even more egregious considering the non-holding call on the Gators’ first touchdown and a missed false start on their final score. Big XII officials completely whiffed in their season debut; ESPN commentator Chris Fowler uttering the world “controversial” a few things throughout the course the evening—though Miami finished off the officials’ hack-job by shooting itself in the foot more than once; saving the worst for late.
Having hung in there the majority of the evening; weathering the storm and holding Florida off—clinging to a 13-10 lead late in the third quarter—the guy who was supposed to be Miami’s difference-maker made the biggest blunder on the night.
THE BREAKDOWN & THE ONE THAT ULTIMATELY GOT AWAY
Fielding a punt around the Canes’ 11-yard-line, Jeff Thomas couldn’t bring it in. The Gators recovered and three plays later, took the lead on their second cheap touchdown of the night—the first, a 66-yard dump-off to Kadarius Toney where UM cornerback Trajan Bandy was literally held twice on the play, yet no call.
To Miami’s credit, it immediately answered the score after Thomas’ fumble with an electric, 50-yard scamper by the resilient DeeJay Dallas, snatching back the lead, 20-17. The defense got back out their and did their part, as well—forcing the night’s third turnover when Amari Carter intercepted Felepie Franks, returning it 22 yards to the UF 25-yard line.
The Canes attempted to answer the Gators’ opening-drive fake punt with a fake field goal on 4th-and-1—Bubba Baxa scampering four yards—which a(nother) holding call negated. Miami got new life by way of an unnecessary roughness call on 4th-and-7, but in the name of all things bad juju, Baxa whiffed on the 27-yard chip shot and Florida paid no price for their mistakes.
To the credit of Dan Mullen, and the demise of a Miami defender out of position—safety Gurvan Hall—Franks dropped a dime to receiver Josh Hammond, who took if 65 yards before being brought down. Three plays later Franks punched in what would prove to be the game-winning score.
With half a quarter remaining, Miami still got two cracks at a comeback—but couldn’t capitalize. Thomas attempted to redeem himself with a 32-yard return that gave the Canes some of the best field position they’d seen all night—while Jarren Williams went back to early targets wideout K.J. Osborn and tight end Brevin Jordan, who hauled in a 25-yard reception just before halftime to give Miami it’s first lead since the opening drive.
Facing a 1st-and-10 from the Gators’ 31-yard line, some poorly-timed trickery with quarterback Tate Martell in the game, resulting in a loss of one—followed by an incomplete pass by Williams that set up a dreaded third-and-long that only gained two yards.
With faith in Baxa out the window—and little belief Miami would see the ball again—Manny Diaz opted against a 47-yard field goal attempt and saw Williams sacked on fourth down.
Inexplicably—Franks attempted to throw on fir first down with 4:20 remaining—and was picked off by Romeo Finley, who returned the errant pass to Florida’s 25-yard line, but staying with the disastrous theme of the night, Miami found a way to lose 30 yards in a matter of tick of the clock.
A double-bird salute from safety Al Blades Jr. cost the Canes the first 15 and an illegal block on first down locked on another—moving Miami all the way back to it’s own 45.
From there, the rest was a messy blur for both sides. Over the final 10 plays, Williams was sacked three times and fumbled twice (both recovered by Miami), while Florida committed two pass interference plays—one on 4th-and-34, another on 3rd-and-12—that gave the Canes new life.
A 12-yard reception by Mike Harley got Miami as close as the 24-yard line with under a minute remaining—where a game-winning field goal would’ve been an option had Baxa not missed earlier, or Diaz chosen to go for three instead of keeping the ball in his quarterback’s hands on fourth-and-long—but that was all she wrote after a sack and two incomplete passes that turned the ball over and downs.
While it’d be easy to point to a defining play here or there in a four-point loss—fact remains there were too many, each of which that could’ve been a difference-maker. Miami simply didn’t play the smart, disciplined, clean game it needed to take down the No. 8-ranked squad in a season-opener.
Yes, Florida looked like hot-garbage at times, as well—but the Gators could better-afford to not play their best as the more-experienced bunch year two under a coach who got them to 10 wins last year. Miami—in it’s first game under Diaz, with a brand new offensive staff and a r-freshman quarterback making his first start—couldn’t; those couple of extra mistakes proving to be the distance in jubilation and an upset, versus loss and heartbreak.
Despite doing some things right—resilient play, overcoming adversity, not quitting—too many pivotal moments went the wrong way. Still, the Canes were ultimately in it until the end despite that, and never stopped swinging.
“We talked about all off-season about developing a backbone, being able to withstand a punch … and then that happened the second half when we fumbled the punt and they score on the short field and a couple times where it’s like, well, I don’t know,” Diaz explained post game.
“Maybe it’s not your night and you can kind of let go of the rope and I thought our guys looked those situations in the eye, fought through them, and ultimately gave ourselves a chance to win the game with 10 seconds left in the game throwing the ball in their end zone.”
“Like I said, that’s what a big time program should do. You don’t pat yourself on the back for not quitting but it is something. And that was a big point of our off-season.”
As expected, the reactions to the game and loss are split—some imploring logic and liking much of what they saw; penalties and mistakes withholding—while others are letting emotion get the best of them; taking out 15 years of frustration on one game.
SEGMENT OF UM FAN BASE CONFIRMS THEY’LL NEVER ‘GET IT’
Message boards are generally the underbelly of the sports world; fans with quirky handles spewing anonymous venom and in this case, many seeming like they actually want Miami to fail, simply so they can be correct in their attacks. One game in, Diaz is already seeing the honeymoon end (with this portion of the fan base), after eight months of solid off-season moves.
Game One, with a brand new offensive staff, a brand new quarterback, three freshman on the offensive line—not to mention a 7-6 program that ended with a 35-3 bowl game thud last December—and some of the attacks were written like it’s year three and things should be humming smoothly.
Canes fans generally get a bad rap. Most of it isn’t fair, but when you see some of these bullshit comments and a complete inability to acknowledge that this Miami squad—mistakes aside—looked light year’s better than the lifeless bunch that took on Wisconsin at the end of 2018; it’s impossible to not acknowledge some moronic behavior. A sampling from one critic on Saturday night:
“This sloppy performance had beautiful hunts of Al Golden team with some notes of the late great Randal Shannon.
I’m calling you out Manny Diaz. You’re on notice. Until proven otherwise, you’re just a Cuban Randy Shannon without the forehead dent or top-ranked class in the country.
Let’s see if the sequel is better than the original, which flopped after being propped up and hyped for the same reasons. Can he win the Coastal or is he another Temple coach—all hat and not cattle.”
Those who disagree are considered to be a “jabroni”, while this critic also suggested a Penalty Dunce Cap for Diaz—going along with all of UM’s other sideline jewelry: “This way every time your undisciplined team commits a penalty you can pose for the camera, dog.”
Sadly, if you’ve followed this program for decades—you absolutely know “that guy” and could’ve set your watch by comments like this, no matter if Miami scrapped and lose to Florida by four, or no-showed and got rolled by four touchdowns—as the imbeciles have zero ability to discern between the two.
Fact remains, there’s a portion of UM’s fan base that believes the magic captured between 1983 and 2002 (sans that mid-nineties probation hiccup) should be replicated without a hitch; by a private school that really had no business crashing the party in the first place.
CANES FOOTBALL WILL REMAIN A MODERN-DAY UNDERDOG
Where football reigns supreme throughout state schools in the SEC, Big XII and Big Ten—coaches treated and paid like gods, while fans flock to stadiums on Saturday afternoons just as religiously as they attend church come Sunday—that will never be the case with the ‘The U’.
Miami spent 15 years—from the 2001 national title season, until two months before Al Golden was fired, late 2015—with Donna Shalala as university president; a woman who loved the medical program with passion, but didn’t give a rat’s ass about athletics.
The result, a few low-rent hires that kept the Canes wandering around purgatory for a combined nine years as both Golden, and Randy Shannon before him could barely tread water—let alone rebuild what Butch Davis created half a decade prior to Shannon replacing placeholder Larry Coker.
It’s no coincidence that four months after Shalala’s departure, UM athletic director Blake James and the Board of Trustess green-lit the hiring of Mark Richt—made possible by Shalala’s replacement, Dr. Julio Frenk, operating in a hands-off manner in regards to athletics.
Despite the bigger paycheck, Richt didn’t prove to be a home-run hire on the field—but bringing in a seasoned veteran who ran a storied SEC program for 15 years certainly helped behind the scenes, as the former Georgia Bulldogs leader rolled up his sleeves and worked to bring his alma mater into the modern era, facilities- and infrastructure-wise.
Still, the hiring of Richt broke a long-time Miami pattern of rolling the dice on low-cost up-and-comers, over stroking a fat check for a proven entity.
The moment the University of Miami grew a pair and hired a coach with Richt’s resume—December 2015—is the moment this program finally proved it actually gives two shits about rebuilding it’s proud football legacy. Everything that happened the 14 years prior on Shalala’s watch; smoke and mirrors and going through the motions.
Fans can piss and moan about how unacceptable it is that UM’s been irrelevant for almost two decades, but it doesn’t change the fact that Miami is still less than four years into truly building a modern-era football program.
The hiring of Diaz is merely Phase Two and a continuation of the groundwork Richt laid. Blowing everything up and starting from scratch for the fourth time in 13 years would’ve been disastrous—as well as it would’ve been unnecessary as the defense has been successful since Diaz revamped it in 2016, meaning only the offense needed to be retooled.
ATTITUDE & OVERALL ENERGY; BIGGEST OFF-SEASON CHANGES
Miami dug in for the fight on Saturday night against Florida—which wouldn’t have been the case had Richt not stepped down, bringing Diaz back home from his 18-day stint in Philly; allowing him and a brand new offensive staff to spend eight months changing the culture, while flushing out old bad habits and reversing negative muscle memory.
If last year’s Canes had an ounce of the fight shown last Saturday night—a that 7-5 regular season would’ve been 10-2 and Coastal Division champs; as those limp-dicked losses to Virginia, Georgia Tech and Duke simply wouldn’t have happened.
No, none of that makes a loss to Florida feel any better—but take solace in the fact Miami players and coaches are pissed off, too. Lest not forget, they’re the ones who actually put in the work all off-season—on the field and in the weight room—not on message boards or social media.
“I thought our guys played with a lot of courage. I think they played with a lot of effort,” said a frustrated Diaz in his post-game presser.
“But it doesn’t matter because we lost the game. We did not come here to play with courage and effort. We came here to win the game and it’s not okay at the University of Miami ever to lose to the University of Florida. Everybody in that locker room feels the pain of that right now.”
Some will chalk it up as coach speak or just words, while those who believe in the current transformation will take solace that this group will get back to work over the coming weeks, eliminating mistakes and chasing down a Coastal Division title—which is the ultimate goal of The New Miami here in 2019.
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.