The Miami Hurricanes broke a two-game conference losing streak and notched their first ACC victory of the year, knocking off Coastal Division favorite Virginia in a defense-minded, primetime home showdown. Brutal to be in must-win territory by mid-October, but such was the case—Miami never starting worse than 0-2 in conference play; a loss to the Cavaliers leaving the Hurricanes in full-blown meltdown-move. Crisis averted.
The Hoos were a slight underdog, according to Vegas (-2.5) but in real life, predicted by most to take out the Hurricanes. Virginia was also the pre-season favorite to win the ACC’s Coastal Division; having jumped out to a 2-0 conference start before heading south to Miami. The lone loss on the season; a 35-20 setback in South Bend—a four-point ball game late in the third quarter before Notre Dame returned a fumble for a score and started to put the game out of reach.
Bronco Mendenhall led his squad to an 8-5 run last year and appeared to have taken a step forward this season, fielding a stout, mature defense and getting solid play out of senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who matured after his first year in the program. For Miami to hold their own against a fundamentally-sound squad like Virginia after the way the past few weeks have gone for the Hurricanes; this was an impressive victory, all things considered.
This was another game of momentum; something the Hurricanes snatched early, after pissing it away on a few occasions earlier this season—down 17-3 in Chapel Hill in a flash, as well as last weekend’s quick 28-0 deficit against visiting Virginia Tech. This time around, it was Miami that got out to a 7-0 start, scoring on the opening drive—which seeming gave the defense a refreshed attitude and some bounce in their step; playing with a rare lead, opposed to digging out of an early hole.
In the end, it was a perfect blend of solid red zone defense for Miami, as well as Virginia self-imploding in almost every scoring opportunity, that proved to be the difference in a 17-9 battle.
The Hurricanes forced a three-and-out on the Cavaliers’ first possession, came up with a crucial 4th-and-1 stop from the UM 24-yard line—Greg Rousseau sniffing out and blowing up the play for a loss—as well as a blocked 38-yard field goal on the ensuing drive.
QUICK START REPLACES SLOW-TO-GO; SETS TONE FOR CANES
Any who have watched this program over the past year and a half—or even the past week—painfully aware that the Canes could’ve fallen into a fast 21-0 hole over that same span.
Instead, a confidence that came from going up early, as well as Diaz reinserting himself into Miami’s defensive, after the 2-3 start—the week’s practice, overall strategy and in-game calls; oft seen huddled with defensive coordinator Blake Baker and the rest of the staff Friday night—which ultimately paid off.
Still, one would be remised to not point out the biggest change for Miami; the offense picking up from where it left off last week when N’Kosi Perry entered for Jarren Williams, on the heels of a three-interception first quarter against Virginia Tech. Perry would throw for 442 yards and four touchdowns, in relief—rallying the Canes from a 28-0 deficit to an eventual 35-35 tie, before the Hokies scored late and Miami came up a red zone possession from forcing overtime.
In the following days, a mention that Williams was suffering from a throwing-shoulder injury, sustained against Central Michigan and re-aggravated early against Virginia Tech—keeping him out of Monday practice and paving the way for Perry to get the Friday night nod against Virginia. Whether the Williams’ injury was played up to avoid drama, or was simply convenient timing—Diaz has landed in a quarterback quandary, whether he wants to admit it, or not.
Generally speaking, Canes supporters—and maybe football fans, in general—have a way of judging a game’s entire body of work based on a win, or a loss, with no other discernment. Fight valiantly in a loss and do some good things along the way; most can’t be objective in regards to the game’s positives—venomous over the loss and treating any open-mindedness as lowering standard or celebrating moral victories. Conversely, in the wake of a win, any mistakes or glaring weaknesses are generally swept under the rug, with all the focus on what went right.
Whether Miami hung in there against Virginia, or couldn’t hang in all those red zone situations, falling 27-17—it doesn’t change the fact that Perry is currently the Hurricanes’ best option at quarterback for the duration of 2019.
Yes, after a score on the opening drive, Miami punted on it’s next six possessions and didn’t score again until a 19-yard Turner Davidson field goal with 10:06 remaining in the fourth quarter. Lots of three-and-outs, as well as some overthrown deep balls that could’ve easily been long touchdowns and game-changing plays. Perry’s timing with receivers and lack of touch; coming in too hot on some slants and short routes, while sailing some deep passes well out of reach—all problematic and in need of repair.
All that to say, Perry’s athleticism and elusiveness behind a porous Miami offensive line; the only qualification that means anything at this point of the season. Seven quarters in and there’s no debating the fact that the only counter to the sub-par offensive line play is a quarterback with the moves and awareness to slip away from defenders in the back field.
PERRY’S MOBILITY BEHIND SHODDY LINE; A GAME CHANGER
4th-and-7 at the 10:25 mark in the first quarter and the third down no-gain just before; the plays that defined the game—and possibly the season, so far. Eighth and ninth plays of the drive, with Perry and Miami moving the ball relatively well, after starting the Canes’ own 22-yard line—an early 13-yard hook-up with Brevin Jordan, as well as a nice 27-yard deep ball to K.J. Osborn; Perry standing in the pocket, getting the pass off and absorbing a big hit.
Perry picked up another first down with a 10-yard pass to Jeff Thomas, immediately going back to the receiver in the end-zone on a play-fake; Thomas beating defender Nick Grant, who made up some quick ground late, giving him time to get hands on the ball, throwing Thomas off from hauling in the score.
After a designed run where Perry picked up three yards, a 3rd-and-7 where the Cavaliers’ defense came in hot; Noah Taylor blowing by freshman left tackle Zion Nelson, untouched. Perry stood in, aware and dumping it off to Mike Harley last second, for no gain—on what would’ve been at least a seven-yard sack setting up a 4th-and-14.
Kicking game woes aside, Diaz and Miami were probably going for it on fourth down no matter who was under center, but the offense had an extra gear with Perry’s mobility; the r-sophomore immediately seeing a running lane to the left and scampering for the first down.
A quick run with Dallas lost two yards on first down, but a delayed screen allowed the running back to slip right as the Cavaliers’ defense got after Perry on second-and-long; the dump-off to Dallas the perfect call as Miami blocked downfield and sprung the running back to a 17-yard score.
Fast forward to midway through the fourth quarter; the Cavaliers held to three field goals, despite moving the ball well against Miami—it was the Hurricanes’ offense that finally broke through; riding the momentum from the previous drive where it settled for three, despite a 35-yard gain by Jordan that got Miami to the UVA seven-yard line.
Leading 10-9 and in position to put the game further out of reach, Perry and the Canes embarked on a 10-play, 75-yard drive—highlighted by a 24-yard hook-up with Mark Pope that put Miami in long field goal range. The running game stifled most of the night, Dallas tore of back-to-back runs of eight and 17 yards, setting the Canes up with a 1st-and-Goal opportunity at the UVA four-yard line.
Perry took a sack on first down, but only lost a yard—but rushed for two on second down and on 3rd-and-Goal from the three-yard line, kept again and scampered in for a punctuating score, pushing the lead to 17-9 with 2:31 remaining.
COMMON SENSE & LOGIC WILL HELP DIAZ AVOID ANY “CONTROVERSY”
Diaz took to the South Florida airwaves on Monday morning, doing his usual Joe Rose Show fly-by—where Rose was quick to point out Perry’s success in Williams’ absence, asking UM’s first-year head coach if the more successful offense “teased” him in regards to staying with the hot hand.
“It’s doesn’t tease us.” Diaz responded. “It lets us know what we’ve been saying all along, that we can win games with N’Kosi. N’Kosi just beat the 20th-ranked team in the country and the week before led a 28-point comeback. And last year he led a comeback against Florida State from down 20.
“I mean, N’Kosi has done some things now on his resume that are impressive. It’s what I’ve been saying all along: Jarren Williams is our starter but it’s still up to Jarren to come back from the issues he’s been dealing with and also to come back [from] the adversity of what he faced in the Virginia Tech game and to prove to everybody that he’s ready to go … and if for whatever reason he is not, we’ve got all the faith in the world in N’Kosi to get it done.”
WQAM co-host Zach Krantz pressed the point a little further, asking point blank if a healthy Williams will get the start over the more comfortable looking Perry, to which Diaz held a long pause before responding.
“If he’s healthy and if he’s ready,’’ Diaz said. “Again, it’s two parts to it. If he’s healthy and he’s ready to bounce back in essence from… You know, look, when you’re the quarterback everybody is watching everything you do. So the idea of getting back there and getting back on the horse and saying, ‘Hey, let’s ride.’ Once he’s ready for that, then we’ll be ready to go.”
One has to hope this is nothing more than coach speak from Diaz and a delicate balance to not imply that he’s lost faith in Williams, while keeping Perry in check, as UM’s most-experienced quarterback hasn’t handled property well in the past.
As the head of this Miami program year one, Diaz has to be delicate with his dealings—as the unspoken is as important as what’s being said; namely in regards to an offensive line that has performed well below anyone’s worst expectations this season.
Reading between the lines, or imagining oneself to be a fly on the wall on any conversations between offensive coordinator and Dan Enos, let’s say what both are thinking—but what neither can verbalize.
OFFENSE LINE ISSUES GIVE CLEAR ANSWER RE: QUARTERBACK CHOICE
In a perfect world, with the offensive line playing up to par—both seem to think that Williams is Miami’s future; the 6-foot-2, 210-pound redshirt sophomore looking all the part of your prototypical drop back quarterback, signal caller and leader of the offense.
Williams has a solid football IQ and is progressing … as much as he can behind an offensive line that is literally worst in the country in regards to sacks given up; some of that obviously on Williams and Miami’s coaches for starting a quarterback with limited mobility behind an underperforming, green line.
A safe bet that coaches also feel, but would never verbalize, what they have in Perry—a strong-armed, gifted quarterback who seems more prone to rely on his athleticism and improvisation, opposed to being more of your student-of-the-game type quarterback, who is going to learn the playbook in and out; pliable in a way that coaches can mold him into what they think he should be.
There’s a reason last year’s staff chose a “reliable” r-senior over Perry, while this new crew gave a r-freshman the nod; Perry obviously lacking something that should make a clear-cut talent like him the obvious go-to.
I’m often critical of the segment of this fan base that can’t accept the state of the Miami program and this ongoing rebuild; often projecting where they think things should be, rooted in 15 years worth of irrelevance and their being tired of the Hurricanes as an average ACC team. I implore them to start leaning on logic, over emotion and to take macro view of where things are, opposed to this micro, quarter-by-quarter assessment of The U.
Halfway through 2019, Diaz and Enos must go through the same exercise; acknowledging what they have personnel-wise, versus what they hoped this group would look like six games in—as well as the importance of finding ways to win now, versus force-feeding the line-up of tomorrow, today—and dealing with the setbacks that could result in that approach.
Fact remains, Miami’s offensive line is not getting the job done and as far as 2019 goes, there is no Plan B. Knowing that to be the case, which Hurricanes’ quarterback can be most-successful with that glaring limitation? Perry, or even third-string Tate Martell—but not Williams, the least mobile of the bunch.
Rewatching the past seven quarters of Miami football, Perry simply brings another dimension to the Hurricanes’ offense—if nowhere else, simply his ability to move in the pocket, avoid sacks and to buy more time for playmakers to get open; all of which have a ripple effect that impacts field position, how much time the defense is on the field, as well as the overall momentum and flow of the game.
Perry had his issues against Virginia, as proven by the low-scoring game and long droughts where the Canes were forced to punt drive after drive. Without the Cavaliers stalling in the red zone—partly due to good defense, but also due to incompetence on their part—there’s no way 17 points wins that football game and this week’s debate shifts to a rock bottom 2-4 start; quarterback play the least of anyone’s concerns (again, wins tend mask more-important subjects, while losses negate any good to come from a game.)
PLAY FOR NOW, WHILE ALSO BUILDING FOR THE LONG TERM
Paraphrasing something Diaz touched on weeks into taking the Miami job; the Catch-22 coaching staffs deal with on the recruiting front—mid-tier programs who need to win to attract better players, but struggle to get those victories as they lack the next-level playmakers across the board to have them contending week in and week out.
If building for next year, it makes sense to go with the quarterback coaches feel is the long-term guy—which appears to be Williams—but there will also be some lumps to take if sticking with a first-year starting quarterback behind a disastrous offensive line. But if the goal is to continue competing in the Coastal Division, while trying to win out and pull a 9-3, or even 8-4 season out of a 2-3 start—there has to be a shift in thinking; a focus on the micro, as well as the macro.
Williams played the role of game manager the first four games of this season; games that had Miami not shot itself in the foot with penalties, mistakes or breakdowns in the secondary, would’ve legitimately had the Hurricanes 4-0 going into Virginia Tech week, setting a less desperate tone for the Hokies’ visit.
Instead, with three losses in the books by the first week in October, Miami learned that a game manager learning on the job is probably going to have more limitations than an athletic, improvisational, less-pliable quarterback—one that might get you into some hot water, but also has the magic and moxie to bail you out.
I was critical of Perry last season, starting with the loss at Virginia—up through a second social media misstep before the bowl game. The immaturity and laissez faire approach to how he worked to earn the role as starting quarterback at Miami; something was off and the kid didn’t appear ready to lead a program that’s been looking for the guy for almost two decades now.
Mid-way through 2019, I’m yet to jump the Perry bandwagon, but I’ve seen enough—4.1 games with No. 15 and 1.3 with No. 5— to keep the keys in Perry’s hands, until he gives reason not to.
Practice is practice and even if Williams shows the grit and growth in practice coaches want to see in the wake of a poor performance against Virginia Tech, Greentree can’t be the only factor in deciding on a starter for Georgia Tech this weekend.
Perry gave this team a spark the past two weeks that it’s lacked since the opener against Florida—so riding the hot hand makes sense, right now. The Yellow Jackets are a hot mess this fall; off to a 1-5 start year one under Geoff Collins, who abandoned the triple-option for a more traditional offense and is off to a slow start.
One final home game for Miami, until a home season finale November 9th against Louisville. Lean on the home “crowd” and inferior opponent to get things settled once and for all.
Perry has proven to be the better fit with the current line limitations—and with an almost-comeback starting 28 down, as well as a quick start and late dagger against Virginia—any other move feels like a forced agenda, while ignoring feel, flow and the gut-instinct Diaz has shown to date.
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.