MIAMI HURRICANES COME UP SHORT IN CHAPEL HILL … AGAIN


Chapel Hill is a living hell for the Miami Hurricanes.

Has been since joining the ACC in 2004 and getting upset by a 3-4 squad when ‘The U’ was the No. 3 team in the nation —and by the looks of this latest installment, the curse lives on.

I hammered this point on social media all week, until I was Tar-Heel-blue-in-the-face—yet too many who follow this program refused to buy it.

This is The New Miami, bro. We’re the Canes; those Tar Heels ain’t shit. Past is the past; history means nothing. South Carolina gave that game away last week. Freshman quarterback is garbage—our defense will eat his lunch. We’re gonna hang 40+ on those scrubs.

Instead, it proved to be just the house of horrors type of game that Miami often deals with at North Carolina. Fall into an early hole, finally wake up, fight to scrap out of it, give up a late score and ultimately come up short—this time in strange 28-25 fashion as a blocked point after try brought on a pair of two-point conversion attempts. The Tar Heels made theirs; the Canes didn’t.

Days back, I laundry-listed out the ways the Canes have lost to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill—where Miami is now 3-5 since joining the ACC; literally reinventing ways to fail at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Another chapter was added this weekend by way of a failed kicking game, where seven points were left on the field in a three-point loss.

Manny Diaz and staff had two weeks to get Miami prepared for this early-season, in-conference road match-up—and while the Canes again showed some resiliency and fight, it was a second consecutive outing where a handful of boneheaded plays all played their part in being the difference-maker.

Miami unraveled early, down 17-3 by late in the first quarter—reminiscent of a 23-7 hole in 2009 and 27-0 halftime deficit in 2007. The Canes knew they were walking into a sold out stadium and that the Tar Heels were still flying high in the new Mack Brown era after last weekend’s upset of South Carolina—yet for whatever reason, UM still looked unprepared for the moment.

The usually-sound defense made freshman quarterback Sam Howell look all the part of a superstar, opposed to the newbie he is. The Canes’ defense couldn’t get to him much all night, never forced a turnover and allowed him to go down in Tar Heels’ folklore by way of a nine play, 75-yard drive—with a 4th-and-17 completion, no less—retaking the lead with just over one minute left on the clock. 

Another game where Miami won the stats battle, but ultimately couldn’t get it done—488 total yards; 309 through the air and 179 on the ground, while dominating the time of possession—and losing the stat that mattered most; scoreboard.

Buried in the frustrating loss; the fact that quarterback Jarren Williams put together another impressive outing at a position where the Canes have struggled for years. The r-freshman was 30-for-39 for 309 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers—but just like his first go-around against Florida weeks back, couldn’t complete a comeback, despite the ball in his hands for a final drive.

Miami also got nice production out of running backs DeeJay Dallas and Cam’Ron Harris, but struggled in the red zone—settling for field goal attempts; two of which sailed wide.

The thin line between winning and losing has proven excruciating two games into this new season; Miami literally one play away in each game from 2-0 and ranked, instead 0-2 for the first time since 1978.

Despite being mistake-plagued and trailing early, the Canes fought back all night took their first lead with just under five minutes remaining in the game—but quickly let it slip away; also reminiscent to a fourth quarter score against Florida and a lead that fast evaporated.

Where the loss to Florida was out of conference and not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things (outside of simply losing to the hated Gators, which is always pure hell to deal with)—going down 0-1 in the ACC is a rough spot for Miami; especially falling to a North Carolina squad that was picked near the bottom of the Coastal Division.

The premise of winning the division when not yet facing the best competition the Coastal has to offer; it doesn’t exactly exude confidence moving forward.

OVERBLOWN EXPECTATIONS VERSUS CURRENT REALITY; STILL OFF

The fact that any in Miami’s fan base were screaming “run the table” in the preseason shows just how obtuse some are in regards to what it takes to build a contender, as well as not fully understanding that 15 years of hovering as a mid-tier ACC program doesn’t get fixed through eight months of marketing hype and rebranding.

The New Miami is just a fancy way of explaining that the Hurricanes’ program has been doing it wrong for way too long and it’s time to raze this thing down to the foundation and rebuild in the mold of great Miami teams from yesteryear that Diaz grew up idolizing.

Nothing about any of that that will be easy—especially after 7-6 last season, a fifth coaching change in 14 years and a brand new quarterback—yet many still expected to knock off No. 8 Florida in the opener, followed by a dominant win over North Carolina in their house week two.

Again, where is this entitlement coming from—and why?

For those who confused Diaz’s explanation of the team he plans to build, with some just-add-water approach regarding what Miami currently has on board personnel-wise—that’s on them and an inability to assess a situation for what it is, versus what they want it to be.

You can’t fast-track yourself from average to contender overnight. If you could, it wouldn’t have taken Dabo Swinney an up and down eight years to start consistently winning the ACC and bringing home Clemson’s first national title since 1980; the same Swinney that Tigers fans wanted to run out of town the first six years the “unqualified” head coach was building a contender.

Gurvan Hall (26) looks on as Dazz Newsome (5) reels in the game-winning touchdown with 1:01 remaining.

Yes, the Canes could just as easily be 2-0 as they are 0-2, but the mistakes made are precisely what happens with a new head coach and brand new offensive staff on the heels of a six-loss season. You can see what you’re trying to emulate and can articulate who you want to see this program grow into—but to actual do, on the road in real time—it shouldn’t come as a shock when years of bad muscle memory kick back in and the team flinches under the lights.

Miami has shown commendable fight against both Florida and North Carolina; scrapping back in both games in a way that never would’ve been the case in 2018. When the Gators went ahead 17-13 late third quarter, last year’s Canes would’ve folded—instead of bouncing back with a quick touchdown. Against the Tar Heels, that 17-3 deficit would’ve been a back-breaker and Miami would’ve gotten rolled up. 

Instead, it rattled off 10 points before the half and finally got the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter—holding North Carolina to a field goal from the four-minute mark in the first quarter, until the final minute in the fourth.

Pressure ramps up late when you’re short on time. Miami has learned to catch its breath early in the game when things start to get away, but hasn”t figured out how to bear down in those final minutes when everything is on the line; especially not with the youth it has on the defense everywhere, sans linebacker—or with a freshman-heavy offensive line trying to buy time for a r-freshman quarterback with two career starts under his belt.

What was the strongest link over the past few seasons, fact remains the Canes’ defense failed one a few occasions and its cost them two football games.

No sooner did Miami fail to create points out of a fourth quarter interception of Feleipe Franks, the maligned quarterback came back on the next play from scrimmage and torched the Canes for a 65-yard pick-up, which set up the game-winning punch-in. Miami needed the type of stop it had gotten several times up to that point, but in the game’s most-crucial moment, it folded.

The same happened in Chapel Hill two weeks later; Miami gets the go-ahead score late, only to let North Carolina march down field to answer—with a monster fourth down conversion, no less.

EVEN GREATEST TO DO IT DEAL WITH GROWING PAINS EARLY ON

Some will confuse explanations for excuses, but as hard as the pill is to swallow—these Canes are learning the hard way what it takes to win, just like past teams before them that eventually became great.

Everyone remembers the legendary plays Ed Reed made throughout the 2001 season, yet forgets his sophomore year when he and Mike Rumph got burned on an 79-yard hook-up from Kevin Thompson to Chafie Fields that saw Penn State come back against a Miami team that had just scrapped to and retaken the lead—down 17-3 in the third quarter and ultimately falling, 27-23.

Later in that 1999 season, Ken Dorsey was tossed all over Lane Stadium when thrust into action when Kenny Kelly got hurt against Virginia Tech—the wide-eyed Dorsey swallowed whole in his first real game action.

There are countless other examples of eventually great players yet to hit their prime, but we’ll leave it here for now. Growing pains are real and even future greats have moments of struggle on the way up.

Miami has some guys right now that could very well be good down the road, but they’re just not there yet. Brian Hightower had his shot at pulling in a game changing grab last night, but couldn’t—while Mallory rebounded from a bad showing against Florida to catch the go-ahead score, but couldn’t hang on to the two-point conversion.

Meanwhile, the secondary is struggling tremendously and missing Jaquan Johnson, Sheldrick Redwine and Michael Jackson a lot more than anticipated.

Bandy got burned badly by the Tar Heels, but looked next-level the past two seasons when he had more help out there. Al Blades Jr. picked up a crucial unsportsmanlike penalty late against the Gators and hasn’t tackled well, to date. DJ Ivey got himself suspended for the opener and looked out of sorts against the Tar Heels; including an early pass interference call that led to a score.

Gurvan Hall has also struggled; out of position on the aforementioned big late hook-up for Florida that led to the game-winning touchdown—not to mention, Carter, who hauled in a Gators’ interception, but got himself booted against North Carolina in a game where the Canes’ secondary couldn’t afford a depth hit.

The defensive line also doesn’t have the muscle it had last season.
Gerald Willis missed the bowl game against Wisconsin and as a result, the entire line took a step back in that game without his presence. 

Willis has since moved on, Joe Jackson blew off his senior year to be a fifth-round NFL pick and the Canes lost some depth when transfer Tito Odenigbo and Demetrius Jackson graduated. Nesta Silvera remains sidelined with an injury, while Virginia Tech transfer Trevon Hill is still working his way back into playing shape, due to shoulder surgery last winter.

Miami’s secondary is sorely missing the experience and confidence of Jaquan Johnson (4) and Sheldrick Redwine (22).

A true contender can overcome those setbacks with a next-man-up attitude; Miami can’t—as it’s nowhere near contention yet. Just the fact that the Canes are still so reliant on transfers for depth sake; it should tell you how far this program is from being championship-caliber.

When one is a contender, you reload instead of having to rebuild—and you don’t suffer the growing pains these Hurricanes are dealing with.

Fact remains, the breaks just haven’t gone Miami’s way early this season—many self-inflicted, but not all. The Canes did more good than bad the past two showdowns; enough that both games could’ve easily have resulted in victories. The bad just happened to come late at the worse possible time, ultimately costing them—twice.

All that to say, no, there are no moral victories. 0-2 is pure hell any way you slice or dice it. The only thing worse would’ve been Miami getting blown out in either or both games, as there would be nothing to build on, whereas there are some teachable moments here that if corrected, can still make for a good, step-forward season.

Still, this start is absolutely a setback that is going to bring with it a wave of negativity—something that a native Miamian like Diaz is aware of, and expects. As quickly as fans ate up The New Miami, a renewed attitude and an assault on the Transfer Portal—anyone who knows anything about supporters of ‘The U’ is well-aware just how quickly things will turn shitty if wins aren’t racked up.

JIMMY, BUTCH & DENNIS LACKED EARLY SUPPORT; BECAME GREAT

Of course, those who are turning fast and refuse to give a new coach time to find his footing—these are the same ones who flew banners trying to get rid of Butch Davis year three as he cleaned up somebody else’s miss—and still wanted him gone year six after an early-season loss at Washington—yet clamored for his return every time there’s been a coaching change at ‘The U’ over the past decade.

Folks with this short-sighted approach also wanted Jimmy Johnson out after going 8-5 year one with the defending national champions—while others didn’t even want him in the first place; feeling defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti should’ve been promoted when Howard Schnellenberger left for the USFL.

Johnson hit the ground running in 1984 with road wins against Auburn and Florida, but losses to Michigan and Florida State quickly had the Canes at 3-2. Cue the rumblings.

One can only imagine the late-season shellacking Johnson would’ve taken on social media back in the day after blowing a 31-0 home lead to Maryland, a post-Thanksgiving, ‘Hail Flutie’ loss to Boston College and a Fiesta Bowl setback to UCLA to end the season with a three-game losing streak in ugly fashion.

Dennis Erickson was praised year one; picking up where Johnson left off—the cupboard full after the 1988 season; installing his one-back offense and not tinkering with the defense.

The former Washington State head coach got a pass for losing in Tallahassee with a back-up quarterback—and ending the season with a home rout of top-ranked Notre Dame, before knocking off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for the program’s third national title—but the tide fast turned when dropping the 1990 season opener at BYU, as the top-ranked, two-touchdown favorite, defending national champs simply didn’t lose those types of games.

Yes, Larry Coker couldn’t maintain what Davis created, Randy Shannon didn’t have what it took, Al Golden was an empty suit and Richt was on the wrong side of his career arc—too spent to dig in and do a young man’s job. No one is calling Diaz the next Schnelly, JJ, Erickson or Butch, either—but writing him off two games in when realizing what knee-jerk reactions would’ve meant reading what Johnson and Davis went on to build; people need to get a grip.

No, none of that U-related history excuses the sloppy play or coming up short that’s started this new season with a thud; it’s simply a reminder to have some perspective regarding where this program’s been the past 15 years, what Diaz inherited and where he hopes to take it.

These glaring problems didn’t appear overnight and sure-as-shit won’t get fixed that way, either. As tired as fans are of the Canes being irrelevant; the fan-turned-coach who actually signed up for the rebuild is tired of it, too—hence his signing up as Miami’s 25th head coach in program history, working tirelessly to right the ship.

The disgruntled fans who tried to run off Butch Davis are the same ones who begged for his return the last few times UM hired a new coach.

There’s a reason Miami went 7-6 last fall. There’s a reason Mark Richt stepped down—after another season with a multiple-game losing streak. There’s a reason why the Canes have only taken the Coastal Division once in 15 tries, have never won the ACC and haven’t had a perfect regular season since 2002.

Athletics weren’t a priority to former university president Donna Shalala; who opted for a handful of low-rent hires for over a decade, while putting all her energy and resources towards UM’s medical school. Shalala stepped down in 2015 and within months, Miami’s Board of Trustees green-lit the hiring of Richt; a proven name instead of another up-and-comer—as well as a reported salary around $4M-per-year—which was new, big money territory for the University of Miami.

Richt immediately pushed for a bigger budget, allowing him to hire better assistants than Hurricanes football had seen in the past—instrumental in Diaz’s return to South Florida; resulting in the immediate revamping of the defense—as well as helping get a much-talked-about indoor practice facility pushed over the hump, by way of a $1M personal donation.

Translation; Miami has only been rebuilding since 2015—as everything that took place the decade before that was nothing more than Shalala going through the motions; this program backsliding a little more each and every year. Throw that decade out the window because nothing resembling a rebuild took place in that lost era.

Even with the Hurricanes documented struggles over the years, some still spent the off-season calling for an undefeated, run-the-table regular season—despite Miami dropping five of its past seven games, dating back to a home comeback over Florida State last October—and are beside themselves that this new-look team came up short in two tough road games.

Fans sitting around this summer talking about UM being a dark horse Playoffs contender—meanwhile this new coaching staff is busting their asses to to break bad habits that have persisted for years;  teaching kids how to close out games against mid-level conference teams that have found outplay the Canes for years.

POSITIVES ARE THERE SHOULD ONE CHOOSE TO SEE THEM

Fact remains, even in two losses—marred with mistakes—Miami looks better top to bottom than it did last season. There’s an energy and passion that was lost last year, but seems to have returned. Youth and inexperience at a few key positions; these are the issues and unfortunately there is no quick fix. These kids will have to learn on the fly and hopefully grow up quick.

“It is very similar to a week ago,” Diaz said postgame Saturday night. “They are competing, they are playing with toughness, they are doing a lot of the things we’re asking them to do. There is not a guy in that locker room right now, coaches included, that can’t do more and can’t play or coach better than they are right now.”

In hindsight, this (obviously) wasn’t a good year to open with a road trip to Orlando to play the Gators, or for a night game in the always-tough Chapel Hill week two of the season. There’s a reason coaches like to schedule the likes of a Bethune-Cookman and Central Michigan—Miami’s next two opponents—in effort to kick off the rust, after spring, summer and fall with no real contact.

The Canes dropped two games by a combined seven points—and can easily pinpoint where things went off the rails.

Williams has been a surprise at quarterback, in regards to how quickly he’s easing in to the role. Yes, he’s missed some throws or has held on to the ball too long, but he’s protected the football much better than the turnover machines who were under center last season.

That said, his offensive line remains young, green and makeshift—and will continue learning as the go, which will make for an up and down year.

Just the fact that the Canes are still so reliant on transfers for depth—it should tell you how far this program is from being championship caliber. When one is truly a contender, you can “reload” instead of having to “rebuild”. Miami is nowhere near that place yet and is still suffering from growing pains.

0-2 isn’t where anyone wanted to be at this point—especially Diaz and this new staff—but it’s where the Canes have landed, so you deal with it and move on. The season is far from over and Miami will get back-to-back weeks at home to work out the kinks against some lesser teams.

Come October, it’s back to ACC play and home games against Virginia Tech, Virginia and Georgia Tech that will go a long way in shaping the Coastal race. Miami isn’t back on the road again until a late October road trip to Pittsburgh, followed by an early November showdown in Tallahassee—five in a row at HardRock and hopefully a hard reset after a brutal start to this new era of football.

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.

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