The Miami Hurricanes are back to .500 football after eking out unexpected wins against North Carolina State and Pittsburgh in back-to-back weeks.
Left for dead after heartbreaking losses to Virginia and North Carolina weeks prior, Manny Diaz and his squad appeared headed for 2-6—games against the ranked Wolfpack and Panthers looking like even bigger uphill battles than “lesser” opponents in the Cavaliers and Tar Heels.
The football gods tooketh away earlier in the season—a kick hitting a goal post, or tipped and intercepted ball—but they gaveth back since; opponents dropping balls, a reversed turnover or a veteran quarterback making two rookie mistakes.
Conversely, quarterback play has absolutely saved Miami in back-to-back weeks—freshman Tyler Van Dyke slapping together two Heisman-worthy performances—throwing for 751 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception in season-altering victories.
To some, Miami has gone from left-for-dead—back to winning-out and favored to beat everyone left on their schedule—Georgia Tech heading south this weekend, a road trip to Tallahassee next up, Virginia Tech down south for Senior Day and a regular season finale at Duke.
On paper, the Canes should extend the win-streak to six—but Miami also should’ve beaten Virginia and North Carolina, while potentially stumbling against North Carolina State and Pittsburgh—so plotting out and making predictions means absolutely zero regarding this consistently-inconsistent program.
The sadly-familiar, annual we’re-still-in-this-thing Coastal Division refrain is again pumping full-force—if A beats B and C can get upset by D—strangely more plausible than in years passed, as the underwhelming ACC is that wide open this season.
Inconceivable as it’d be in a more competitive year—a once 2-4 Miami can actually roll to 9-4 with its first conference win, setting up and Orange Bowl berth as ACC champs.
Even if Miami somehow rattled off seven wins since the tip heard ’round Chapel Hill—there are still deep-rooted issues surrounding this broken program and a wrong-fit head coach; all of which seemed closer to being addressed before Van Dyke’s yeoman’s effort saved Diaz from a year three in-season firing.
Without this rejuvenated offense, Miami would be sitting at 2-6—and 2-8 dating back to what would’ve been the Canes last Power Five victory (a 48-0 rout of Duke last December)—a four-game losing streak and 0-4 conference start arguably enough to see the joker Diaz out on Halloween morning.
Instead, the MVP-like performance from Van Dyke propelled the Canes to back-to-back wins—by a combined five points—short-term memories going full-throttle, working overtime to forget how disastrous and embarrassing the first half of this season played out.
DISASTROUS DEFENSE DESERVES HEADLINES
31-30 and 38-34 are the only numbers some want to focus on—instead of 587; the amount of yards Pittsburgh dropped on Miami’s struggling defense. Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett carved up the Canes secondary for 519 yards through the air—done-in by two uncharacteristically bad decisions that ultimately cost the Panthers the game.
Had the veteran Pickett seen Jordan Addison midfield and streaking past the Miami secondary—he’d have dropped an easy 45-yard game-tying touchdown in the sophomore receiver’s mitts. Instead, Pickett didn’t identify the gimme, looked left and forced his pass into double coverage—Tyrique Stevenson jumping the rout and taking the pass 18 yards the other way.
Four plays later, Miami was in the end zone and up 31-17—a defensive breakdown and sure score fast-swept under the rug when Pickett whiffed and Stevenson capitalized on the mistake.
Late fourth quarter, trailing 38-34 and looking for the game-winner—Pickett was again moving the Panthers at-will against a backpedaling Canes defense—Addison again wide open for a would-be 31-yard touchdown, but his all-everything quarterback overthrew a pass landing in the arms of roving safety James Williams.
Van Dyke cooly responded and got Miami out of a jam with a clutch 18-yard, timed sideline hook-up to Charleston Rambo—the Canes facing a 3rd-and-11 from the one-yard line without the completion. Instead, a first down, some space, an opportunity to run Jaylan Knighton for a huge seven-yard gain—the Panthers blowing timeouts on back-to-back plays—before Van Dyke found tight end Will Mallory for six-yard dagger on 3rd-and-4, resulting in victory formation and the ballgame.
Still, lost in the elation of the victory, the fact that Pickett—who had one interception on the season—gifted two to the Miami secondary. The gaffes cost his team 14 points, the ballgame and a personal stat line that should’ve read 41-of-55, 595 yards and five touchdowns—further proving the Canes’ defense couldn’t stop him; Pickett stopped himself.
Two plays were the difference between 38-34 and 48-27—the loss hurting Pitt’s chase of a Coastal title, while allowing Miami to ignore glaring defensive issues, now overshadowed by the false glow of back-to-back wins.
None of that takes away the credit these Hurricanes deserve for not packing it in when backs were to the wall after the program’s worst start since the 1997 season. A youth movement is finally underway in Coral Gables—Diaz’s hand mostly forced due to injuries—but Miami’s underclassmen have some bounce in their step, are showing heart and have played balls out the past two weeks, amidst some mistakes.
Still, to see so many going from the low of lows after two conference losses weeks back—to fully on board after eking out two wins—it’s borderline insanity. A Heisman-caliber performance from a freshman quarterback over an eight-day span cannot negate the fact that Diaz is fielding a train-wreck defense; a unit he put himself in charge of last off-season, which has regressed since.
Van Dyke showed tremendous moxie in the wake of his game-sealing interception against North Carolina—calling his shot against North Carolina State and then delivering a 325-yard, four-touchdown performance—as the Wolfpack wound up as snakebitten as the Canes had been weeks prior.
Case in point, an early third quarter muffed punt by Jacolby George looked like another here-we-go-again moment for Miami. Danny Blakeman recovered the ball on the five-yard line and the Wolfpack looked to be in business—until a review on the play saw a helmet-less Anthony Smith in the scrum, resulting in an unsportsmanlike call, offsetting a Canes’ holding penalty and forcing a re-kick.
North Carolina State forced a three and out, but lost the field position battle—settling for a field goal on the ensuing possession—the quirky, overturned turnover resulting in a four-point swing in an eventual one-point game.
CLOSE WINS; SHORT-TERM ENDORPHINS RUSH
Before any retort or rant about how this is football and games are made up of small moments like this every week—no shit and well aware. Teams can play good football and lose, bad football and win, good football and win or bad football and lose.
The point being made; that recent wins are seemingly clouding judgment and perspective regarding Miami fielding a good enough football team—one that can back into wins, while continuing to suffer head-scratching losses, en route to 8-4 type seasons—versus the type of fall that would’ve sent Diaz packing; capitalizing on negative national media calling out the university’s commitment towards rebuilding a champion.
An early-season, sympathy-driven narrative was spun by maligned athletic director Blake James and local bleeding heart media—an implication that the Canes were victims of bad luck in last-second losses to Virginia and North Carolina—when in realty, Miami played some really piss-poor football against both; slow starts, dropped passes, untimely penalties, mental errors and trash fundamentals when it came to angles taken or lazy tackling.
Conversely, an offensive resurgence and Van Dyke slapping an “S” on his chest, playing Superman—the only difference-maker in Miami stealing two victories which their defensive did everything to blow. The final score remains the only headline, while desperate fans feast on empty-calorie, meaningless-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things wins—the type of sad victories that give a lazy University of Miami athletic department enough fuel to roll an “improved” Diaz out for another go-around.
Lost in this two-game win-streak and 2-2 stretch—the fact this Diaz-led Hurricanes’ defense surrendered 1,839 yards and 139 points over that span—forcing two turnovers in three games, before Pickett’s unraveling and two gift-wrapped interceptions; his second and third of the season.
Miami’s defense has played poorly enough for 4-4 to easily be 2-6 going into this final stretch—but the Hurricanes’ offense outperformed expectations, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat—which begs the question, how much longer can this current ecosystem of next-level offense and abysmal defense survive?
The Canes are currently running a one-dimensional passing offense, with zero power running game—Miami limited with both Don Chaney Jr. and Cam Harris lost for the season, while working to break in newbie Thad Franklin; the thunder to Knighton’s lightning.
Impressive as Van Dyke was throwing for 325 yards against North Carolina State and 426 at Pittsburgh—the Canes only amassed 95 yards on the ground against the Wolfpack, and 64 yards against the Panthers, 40 of which came on a touchdown run by Knighton.
Despite the fact this final month of football is anything but a Murder’s Row schedule for Miami—doesn’t take a world class defensive coordinator to see the chinks in the Hurricanes’ offensive armor and to believe Van Dyke will start to feel more pressure, while offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will have to dial up some form of a ground attack to survive.
The Canes’ offensive game plan over the next four games needs to consist of more than Van Dyke airing it out—playing mistake-free football and averaging 4o0 yards and three or four touchdowns-per game. Miami’s defense better figure things out—and fast.
WINS DON’T CHANGE OVERALL DIAZ NARRATIVE
The pressure to solve these defensive setbacks sits squarely on Diaz’s shoulders—noise levels needing to rise within this rowdy fanbase, as too many have gotten fat and happy—forgiving bad defense due to success on offense.
The lead story and headlines have been built around a baller freshman quarterback, a youth-led movement and the show-their-heart Canes “finding a way”—while the defense bleeds out weekly on Manny’s watch.
Weeks back, social media was flooded with memes, imagery and comparisons to the plight of former Canes head coaches Al Golden or Randy Shannon in year three of their runs run at Miami—versus where Diaz stands as many games in—Golden at 19-11, Shannon at 17-13 and Diaz at 16-14 after falling in at North Carolina.
Two weeks later, a complete narrative shift for those blinded by two wins—some going as far as to lob Dabo Swinney comparisons (seriously)—who was 23-12 eight games into year three, not counting going 4-3 in an interim role at Clemson in 2008.
Weeks ago this fan base was afraid of Miami potentially losing out—yet is now daydreaming about taking the ACC and pulling off a big bowl victory, en route to the same 10-4 record Swinney posted in 2011; the Tigers’ head coach also winning the conference in his third year.
Left out of that clunky, stretch of a comparison—the fact West Virginia rolled Clemson’s shoddy defense in the Orange Bowl, 70-33—a massacre that saw Kevin Steele and Charlie Harbison removed from their co-defensive coordinator posts, before Swinney chased down one of the baddest defensive minds in the game and landed the coveted Brent Venables, now in his tenth season with the Tigers.
While Clemson reeled in the biggest defensive fish they could hook after Swinney’s third full season—the missing piece to chasing championships—Diaz used his year-three off season to promote and demote himself. The current head coach decided he was Miami’s best defensive option—splitting time in a role held by Blake Baker the past two seasons; who Diaz protected, helped coach-up and was saved from having to fire after LSU bailed him out and brought Baker to Baton Rouge to coach linebackers.
Not that Venables-caliber coordinators grow on trees—but Diaz could’ve turned the keys over to quality, veteran alpha that would put a foot up the ass of kids on that side of the ball—while he focused on his learn-on-the-job new CEO gig.
Diaz rolled into this new season on shaky ground—14-10 overall, and two games removed from a 62-24 beating former boss Mack Brown laid on him in last year’s season finale—yet his immediate answer was to play part-time defensive coordinator, while making sure fifth version of the Turnover Chain and third incarnation of Touchdown Rings were bling-tastic and camera-ready.
Teeth kicked in by Alabama. Nail-biter against Appalachian State. Outlasted and steamrolled in the fourth quarter by a tougher Michigan State team. Over-celebrating and looking like buffoons while smacking around Central Connecticut State. Back-to-back, slow-start losses to go 0-2 out the gate in conference play.
Miami was in complete crash-and-burn mode—a megalomaniac head coach in over his head, about to have the leg swept—before two pedestrian wins arguably saved his season. This short-term buzz some are feeling; in realty a huge step backwards for the movement, if the goal was to ultimately punt daze in favor of a better-fit head coach for 2022.
BEWARE AS EVERY GAME NOW “WINNABLE”
The good news for these Hurricanes is that the meat of the schedule is in the rearview and they’ll be favored in all four remaining games. The bad? The fact that Miami is prone for late-season shitting of the bed since joining the ACC; pissing away countless winnable games, despite everything—or nothing—being on the line.
From that still-painful late-year stumble against Georgia Tech in 2005 as the No. 3 team in the country—blowing a shot at an Orange Bowl match-up with Penn State as ACC champs, or runner-up Gator Bowl showdown versus Louisville—the Hurricanes drop the ball, literally and metaphorically.
Miami and Virginia Tech both joined the ACC in 2004; the Hokies taking the title outright year one, beating the Canes in a winner-take-all season finale. UM’s former Big East rival has won the conference four times and taken the division seven—while Miami’s lone Coastal Division championship (2017) resulted in a 38-3 bloodbath at the hands of Clemson.
Diaz’s Canes also admittedly have an issue handling success.
In the wake of arguably the program’s most-embarrassing loss—upset by commuter college Florida International in 2019—Diaz stated that his team was believing their own hype, reading the headlines and rolled in big-headed after a three-game win-streak over Pitt, Florida State and Louisville.
The Canes fell into a 23-3 fourth quarter hole against the Golden Panthers, before waking up and falling short—only to get upset by a basketball school the following week in Durham, North Carolina and then no-showing a fourth-tier bowl game; shutout by Louisiana Tech, ending 2019 with a massive thud.
Georgia Tech stumbles in with a 3-5 record—which has Miami faithful like those odds, until recalling the Yellow Jackets were 1-5 the last time these two met in 2019; weeks removed from a loss to The Citadel, before outlasting the Canes in overtime.
Miami’s had Florida State’s number the past four tries—but anyone who’s followed this rivalry knows the law of averages kicks in and the pendulum swings the other way. The Noles stumbled hard out the gate, but have won three of their past four—upsetting North Carolina by double-digits on the road—while having Clemson dead to right, before stumbling late last week.
Everything goes out the window when the Canes and Noles get after it—and a porous defense isn’t the answer for a road game against a Florida State squad starting to wake up from a multi-year slumber.
Virginia Tech is a hot mess, but like both Georgia Tech and Florida State—the Hokies have some pretty decent muscle memory when it comes to upending the Hurricanes over the years. Miami is 6-3 dating back to 2012—but Virginia Tech had a 7-2 run prior-to and Diaz 0-1 against the Hokies at home after an embarrassing 2019 showing where the Canes fell into a fast 28-0 hole.
Even lowly Duke has gotten in on the action—beating Miami in two of the past three showdowns of this insanely lopsided series the Canes lead 14-4.
IN THE END…
The point in this rant; based on Diaz’s overall track record and the Canes late-year slip-ups—there are no gimmes these next four weeks. Nor should newfound excitement over a young quarterback’s efforts cloud judgment in regards to a painfully bad defense in need of a coaching overhaul.
Some want to waste energies battling over allegiance and alliance; as if rooting for these Canes, or against—in the name of building for a better future—has any bearing on the outcome. The only conversation worth having; those who actively go head-in-the-sand over glaring weaknesses, in favor of short-lived jubilation when close wins are squeezed out against marginal opponents—as long-running problems won’t go away without sweeping change.
Whether Miami finishes 4-8 or a miraculous 10-4—a reckoning must still in the cards. Diaz must be judged as harshly for the hole he’s put Miami in—4-6 since last December, saved by three late-game wins—opposed to being let off the hook or keeping his players engaged and “showing up” these past two weeks.
8-4 is certainly doable as the regular season winds down, though 7-5 seems more realistic—Miami a combined 25-16 this past decade regarding the final four games of each season—the Canes losing focus and ultimately stumbling.
This up and down 2021 rolls on—one-game seasons and fast-changing narratives the name of the game, while the ongoing issues seem to stay the same.
Arguably less appropriate on the heels of back-to-back wins—but refuse to be blinded by fool’s gold and staying the course; Dead Manny Walking.
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 is a storyteller for some exciting brands and individuals—as well as a guitarist and songwriter for his band Company Jones, who just released their debut album “The Glow”. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.