It wasn’t the game Miami Hurricanes faithful were looking for, but it’s the game everyone got—the Canes surviving the Virginia Cavaliers, 19-14 on Saturday night, under the lights at HardRock Stadium.
Even the bookies expected more out of this one—Miami a two-touchdown favorite—the Canes scoring over 30 points in every win this season, while even squeaking out 17 in a lopsided loss to Clemson.
All that to say, anyone who’s watched this rivalry over the years—especially since head coach Bronco Mendenhall found his footing in Charlottesville the past couple of seasons—they’re well aware the Cavaliers reinvent ways to play the Hurricanes tough.
Last year, a match-up similar to this most-recent showdown—Miami hanging on for a 17-9 win, fueled by several key red zone stops and holding the ‘Hoos to three field goals.
Back in 2018, a 16-13 road loss one week after a thrilling comeback win over Florida State—a backbreaking type of game that ended a five-game win-streak and saw the Canes dropping four in a row, embroiled in a quarterback controversy, before picking up two late season regular season wins to close out.
Miami almost went letdown-mode in the 2017 version of this game—9-0 after back-to-back primetime wins against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, yet twice falling behind—14-0 and 28-14—before pulling away big time in the second half, 44-28.
FAST START, SLOW MIDDLE, RESPECTABLE FINISH
This go-around looked like Vegas was right, early on—Miami on the board with a two-play touchdown drive less than a minute into the contest—a 32-yard strike to Will Mallory, followed by a deep ball to the wide open Mike Harley, who scampered 43 years for the touchdown.
High fives all around, as few expected the Hurricanes to only score 12 more points the rest of the evening—yet that’s precisely how this one shook out. Virginia answered with an 11-play, 64-yard drive—using three different quarterbacks employing a whatever-it-takes approach—which makes sense for a 1-3 team on the road against a 4-1 favorite.
By night’s end, Brennan Armstrong remained Mendenhall’s go-to under center—16-of-30 for 181 yards and two touchdowns—while also leaning on Armstrong’s legs for 15 carries and 91 yards.
Keytaon Thomspon and Iraken Armstead both saw a handful of snaps as well—but between the two of them, rushed nine times for 46 yards and only attempted one pass attempt, which fell incomplete. Even knowing these two were decoys, the Miami defense still defended against the pass, instead selling out and stuffing the run.
The Cavaliers threw for 181 yards on the night—35 of which came on a late touchdown from Armstrong to Ra’Shaun Henry with 5:27 remaining—Al Blades Jr. inexplicably out of place, allowing Henry to get wide open for what could’ve been a brutal scenario for Miami had Dee Wiggins not drawn a pass interference play on a 3rd-and-8 deep ball with 2:56 remaining.
The fresh set of downs allowed the Canes to bleed another two-and-a-half-minutes off the clock—the Cavaliers taking over at their own 20-yard line with :23 remaining and no timeouts—relying on a last ditch lateral, which resulted in the game’s lone turnover with Quincy Roche recovering the fumble.
No doubt many are growing wary of these survival-type games, as well as Miami finding ways to play down, instead of up. Truth be told, the offense hasn’t looked the same since Clemson exposed the Hurricanes porous offensive line—which resulted in D’Eriq King looking mortal, opposed to unstoppable—as he was against UAB, Louisville and Florida State.
King was an effective 21-of-30 for 322 yards and a touchdown against Virginia—but 14 carries for 28 yards kept him one-dimensions against the Cavaliers’ dense; similarly to the 11 attempts for 32 yards versus Pittsburgh last week.
King averaged 6.9 yards-per-carry in the opener against UAB—as well as 8.1 yards-per-carry in the rout of Florida State. That dropped to 2.1 against Clemson (if taking away the one 56-yarder), 2.9 against the Panthers and 2.0 this past Saturday night.
GROUND GAME RELATIVELY STIFLED SINCE CLEMSON LOSS
As a whole, the Hurricanes have been restrained on the ground as of late, considering the stable of running backs—Cam’Ron Harris, Jaylan Knighton and Don Chaney, Jr.—as well as the mobility at quarterback with an athlete of King’s caliber.
Three games into the season—against lesser defenses like the Blazers, Cardinals and Seminoles—some big runs padded the stats, to the point many were pushing a false narrative about the Hurricanes’ offensive line turning a corner.
Commentators in wins over Louisville and Florida State were fast to point out that Miami’s offensive line gave up a whopping 51 sacks in 2019, but looked to be a renewed unit in 2020 under first year coach Garin Justice—none making reference to the competition, or the fact that the college football world should reevaluate the Canes’ line at the halfway point of this quirky season, after showdowns against defensive-minded programs like Clemson, Pittsburgh and Virginia.
Much was made about Miami racking up 337 yards on the ground against UAB—including the 66-yard score by Harris, route to a 134 yard performance. Harris topped himself a week later with a 75-yard score at Louisville—while Knighton caught a quick screen and scampered 75 yards to pay dirt, as well–a reception, but still a running back going the distance on a play where the offensive line its job.
King led all rushers with 65 yards against the Noles, while Harris, Chaney Jr. and Knighton ran for a combined 99 yards and four touchdowns.
Two weeks later, Clemson’s front seven set up show in Miami’s backfield all night—the offensive line out-manned, out-matched and out-played—the Canes only rushing for 89 yards on the night (again 56 of which came from King on one play—Miami still settling for three on the possession; -3 rushing yards net on the next three plays.)
Pat Narduzzi and Pitt pounced on the exposed weakness and kept Miami’s ground attack in check all afternoon—109 yard combined between King and four different running backs—and it was obvious Mendenhall was content to do the same; make King one-dimensional and force him to beat you with his arm, which will be the modus operandi of all ACC defensive coordinators the rest of this season, barring the have the personnel to do so.
OFFENSIVE LINE STRUGGLES SINCE EXPOSED
Prior to the Clemson showdown, Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel offered up a detailed piece regarding Miami being “back” and questioning if the Canes could hang with the Tigers. A big part of his piece; some back-and-forth with unnamed ACC assistants and position coaches sharing their thoughts on Miami, circa 2020.
Regarding the offensive line—during a time when ESPN talking heads were hyping a better, more mature front five—the inarguable sentiment was shared:
“They are still a below-average offensive line,” said another opposing assistant. “Their quarterbacks slipperiness allows them not to take sacks and make plays. They haven’t played a good defense and they haven’t played a good defensive line.”
Miami has now played one great defense, two pretty good ones—and while there’s been some improvement, especially regarding tempo in this new spread offense—these Hurricanes are still fielding an offensive line that is a huge liability, and will be for the rest of this football season.
The million dollar question—to what degree with this level of exposure hurt Miami with five games remaining?
Going back to that 10-0 start in 2017, where the Canes managed to eke out their share of early wins—before utter dominance against the Hokies and Fighting Irish—quarterback Malik Rosier was exposed in a regular season loss to a four-win Pittsburgh team and Miami never recovered.
Clemson attacked the Canes in the ACC Championship, rolling 38-3 and snuffing out anything Miami’s offense tried to run—while Wisconsin forced Rosier into three interceptions in the Orange Bowl weeks later.
The Rosier hangover carried into a 7-6 run in 2018, as well—LSU aggressively getting after Rosier— the senior throwing two interceptions and struggling to move the ball all day behind an outmatched offensive line.
Fast-forwarding back to 2020—some upside, receiver play is starting to improve—which should get the running game on a better trajectory.
Harley’s career-high 10-reception, 170-yard outing against Virginia was the most yards for a Canes’ receiver since Phillip Dorsett posted a 201-yard outing against Arkansas State in 2014—and was the most against a conference foe since Allen Hurns put up 173 yards against Pittsburgh the season prior.
It was the type of breakout game many expected from Harley, prior to the midway point of his senior season—his slump seemly breaking with that acrobatic 38-yard touchdown haul-in early third quarter last week against Pittsburgh—and it carried over to the opening possession with the big score against Virginia.
Mark Pope had three grabs for 48 yards—38 coming on one acrobatic grab that was initially called incomplete, but reversed—thought had Miami not held on to win, two crucial back-to-back drops late in the game would’ve defined his evening.
Despite all receivers putting in extra work this past week at Greentree, Harley was truly the only one who looked significantly improved and much more consistent—challenge both Pope and Dee Wiggins to up their game, or Manny Diaz and first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to start looking towards younger players to show if they’re up for the challenge.
DIAZ; CREDIT—AND KNOCKS—WHERE DUE
As for Diaz, the second-year head coach deserves credit for guiding these Hurricanes to a 5-1 start—after a 6-7 run last fall, including a three-game losing streak to end the season.
In years passed, a Clemson-like loss would’ve carried over and destroyed morale—much like last year’s unforgivable loss to Florida International; Miami dropping the regular season finale to Duke and getting shut out by Louisiana Tech in a third-tier bowl in the following weeks.
Flaws and setbacks aside these past two weeks, the Hurricanes showed-up against the Panthers and Cavaliers—which sounds like a gimme, but for whatever reason hasn’t been in recent memory—lest anyone forget falling into 28-0 hole against the Hokies last October, or sleepwalking in an overtime loss to a 1-5 Yellow Jackets team that finished 3-9, with an early loss to The Citadel.
Diaz has been masterful in robbing the Transfer Portal—reeling in Bubba Bolden and Jaelan Phillips two years ago and Roche this off-season; all three of which are currently the Canes’ best defenders—not to mention King; Miami’s most mature and capable quarterback in 15 seasons, which is more of and indictment on the state of the program, than over-the-top praise for the Houston grad transfer.
Diaz also addressed special teams woes the past two seasons, landing Lou Hedley at punter and the game-changing Jose Borregales at kicker—who has been almost flawless this season—a year after the Canes were relying on two walk-ons and a head case that cost Miami at least 2-3 games last fall.
Salvaging the 2019 recruiting class wasn’t doable, due to the timing of Richt’s late December departure in 2018—but the 2020 class brought in instant-impact guys like Chaney Jr. and Knighton—as well as several others who will be the building block for the future.
The 2021 class is currently sitting just outside the Top 10 and second-best in the ACC with 22 “hard commits” and hopefully more to come if Miami can close this season strong.
Recruiting aside, the development, attitude and overall mindset of these players is what will define both Diaz and the program moving forward. Richt, Al Golden and even Randy Shannon all had some National Signing Day wins notched under their belts—but never a next-level program did those wins make.
The Hurricanes had scattered talent across the board, but never a team that morphed into a balanced competitor—while all these units ultimate took on the personality and demeanor of their respective leaders.
FEARED & RESPECTED, VERSUS LIKED & ACCEPTED
If there’s one big knock on Diaz at this point—it would be in his overall 46-year old approach to be relatable to his team and a players’ coach. Diaz comes off in year two as a guy who would prefer to be liked and deemed cool, opposed to having the type of separation that results in a healthy fear and respect via his players.
When looking back at the Butch Davis era in Miami—those Hurricanes feared Davis in the way a Private would a Master Sergeant. There was nothing overly-friendly about the relationship; everyone understood the hierarchy and properly fell into line—no mistaking Davis at the general and adult in the room.
Davis was a wise-beyond his years 42 years old when he took over the Hurricanes program in 1995 and 47 when he left for the NFL in 2001—Diaz was 44 when he became Miami’s 25 head coach at the end of 2018.
Zero doubt that spending 14 seasons under Jimmy Johnson—winning a national title at ‘The U’ and two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys—definitely puts some mileage on the odometer and takes some tread off the tires.
Granted the world has changed over the past quarter century—look at the national championship caliber head coaches who have won and dominated at the highest level; a list mostly made up of hard-asses who were feared and respected, opposed to coaches who overtly tried to relate to their players and get on their level—guys like Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Urban Meyer—all cutthroat, no bullshit and all business.
All that to say, Saban, Swinney and Meyer didn’t just wake up one day—pissing excellence, with the profession completely figured out. All eventually morphed and experienced growing pains when becoming great.
Go back and watch Swinney aw-shucksing his way through halftime of the 2012 Orange Bowl—down 40-29 to West Virginia in an eventual 70-33 ass-kicking. Relive a downtrodden Saban in 2007 after Alabama was upset at home by Louisiana-Monroe—four years after he’d won a national championship with LSU, but failed with the Miami Dolphins.
Most think of these two championship caliber head coaches in their present-day form—forgetting how both reacted and responded before they’d officially arrived.
Diaz is still young and is only two years into this head coaching game—one he took over after three successful year’s as Miami’s defensive coordinators. Conversely, Swinney never held a position higher than wide receivers coach when at 38 years old he took over for the maligned Tommy Bowden during the 2008 season.
The hard-ass snapping at the media after rolling Syracuse this past weekend sure-as-shit isn’t the same rookie he was a dozen years ago—having a lifetime, by college football head coaching standards, to find himself and his style.
Diaz entered the 2019 season taking over for a program Richt saw go 7-9 over a two-year span after that 10-o start in 2017—a youthful up-and-coming coordinator whose passion and personality were always worn on his sleeve.
That first order of business when promoted to head coach; a questionable WWE-style set-up at UM’s Soffer Indoor Practice facility—where players were encouraged to wrestle, beat-up and take out their “frustrations” in tackling dummies sporting 7-6 jerseys reflecting Miami’s 2018 record.
Diaz even got in on the action—tackling and beating up the dummies like his players—all of which left fans in wait-and-see mode. Would this approach work—or fall flat? It proved to be the latter after the Canes backslid with a 6-7 season—low-lighted with that FIU embarrassment and bowl game shutout; the program slipping to 13-16 since that out-the-gate run in 2017.
This season, Diaz broke out victory cigars after Miami laid it’s biggest win on Florida State since 1976—scoring the most-every points the Canes ever have on the Noles as well, in the 52-10 smackdown—an act that can be bought or sold either way, depending on the angle one wants to take.
Was it wrong to stop and smell the roses along the way—enjoying a big win over a rival? Probably not, though the fact Miami rolled out sloppy early-on at Clemson after the post-FSU bye week—it puts the celebratory gesture a bit more under the microscope.
Fact remains, the Canes had zero business losing to the Noles at any point over the past four tries—an thankfully have prevailed against a Florida State program that’s gone 18-21 dating back to the beginning of 2017 and is on their third head coach in four seasons.
So what makes more sense here—a business-as-usual approach attitude and we-expect-to-win-these-games-vibe—or a little gloating … which truthfully comes off a little overzealous on the heels of 6-7 and the tackling dummy event falling flat out the gate.
After the win over Virginia, Diaz again seemed overly-hyped for a game the Canes eked out against a one-win Cavaliers squad—even sliding in the rain in celebratory fashion, like players would, when all was said and done.
Some might love this player-friendly approach—others might loathe it; feeling a head coach in Diaz’s position should be setting at tone that wins like these over Pittsburgh and Virginia are the standard at Miami and that it should be treated in a business-as-usual mindset.
DAMAGED UPPERCLASSMEN VERSUS FRESH-START FRESHMEN
Fact remains, the Hurricanes’ program has lived with a loser’s mentality for too long now—13-16 entering this fall, going back to the end of 2017. Those losing ways have impacted this 2020 class—many of which bailed on the program before this year even got underway; another aspect of this broken culture—DeeJay Dallas, Jon Garvin and Trajan Bandy going pro, while Michael Irvin II and Scott Patchan transferred out.
All that’s left are the finally-turning-a-corner Harley, safety Amari Carter, who gets tossed every other week for targeting—as well as offensive lineman Navaughn Donaldson, who redshirted to rehab a knee injury. Hardly the type of senior leadership championship caliber programs are accustomed to.
The flip side to this frustrating trend; the King effect this season and a grad transfer that has injected some life into the program. Despite any of King’s limitations—the 23-year old quarterback is a winner and in six short games he has raised the level of play of those around him.
It’s been a while since Miami has seen a veteran leader of this caliber—especially one at the most-important position on the field.
All those in the 2020 recruiting class; they’re getting a front row seat to the King show and are starting their Miami careers in a year where the Canes are winning the types of games they used to lose, en route to a 5-1 start and Top 15 ranking with five games remaining.
Closing strong—both on the field and the recruiting trail— might be the shot in the arm Miami needs. From there, another strong showing with the Transfer Portal—it could set up for another step forward in 2021.
Outside of that, Diaz and staff must revamp their approach to recruiting the offensive line—starting with tapping into Big Ten and Big 12 country and working to sell some big boys on getting out of the Northeast and Midwest. It is really that hard of a sales pitch to get those guys down to South Florida for some fun in the sun, nightlife, beach proximity and girls in bikinis? Sounds like a no-brainer.
Long-term, time will tell where things go with both Diaz and this program—but in the short term, Miami is doing the most-important thing it can do to help it’s overall sales pitch right now; it’s winning football games, while remaining in the conference race.
Next up; a bye and then a Friday night road challenge at North Carolina State—the same Wolfpack team that North Carolina demolished, 48-21 in bounce-back this past weekend—a week after the Tar Heels were upset at Florida State.
Virginia Tech,Georgia Tech and Wake Forest will then be all that remain before the Coastal clash of the season on December 5th, when North Carolina visits Miami.
The showdown will be the Canes’ highest-stakes game this season, outside of Clemson—and one worthy of a well-earned, season ending victory cigar—or a loss that leaves Diaz as punching bag and tackling dummy until 2021.
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.