Despite racking up it’s third loss of the season by early October, you can say this about the Miami Hurricanes under first-year head coach Manny Diaz—there are some fighters on this team and this bunch doesn’t quit. Backs-to-the-wall, these Canes go down swinging and are in it until the clock hits zero; a refreshing change after so many years of wilting in the face of adversity.
Unfortunately, that’s about the only positive to dwell on after falling behind to Virginia Tech, 28-0 early in the second quarter; the Canes tying the game late, only to watch the Hokies march down the field for a game-winning score—similar to how things played out against the Gators and Tar Heels in other soul-crushing losses.
What can’t be said about this poorly-coached bunch; that it plays smart, shows up prepared, hits the ground running or is learning to eliminate crucial-moment mistakes as the season nears the halfway point; all this setbacks the difference between sitting pretty at 5-0, or a retched 2-3 start to this new era of UM football.
Diaz and staff had another bye week to prepare and get this team focused, yet Miami suffered another painfully slow start and disastrous first quarter—much like an early September showdown in Chapel Hill; on the heels of the Canes’ first bye, where the road favorite was in a 17-3 hole in a matter of minutes, again waking up late and ultimately falling short.
For those paying attention, Miami was outscored 45-3 in the first quarter of both post-bye games thus far in 2019—yet scrapped back to take fourth quarter leads, only to see the defense fail in game-defining moments.
At North Carolina, blown coverage on 4th-and-17 led to a game winning touchdown by a freshman quarterback making his second career start. Against Virginia Tech, a back-up quarterback making his first career start, led a five-play, 63-yard touchdown drive—burning the Hurricanes’ defense on a play that worked twice before, with Miami unable to adjust and shut it down.
TURNOVERS CHANGED; ON WRONG SIDE OF MARGIN WITH FIVE GIVEAWAYS
Insult to injury again came in the form of untimely mental mistakes, boneheaded penalties or game-defining special teams gaffes—all at the least opportune times. Just like the loss at North Carolina, Miami’s showboaty bling stayed locked away in its case all evening against Virginia Tech—but unlike the Canes protecting the football in Chapel Hill, they gifted the Hokies five turnovers; four in the first quarter, alone.
Jarren Williams—praised pre-game by ESPN commentators for not turning the football over once in his first four outings—threw an interception on his first attempt from scrimmage. Then another. And another. Seven attempts on the day, three picks later and the r-freshman’s day was over by the 3:55 mark in the first quarter.
In Williams’ defense, not everything was his fault. That initial third down attempt to Mike Harley was a little behind the receiver, but a clear-cut pass interference call was flat-out ignored as the ball ricocheted into the air for Jermaine Waller to haul-in.
On the ensuing drive, Williams didn’t step into his throw and hung it up there for Dee Wiggins in the end zone; the sophomore receiver doing little to fight for the ball as the defacto defender, allowing Caleb Farley to pick off the pass with relative ease. The following possession saw Williams targeting Brian Hightower; another floater that Waller nabbed for his second takeaway on the day—Hightower somewhat lackadaisical in his pursuit of the ball, as well as any effort to chase down the defender; Waller picking up 23 yards on his return.
Williams and the receiving corps hardly deserve all the blame for the early hole, as the Hurricanes defense looked nothing like the we’ll-get-that-shit-back unit it was the past few years when the offense struggled.
The mobile and fearless Hendon Hooker—again in his first career start, replacing the statuesque Ryan Willis—led an eight-play, 48-yard scoring drive after Williams’ first cough-up.
Hooker passed once on the drive, handed off to Deshawn Clease three times and kept it as many times for himself—scampering in from 12 yards out on 3rd-and-6 for the score. Credit to head coach Justin Fuente for easing the newbie into the game; establishing a run and letting the quarterback get conformable with his feet before calling on him to get it done through the air.
The Canes defense forced a three-and-out after Williams’ end zone pick, but couldn’t hold after the errant pass to Hightower in Miami territory; starting field position—the UM 23-yard line. After a run by Keshawn King netted three yards, a brilliant call where tight end Dalton Keene lined up right, appeared to be a blocker, only to peel left as the majority of the Miami defense bit right, thinking run—leaving Keene to rumble 20 yards for the score.
Even worse, this same play would burn Miami with 1:25 remaining in a 35-35 ball game where a crucial third down stop was imperative. Instead, the Canes defense bit again and Keene caught the exact same pass, around the same exact spot—getting stopped at the three-yard line this time, before Deshawn McClease punched in what proved to be the game-winner.
In between Keene’s two pivotal moments, N’Kosi Perry did his best to rally the offense, in spite of the hole Williams put the Hurricanes in—turning in a valiant 422-yard, four-touchdown performance.
PERRY GETS HIS SHOT WHEN WILLIAMS’ CLEAN STREAK GOT DIRTY
Entering the game, Miami having already spotted Virginia Tech a cool 14 points—Perry hit Harley in space, only to see the receiver fumble; the Hokies recovering on the UM 20-yard line—Hooker again shaking-and-baking on 3rd-and-6, running for 15 yards and setting James Mitchell up to pound it in from a yard out. Down 21-0, just like that.
Three consecutive passing attempts with Perry—and zero effort to run the football—resulted in a three-and-out and another defensive letdown as the Hurricanes let the Hokies march down the field 80 yards on 12 plays.
Miami surrendered a 26-yard run to McClease on a 3rd-and-10 from the Virginia Tech 20-yard line—a gut-punch with an opportunity to stop the bleeding. Hooker picked up another third down with his legs and found Keane for a first down touchdown from the UM 17-yard line, pushing the lead to, 28-0 with 9:30 remaining in the first half.
A nine-play, 71-yard drive—highlighted by a 51-yard snag by Brevin Jordan—came up four yards shy of a score; offensive coordinator Dan Enos again abandoning the run and calling four consecutive passing plays (two to a well-covered Jordan) before Perry rolled right and stuck it in Farley’s bread basket on fourth down, unable to find an open receiver.
Miami did get their lucky bounce before halftime when a fourth down, 38-yard Hail Mary attempt fell into the hands of Mark Pope, off the Will Mallory deflection—a sign of life for the snakebitten Hurricanes, cutting the deficit to, 28-7.
The third quarter couldn’t have been scripted much better as the defense forced a three-and-out, followed by an eight-play, 88-yard drive where Perry found Jordan a 28-yard pick-up on 3rd-and-10, while working Jeff Thomas into the mix with a 18-yard connection. A rare pass interference call on the Hokies set the Canes up at the six-yard like, where Perry and Jordan hooked up again, cutting the deficit to 14.
Both offenses cooled for back-to-back possessions, before Miami’s defense flinched first. Facing a 3rd-and-2 from the VT 28-yard line, the Hurricanes thought run—safety Bubba Bolden caught in no man’s land—allowed Hooker to drop one over the shoulder of a sprinting Mitchell, who galloped 67 yards to the five-yard line before Hooker hit Keene—inexplicably open, yet again—extending the lead back to 14.
It was a kick in the teeth similar to the season opening, late fourth quarter, 65-yard pass from Feleipe Franks to receiver Josh Hammond, setting Florida up for the eventual game-winning score. Only this time there was ample time for Miami to keep chipping away—12:14, to be exact—and by the 3:16 mark, the Canes finished their own improbable 21-0 run to tie the ballgame, 35-35.
Perry kept finding Jordan and Thomas, while also working Harley, KJ Osborn and Dee Wiggins into the fold—Wiggins with a 22-yard pick-up on 3rd-and-12 and Osborn with an 11-yard grab on 4th-and-5 before capping the drive with a 13-yard strike to Thomas.
After a quick three-and-out by the defense, a 26-yard completion to Thomas got the action going, an 11-yard reception by Jordan had Perry and the Canes just outside the red zone and on 3rd-and-11, a 25-yard shot to Thomas for his second touchdown on the day. Another three-and-out and after a seven-yard run by Perry—the play of the game as Dallas broke two tackles and absolutely willed himself to pay dirt—bolting 62 yards for a touchdown, minutes after laying out and stretching for a two-point conversion after the Thomas score.
In a moment where everything was going right—true to form for the Hurricanes, something had to go wrong.
DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN; FOURTH QUARTER MISCUES DOOM THE CANES
It happened against Florida in a few big moments; Thomas muffing a punt. A first down on a fake field goal called back for offensive holding, leading to a 27-yard, game-tying whiff by the cursed Bubba Baxa. The Franks-to-Hammond game-breaker; not to mention the Hurricanes pissing away 30 yards of field possession—trailing the Gators by four—thanks to Al Blades Jr. tossing up double middle fingers, followed by an illegal block; from the UF 25-yard line and field goal range to the UM 45-yard line in one tick of the clock.
Chapel Hill, was defined by 4th-and-17—as well as special teams disasters; a missed PAT that forced a failed two-point attempt and a forced game-tying field goal from 49 yards out, instead of a tied ball game and overtime.
In the wake of Dallas’ brilliant run, another immature moment from a team that’s been penalized 50 times for 403 yards, with five games in the books—and celebration penalty that added 15 yards to the kickoff; but before that would happen, another momentum swing as Baxa’s PAT hit the goal post, Miami whiffing with a chance to take it’s first lead of the game.
Baxa’s 71-yard kickoff was touchback-bound without the penalty, but with it—Virginia Tech ran it back to their own 37-yard line, Hooker hitting Damon Hazelton for a 29-yard pick-up immediately; able to play aggressive with a tied ballgame, opposed to trailing by one, where a field goal wins it; the Hokies bleeding the clock to keep the Canes’ offense at bay. Three plays later; back to the well with Keene and the same misdirection Miami fell for earlier—McClease rolling in from three yards out with 1:30 on the clock.
Perry pushed the Canes down field with more fire than he did last fall in a similar situation against Duke; hitting Wiggins for gains of 20 and 12 yards, as well as a 16-yard connection with Osborn that got Miami to the 10-yard line with :05 left on the clock. A 1st-and-Goal attempt to Jordan went off his hands—which looked to the the ballgame, before a review gave the Hurricanes :01 and new life.
This time Perry looked down Thomas from the get-go, trying to squeeze the ball into double coverage—not putting enough on it; the pass batted down by the defender covering Dallas on a delayed release.
Had Perry not rushed the the throw—he had time in the pocket—Dallas could’ve caught the ball around the nine-yard line, with a full head of steam and one man to beat. To the left, Perry also had Osborn peeling off around the five yard line and one-on-one coverage. Thomas was literally the worst option on the play, but Perry was hellbent on forcing it to his go-to. It never got there. Ballgame.
All that’s left now is the aftermath; a third loss racked up by the first week of October, an 0-2 start in the ACC and some drama and division come Sunday in regards to a quarterback competition or controversy, depending on the vantage point.
QUARTERBACK COMPETITION OR CONTOVERSY? DEPENDS WHO YOU ASK
ESPN commentator Dusty Dvoracek took umbrage with Diaz and Enos yanking Williams late in the first quarter; a nation that if Williams was “their guy”—they needed to let the quarterback work through the adversity, giving him a chance to make a comeback.
Devil’s advocate to Dvoracek’s take; Miami’s quarterback battle in fall almost had #15 getting the nod by default. Neither Williams, Perry or Ohio State transfer Tate Martell were head and shoulders above the rest. According to Diaz, the Hurricanes felt they could win with all three guys, but Williams won out every so slightly due to, “the greatest upside due to his passing ability, his instincts and his determination”.
There was no right or wrong in regards to making the switch at the time. With a neck-and-neck quarterback battle dating back to spring—with Martell converting to receiver in fall—the Hurricanes are in a 1a and 1b situations in regards to starter. Should the Williams experiment tank, Perry is in need of some valuable minutes and this was a logical way to get him some.
It was also a situation the r-sophomore has been in before; trailing Florida State, 27-7 last October and rallying Miami to a 28-27 victory. Low-risk to ask Perry to mount a comeback against Virginia Tech—yet that’s almost exactly what he did.
There’s a deeper dive regarding this current quarterback competition—or controversy, depending the vantage point—but that’s for another time.
For now, it’s a 2-3 start to a new season—three losses in heartbreaking fashion, had Miami simply gotten out of its own way and played smarter football at the beginning, middle and end of each game. Little time to lick wounds here as Virginia treks south on Friday night for arguably the Coastal Division game-of-the-year.
Until then, back to work and hopefully learning from a slew of mistakes.
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.