MIAMI HURRICANES SURVIVE ANOTHER GRIND-IT-OUT WIN OVER VIRGINIA


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’s youthful energy is a plus, but over-celebrating routine ACC wins is part of a cultural problem at Miami.

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.

MIAMI RESPONDS FROM CLEMSON LOSS WITH HARD-FOUGHT WIN OVER PITT

The Miami Hurricanes took out the Pittsburgh Panthers, 31-19 on Saturday afternoon at HardRock—three key red-zone stops literally the difference in a 12-point victory. Equally as important—the Canes did this on the heels of a disappointing, undisciplined, out-coached and out-talented, 42-17 setback at Clemson last weekend.

The Tigers continued on their mission towards The Playoffs with a 73-3 rout at Georgia Tech, while Miami slugged it out with Pitt—unnecessary conformation that the Hurricanes lost to a true contender; one with only five combined losses dating back to 2016.

No one of sound mind expected these Hurricanes to bring home any hardware in 2020; not in year two of the Manny Diaz era and not on the heels of Miami’s 7-9 fade under Mark Richt after that 10-0 start in 2017—resulting in UM’s fifth different head coach in 14 seasons; the turnover impacting the 2019 recruiting class, as well—yet another setback in a long line of setbacks.

BOUNCING BACK FROM A LOSS; HUGE STEP FOWARD

History lesson aside, fact remains this is where the Hurricanes have landed after a tumultuous decade-and-a-half—the present and immediate future all that really matter as Diaz looks to right the ship in a way his three predecessors could not.

Knocking off Pittsburgh isn’t a world-beater move that validates Miami, nor does the victory itself cover up some glaring weaknesses with this roster and team overall—but the Hurricanes showed up against a defense-minded conference opponent and did enough to bounce back after a disappointing loss, so let’s dive into that, first and foremost.

If this is 2018 or 2019, Miami loses this game—especially with the anemic offense the Hurricanes ran with Dan Enos last fall, and Team Richt the year prior. Look no further than the 13-13 record over that span, as well as the types of games UM pissed away for proof.

Miami lost a heartbreaker to Florida in the opener last August, only to show up ill-prepared in Chapel Hill a week later—down 17-3 after the first quarter. The slow-starting Hurricanes scrapped back to take a 25-20 lead in the final minutes of the final period, only to fall 28-25 after a defensive breakdown kept North Carolina alive on what should’ve been a 4th-and-17 game-ending close out.

Weeks later Miami eked out an embarrassing 17-12 win over Central Michigan, only to no-show against Virginia Tech—falling into a 28-0 second quarter hole, before a rally fell short.

The Canes also struggled with any modicum of prosperity last year; seemingly turning a corner, only to collapse by way of some pointless big-headedness. A defensive-fueled win over a pretty good Virginia team was preceded by a a low-scoring overtime loss to a Georgia Tech team that rolled in 1-5—including an overtime loss to The Citadel and 22-point road loss to Temple.

Miami bounced back with a win over Pitt and seemed to turn an offensive corner with routes of Florida State and Louisville—by a combined score of 79-37—only to bottom out with a “road” loss to Florida International, a home loss to Duke and a bowl shutout at the hands of Louisiana Tech, all of which were (thankfully) enough to get Enos fired and for Diaz to bring in Rhett Lashlee to run a spread offense.

Richt’s swan song saw Miami stomped out by LSU in the opener, before racking up wins over Savannah State, Toledo and FIU to get back on track. The Canes shone bright in a Thursday night route of North Carolina, before staging a thrilling home comeback of Florida State—Miami’s first home win against the Seminoles dating back to 2004.

From there, a second four-game losing streak in three seasons under Richt—Miami falling to Virginia, Boston College (after a bye week), Duke and Georgia Tech—before a win at Virginia Tech (to get bowl eligible) and home win over Pitt. Wisconsin rolled in the Pinstripe Bowl, prompting Richt to call it a career.

Knowing all this to be the new norm in Coral Gables these past couple of seasons, there was understandable doubt with Pittsburgh on the schedule a week after the Clemson debacle—especially given the Canes’ recent muscle memory in games like these as of late.

PERPAREDNESS & PASSION AGAINST PITT WERE DIFFERENCE

On paper, this match-up with Pitt seemed troublesome—Clemson and defensive coordinator Brent Venables exposing Miami’s very-real offensive line issues, while laying out a blueprint where ratting and pressuring D’Eriq King made the Houston grad transfer look much less heroic than he did in match-ups with UAB, Louisville and Florida State.

Instead, Miami dug in for a grind-it-out type game and managed to be in control from the get-go—the Panthers making it a five-point game midway through the third quarter, before the Canes pulled away.

Pitt starting quarterback Kenny Pickett didn’t make the trip, due to an ankle injury—which was initially a sign of relief, until recalling that Pickett was a true freshman when upending Miami in 2017—so who was to say a Panthers’ back-up wasn’t capable of coming in for a career day?

Another red flag against the Canes in their decade-plus of disastrous play—making sub-par or second string quarterback look like superstars. Hendon Hooker got his first start last fall in Virginia Tech’s visit to Miami—and had one career completion under his belt, before that 184-yard, three touchdown, turnover-free performance as the Hokies upset the Canes.

Knowing this to be the case with Miami, there was little confidence in Joey Yellen getting the nod over the injured Pickett—Yellen hitting the ground running for the Panthers on the ensuing possession, driving 44 yards and picking up two key first downs, before the Hurricanes’ defense made a drive-haltering stop.

Facing a 1st-and-10 from the UM 31-yard line, Jordan Miller and Jahfari Harvey busted through the Panthers’ line and drove Yellen back 12 yards with a monster sack—resulting in back-to-back incompletions before forcing a punt what felt like an open possession set to result in some type of a score.

An offensive line holding penalty shut down Miami’s first drive—putting the Canes in a 1st-and-2o they couldn’t bounce back from, facing an all too familiar third-and-long that set up a monster 60-yard punt from Lou Hedley, who had a masterful day flipping the field for the home team.

Pittsburgh lost 11 yards on three consecutive running plays—and coupled with a kick catching interference call—set the Canes up on the Panthers’ 45-yard line. Two quick King runs led to a first down, before selling the fake on a draw and a quick pass to Cam’Ron Harris—wide open in the middle of the field, where the running back rumbled for a 35-yard score.

Both sides exchanged a pair of punts before Pitt ran a fake punt that Miami sniffed out—Isaiah Dunson tripping up Brandon Hill on what would’ve been a sure-first down if not. The big stop set the Canes up at the Pitt 45-yard line, where King and the Canes got moving—a few quick passes to Mark Pope and solid runs by Harris highlighting the possession.

Where Miami did it’s best defensive work in the red zone, Pittsburgh imploded—this time with a facemask penalty on third down, setting the Canes up with a fresh set of downs from the four-yard line. Facing 2nd-and-Goal, King dumped off to Will Mallory—getting more reps by way of an injured Brevin Jordan—and the tight end barreled ahead for the six-yard score, giving UM a somewhat comfortable 14-0 lead.

Yellen and the Panthers responded with a a 60-yard drive—a few big strikes to Jordan Addison and Daniel Moraga—getting Pittsburgh into Miami’s red zone, where Jalean Phillips helped the cause with a roughing the passer penalty. Still, the Canes remained unfazed and a 10-yard sack by Jared Harrison-Hunte on 3rd-and-3 again kept the Panthers out of the end zone; a defeating stop after moving the ball with relative ease minutes before.

MIAMI OVERCOME ADVERSITY; HUNG IN HERE LATE

The Canes looked to respond, but King was intercepted four plays into the ensuing drive—returned 34 yards by Paris Ford, setting the Panthers up at the Miami 12-yard line. Facing a 3rd-and-1 from the three-yard line—the Canes’ defense flexed again and stuffed A.J. Davis for a three-yard loss; on the heels of consecutive competitions to the back. Alex Kessman trotted on for another field goal attempt and Miami trotted into the locker room with a 14-6 lead, ready to receive.

Lashlee dialed up a run for King to start the second half, which the quarterback took 13 yards—but Miami was quick in another third-and-long, where a Pittsburgh miscue bailed them out; this time a hold, resulting in a new set of downs at midfield. After an incompletion to Keyshawn Smith and a 12-yard hook-up with Pope, King found a wide open Mike Harley streaking down the left sideline—the inconsistent receiver readjusting his body for an acrobatic grab, before sprinting to the end zone and a 38-yard score.

Yellen found Addison for a 55-yard hook-up a few moments later—but again, the red zone proved to be Pitt’s biggest enemy. The Canes stuffed DJ Turner for a five-yard loss on second down and an incomplete pass to Addison on third-and-long had Kessman rolling out for his third kick of the day.

King tossed his second pick of the day—retuned 34 yards by Marquis Williams to the Miami one-yard line—where Yellen dumped to a wide open Moraga, while the defense sold out on the run. Pitt finally found the end zone at the 9:30 mark in the third quarter, cutting the Canes’ lead to 21-16.

Miami responded with a three-and-out—and for those who have suffered through the past decade-and-a-half of Hurricanes football, a realization that this could be where things went off the rails. Theoretically, Pittsburgh was due—and despite all the solid defense to this point, the Panthers were getting the ball and had a legit shot to take the lead.

Instead, the Canes defense lined up for a game-defining 3rd-and-2 where Phillips and Quincy Roche unloaded on Yellen—Roche recovering the fumble, giving Miami a shot to deliver a knockout-style blow. King was sacked on first down, but on 2nd-and-17 Lashlee went back to his bag of tricks—exploiting the middle of the field and setting Mallory loose, much like Harris was on the game’s first score.

King hit the big tight end in stride and with 5:40 left in the third quarter—Mallory ran for the 45-yard score, while the Canes took a 28-16 lead.

Pitt didn’t go down without a fight; overcoming a 1st-and-20 on the ensuing drive and rolling 74 yards on 10 plays—but three incompletions just outside the red zone set up a 4th-and-3 and a field goal attempt, cutting Miami’s lead to eight and keeping it a one-score game.

The Canes bled 7:11 off the clock on a 14-play, 65-yard drive—culminating with a 37-yard field goal from Jose Borregales—pushing the lead on 12 with just over four minutes remaining. A touchdown would’ve been more fulfilling—but the kick proved to be a nice little way to close out considering Miami’s kicking woes the past two seasons—a universal reaction from Hurricanes’ nation and a collective, “No way we make that kick last year”.

Miami racked up 331 yards on the day—to Pittsburgh’s 300-yard outing—and the Canes rushed for 109 yards against a Panthers’ defense that is usually stout against the run. The 31 points scored were the most in regulation against Pitt’s defense dating back to the 34 that Central Florida scored against Pittsburgh in a loss last September.

The Canes turned it over twice—two King interceptions—to the Panthers’ one costly fumble and Miami was penalized five times for 55 yards, while Pitt self-imploded at costly moments and were dinged 10 times for 89 yards.

Still, it was a win the week after a lopsided loss and the type of game Miami has lost in in the past—a disturbing trend as recent as 2019—and in the second year of the Diaz era, these are the incremental steps forward this program needs to take as it works to become a contender again.

NEED A CRACK AT THE BEST TO BECOME A CONTENDER

Same for the loss at Clemson itself; better Miami got a shot at No. 1 this fall and lost, than getting a win up at an average Michigan State or against Wagner—both of which were on the schedule before the COVID reshuffle.

The Canes should also be rooting for another shot at the Tigers in the ACC title game—which remains in reach of Miami can win out. With no divisions this fall, the conference program with the best two records will face off in Charlotte—and with Notre Dame in the mix, as well as a revamped North Carolina (who took a hit with their loss to Florida State), the margin for error this fall is slimmer than usual.

Getting to the big stage and taking lumps—it’s part of becoming a contender and it’s precisely what Clemson went through on their way to the top.

The Tigers reached the ACC title game in 2009—the first full season under Dabo Swinney—where they lost to Georgia Tech for the second time that season, finishing 9-5 on the year. In 2010, some backsliding as Clemson went 6-7.

The Tigers won the ACC in 2011—only to get demolished in their first BCS visit—West Virginia running them over, 70-33.

The margin of error was thin in 2012—a loss to No. 4 Florida State keeping Clemson from the conference title game—but a one-point win over LSU in the Peach Bowl closed out an 11-2 season; another step forward.

Clemson’s next prime-time, big time match-up game mid-October the following year—a battled of undefeateds when the third-ranked Tigers welcomed No. 5 Florida State. This was the Tigers’ moment to show they belonged.

Instead, a 51-14 loss as the Noles rolled their way to a national championship—Clemson again, 11-2 and close—but not yet there.

2014 got off to a rough start when No. 12 Georgia topped No. 16 Clemson, 45-21—proof that the ACC’s second-best couldn’t hang with a quality SEC team. Three weeks later, an overtime loss in Tallahassee—the Tigers fifth loss to the Noles in seven tries and third in a row.

Clemson laid a late-season egg at Georgia Tech—28-6—but rolled Oklahoma, 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl for a 10-3 finish and strong close to Dabo’s sixth full season at the helm. Come 2015, an undefeated regular season, ACC title and a Playoff win over No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, before falling 45-40 to Alabama for a national title.

A year later, Clemson picked up their first national championship since 1981. Two years later, another—while losing two other title games and falling in the Playoffs, to the eventual champs.

Learning how to be a winner, unfortunately starts with learning how to overcome big stage losses.

How do coaches grow in these moments?  How do outgoing upperclassmen pass down that sense of urgency to the next crop of greats—“We didn’t get it done, but you guys need to earn another shot and take care of business”. What is the sales pitch for recruits as programs take these small steps forward?

Regarding the latter, it’s not just hanging tough in the big games—it’s showing and winning the games that are supposed to be won, like Pittsburgh last week and Virginia this Saturday night.

CANES MUST WIN ALL WINNABLE GAMES AND CLOSE STRONG

The Canes got a break with the schedule reshuffle as Miami heads to Charlottesville in even-numbered years—but instead gets the Cavaliers in South Florida this weekend.

Last’s season’s win was a defensive slugfest with dominant red zone defense that had the Canes escaping with an improbably 17-9 on a Friday night. Miami was coming off the wrong side of a shootout with Virginia Tech, rallying late after falling into a 28-0 hole but losing 42-35.

A change at quarterback and a few key plays—including a late score in the final couple of minutes—sealed the low-scoring victory against the 4-1, No. 20 team in the nation. A week later, Miami no-showed against 1-5 Georgia Tech—falling in overtime to a Yellow Jackets’ team that finished 3-9 under a first-year head coach.

Inconsistency and no sense of urgency—it did the Hurricanes in often last year, as well as countless times this past decade-plus.

While the loss to Clemson was a setback, a spirited effort against Pittsburgh got Miami back to winning ways—and they must continue.

This 1-3 Virginia squad is not the same bunch that reached the Orange Bowl last season, giving Florida a run for their money in a big bowl game. The Cavs are a double-digit underdog to the Canes and this is must-win territory for Miami if the Canes are to maximize this 2020 season with the experienced Kind under center.

Bronco Mendenhall is as defensive-minded as Pat Narduzzi last week, so it’s a given the Cavs will look to rattle Miami’s quarterback play—forcing mistakes in effort to steal one.

How will Lashlee and King respond? Will receivers create some separation and find ways to help out their quarterback and a porous offensive line that can only buy so much time? Will the defense tighten up—giving up less big plays and making those key third-down and red zone stops—the difference last week, as well as last year’s showdown with Virginia?

A win will get Miami to 5-1 and most-likely in the Top 10 before a bye week and Friday (11/6) showdown at North Carolina State. From there, a road trip to Virginia Tech, a home showdown against Georgia Tech, one final away game at Wake Forest and a regular season finale against North Carolina—the biggest remaining challenge.

A shot at 9-1 going into that Coastal clash with the Tar Heels—it’s within reach and should be the goal of every coach and player on this squad—but it starts with simply showing up this week and delivering the good against Virginia.

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.

MIAMI GET ITS ‘TO BE THE MAN, YOU GOTTA BEAT THE MAN’ MOMENT AT CLEMSON


Miami at top-ranked Clemson—primetime, under the lights at Death Valley, with all of college football fixated on this showdown.

Win, lose, or draw—these are the type of match-ups those who play the game absolutely live for.

The seventh-ranked Hurricanes roll in as one of the most-exciting storylines of this quirky season; bouncing back from a disastrous inaugural campaign for Manny Diaz last fall—though the second-year head coach deserves credit for some swift and effective off-season moves that have Miami 3-0 and playing some electrified football months after getting shut out in a third-tier bowl game.

Moving to a spread offense and reeling in SMU’s Rhett Lashlee to run it was half the battle—but the addition of 23-year old grad transfer D’Eriq King has proven to be the special sauce that has taking things next-level so quickly for Miami.

The lone downside for the Hurricanes; King will most-likely take his talents to the NFL next spring—despite the NCAA granting players an extra year of eligibility in this COVID-defined season—meaning Miami is set to backslide on some level in year three under Diaz, but none of that matters right now.

SAY WHAT, SAY WHAT—ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN

Something magical is happening—and if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to live in the moment and to count our blessings. Tomorrow isn’t promised and being consumed with down-the-road pitfalls is wasted energy. All we can deal with is what is currently starting us in the face—the next obstacle we must overcome—and for Miami, it’s a championship caliber Clemson team that hasn’t lost a game at home since 2016.

Miami’s lackluster offense of the past few years is no more. King’s arm, legs, maturity and decision-making—coupled with Lashlee’s up-tempo play calling—has the Hurricanes finally looking modern age—opposed to the stuck-in-molasses, slow-moving antiquated machine they’ve unforgivably been for too long.

All that to say, Miami hasn’t faced anything Clemson-caliber over the first three games of the season—which makes it hard to know where the ceiling is for the Hurricanes, as well as how exposed UM could look against a true contender with a two-deep that could hang with a lot of program’s first-stringers.

The Tigers finally hit the big time in 2015, in what was year seven for Dabo Swinney, after taking over halfway through the 2008 season for long-time Clemson coach Tommy Bowden. Getting promoted from within as a wide receivers coach that was part of an underachieving regime—not sure what was more impressive; the fact Swinney rose to the top of the sport—or the fact that CU’s top brass gave him enough time to build a dynasty.

FROM ZERO TO HERO; DABO’S STORY

Swinney got off to a decent start; a 9-5 run in 2009 where the Tigers managed to win a watered-down Atlantic division—but immediately backslid to 6-7 year two. In 2011, a 10-4 run and ACC title were marred by a 70-33 beatdown by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl—the type of game that could truthfully get a coached fired, but Clemson remained all in with the unproven Swinney.

11-2 and another Atlantic crown in 2012 seemed to right the ship—the Tigers eking out a win over LSU in the Peach Bowl—which led to a pre-season No. 8 ranking in to kick off the 2013. Clemson wound up taking out No. 5 Georgia in the opener and getting to No. 3 and 6-0 by mid-October, setting up a game-of-the-season showdown against No. 5 Florida State—who’d hit the ground running behind Jameis Winston.

For those who recall this one on ABC in primetime—camera on the Tigers’ busses, which were a raucous, animated site before Clemson ran down the hill, slapped the rock and planned to roll in one of those program-defining game that had eluded them for so long. Instead, Winston and the Noles dismantled the Tigers. 51-14.

Clemson remained a step behind Florida State for one more season—falling in Tallahassee in overtime—while getting wrecked by Georgia Tech, 28-6 in Atlanta late in the year, before the start of a five-year run where the Tigers went 69-5, reaching the national championship game four times and winning it twice in three seasons.

Some deeper math; Clemson’s five losses since 2015—a national championship nail-biter against Alabama, a one-point home loss to Pittsburgh (in a national championship year), a three-point road loss at Syracuse (losing a starting quarterback before halftime),  a Playoff loss to a Crimson Tide team that won it all and getting smacked around by LSU in last year’s title game.

Despite this body of work—as well as an inability to admit some of Miami’s glaring flaws, Hurricanes message boards remain loaded with overconfident fans who believe a big win is on the horizon.

In defense of this contingent, this Clemson team in 2020 is not the juggernaut that went 15-0 in 2018. The Tigers are still a top program—especially with an experienced Trevor Lawrence under center, who with running back Travis Etienne, are primed to give Miami’s defense fits all night; especially with exploitable, slow linebackers and an interior line that’s struggled to stop the run.

OUTSIDER SCOOP ON CANES’ INSIDE PROBLEMS

Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel offered up a detailed piece regarding the Canes being “back”, as well as key factors in the weekend’s marquee showdown. Even better, Thamel dug deep with some “unnamed ACC assistant” chatter—where these coaches were quick to point out some of Miami’s weaknesses in a way any head-in-the-sand fan refuses to acknowledge.

“They look like ‘The U’ across the board,” one coach shared. “They have just two linebackers who are stiff and aren’t great tacklers (Bradley Jennings Jr. and Zach McCloud) and their interior defensive linemen are average. When your interior and your linebackers are both weaknesses, that’s a problem if a team can run the ball.”

Spoiler alert; Clemson can run the ball. Hell, even Louisville ran the ball effectively against Miami weeks back—averaging 4.3 yards-per-carry and rushing for 209 yards in the loss. For the Hurricanes to pull off an upset against the Tigers, Miami will need to get up on Clemson early, a la the 14-3 lead at Louisville and an ability to answer any score.

Thamel also points out that the Canes’ offensive line was one of the worst in college football last fall—giving up a whopping 51 sacks of Jarren Williams, N’Kosi Perry and even Tate Martell, who played eight snaps in the bowl game and was still sacked twice behind a porous line.

Credit to Garin Justice for shoring up the o-line on the off-season and getting it spread-ready in his first season with new look-Miami—but the line’s MVP remains King, whose elusiveness and overall play has kept the Canes front five out of trouble, or at minimum, under heavier scrutiny. Still, other ACC coaches are quick to point out what the naked eye, or super-fan doesn’t see.

“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.”

Inarguable points, tough as that may be to swallow. That said, this 2020 version of Clemson hasn’t played anyone of Miami’s athletic caliber this season, either—beating Wake Forest and The Citadel out the gate, before “only” beating Virginia by 18 points last weekend, surrendering 23 points and 417 yards to a good-not-great Cavaliers squad.

Thamel asks, “Is this the Clemson we remember”, in regards to past success and another ACC assistant who’s “studied” the Tigers, feels they’re not.

“This is not the same Clemson team of the last three years,” shared that assistant. “I don’t know if anyone is. Just look at what they lost. But are they the best team in the ACC? Yes.”

Despite what the Tigers aren’t, they’re still the cream of the conference crop and are deeper than anyone else in the ACC. Their veteran coaching staff—especially the wise old Brent Venables on the defensive side of the ball—know that Miami goes as far as King takes them on Saturday night.

“I think he’ll struggle with these guys.” another assistant coach said of King. “They’ll mix it up enough to make him sit in the picket. I’d be shocked if he can get to the edge … He’s 5-9. he’s not going to sit there and beat you in the pocket. That’s not what he does best. He’s not going to sit back there and read you Make him read the defense.”

In Thamel’s back and forth with these coaches, most felt that even a Clemson that isn’t what it was is still enough to beat Miami, as-is—though some expected the Canes to hang for at least a half.

STEP ONE; MIAMI MUST SHOW UP—PROVE IT BELONGS

While there are no moral victories and Miami is certainly playing to win—as this is undoubtably a winnable game in the quirkiest of seasons—the Canes simply can’t get blown out by the Tigers. UM simply can’t afford a repeat of what was experienced in Tallahassee in 2013 when No. 7 Miami was throttled by No. 3 Florida State, 41-14 in an  undefeated match-up that sent the Canes spiraling, losing three of their final five games after that setback.

The hangover even carried over to 2014, where Miami went 6-7 in year four for Al Golden—who was relieved of his duties the following October after a sixth-ranked Clemson squad slaughtered the Canes at home, 58-0; a beating fans actually stomached as they knew it’d be the end of the schlub in the tie.

Golden was understandably shit-canned the next morning.

Should Miami be unable to spar four quarters with Clemson, the Hurricanes need to put together a gutty performance like they did in Tallahassee back in 1999 against the top-ranked, eventual champs.

The game was knotted 21-21 at the half—though an 80-yard hook-up between Kenny Kelly and Santana Moss in the waining moments of the first quarter showed that the canes weren’t backing down. The two hooked up again early in the second for Miami’s first and only lead of the day—before Florida State responded and knotted things up at intermission.

The second half was all Seminoles as their defense shut the Canes out and their offense chipped away—a third quarter field goal and early fourth quarter touchdown, putting the game away. Florida State won out, topping No. 2 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl en route to the program’s second national title—while Miami unwittingly took the moral victory of the season—falling short in a comeback to take out second-ranked Penn State at home weeks prior.

Hard fought losses to the Nittany Lions and Seminoles were building blocks that set the stage for a monster run over the next four years, where Miami hit for the BCS cycle—Sugar, Rose, Fiesta, Orange—played in two national title games, won one, had one stolen and deserved to play in a third, going 46-4 over that span

Miami’s current Football Chief of Staff, and former safety great Ed Reed was unquestionably the leader of the 2001 squad—but in 1999 he was merely a sophomore that wasn’t able to help Mike Rumph on an 80-yard hook up between Kevin Thompson and Chafie Fields, allowing Penn State to escape, 27-23.

Reed and Rumph have both shared how the adversity of that loss and busted play fueled them for years as Hurricanes, and beyond—while getting that shot against top program and highly-ranked teams is a measuring stick every potential contender must endure.

QUIRKY SEASON JUST KEEPS GETTING QUIRKIER

Clemson wasn’t on Miami’s radar this fall, pre-COVID. The Canes would’ve taken on Wake Forest this Friday night, coming off games against Pitt, Michigan State, UAB, Wagner and Temple. Instead, the Canes wound up with a measuring stick showdown against the Tigers and come in in slightly more battle-tested with King at the helm,  a road win at Louisville and a home rout of rival Florida State.

This is also taking place in an odd-ball year, where home field advantage is gone and a upsets are springing up on a weekly basis.

Kansas State falls to Arkansas State week one, but rebounds a week later to upset Oklahoma?

The Sooners fall to 1-2, failing to rebound against Iowa State—their lone win against Missouri State as they limp into a Red River Rivalry—that by 2020 standards, they’ll probably win.

Mississippi State shocks defending champion LSU in the debut of Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense?

TCU goes 5-7 last fall, drops one at Iowa State but responds with an upset of No. 9 Texas?

This might not be the season anyone was expecting, but it’s the one we wound up with—and the college football world is quickly learning that nothing is as seems and everything is up for grabs any given week.

On paper, Clemson win this football game—maybe by three-plus touchdowns if in front of a packed house, too. But this isn’t on paper. there is no packed house and in this alternate reality, how it plays out is anyone’s guess.

No, Miami doesn’t have the horses to go toe-to-toe with Clemson’s two-deep. Yes, there are holes at linebackers and in the interior of the line—and yes, there’s little depth at corner, while a lack of focus at wide receiver is resulting in inconsistent play that one could handle against the Seminoles or Cardinals, but missed opportunities against the Tigers could be the difference in this ball game.

In a season where the fifth-seeded Miami HEAT hid out in the Orlando bubble and knocked off #4, #1 and #3 en route to an 12-3 and NBA Finals berth—it begs the question, why not this Miami team on this given night?

It’s hard to predict the Hurricanes upset a Tigers squad that’s only lost five games in five seasons—and hasn’t lost at home since 2016—but it’s no easier to say this talented-enough Miami team doesn’t have enough in the take to go four quarters against a Clemson squad that by all accounts isn’t the true juggernaut they were years passed.

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.

MIAMI HURRICANES DEMOLISH FLORIDA STATE IN QUEST TO AGAIN BE CONTENDERS


This one was over before it even started—a dream scenario-type evening for the Miami Hurricanes—who dismantled the Florida State Seminoles, 52-10 in primetime at HardRock last Saturday night. It was the biggest beating the Canes laid on the Noles since 1976 (47-0) and was the first time 50+ points were scored in the series. Definitely the kind of history one wants to be on in this storied rivalry.

On a grander scale, it was just the type of evening the doctor ordered in regards to the trajectory both programs are headed. Miami appears to be turning a corner year two in the Manny Diaz era—the adaption of the spread offense under first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, as well as much-needed stability at quarterback with grad transfer D’Eriq King—the Hurricanes are college football’s most-invigorated bunch.

Meanwhile, the Seminoles continue a free fall into oblivion. A program that once was the beacon of head coaching stability with Bobby Bowden at the helm for decades, first-year head coach Mike Norvell is Florida State’s third different leader during Miami’s four-game win-streak in the series. Insult to injury came in the form of Norvell missing his first game in this rivalry due to COVID-19, laid up in Tallahassee while his team took a colossal beating.

Before this recent streak. the Canes had lost seven in a row in the series—and one One doesn’t have to look far in the rearview to drudge up some painful memories; especially at HardRock, where the Noles had won five in a row between 2008 and 2016. Visions of ones-that-got-away—local talent like Devonta Freeman and Dalvin Cook, playing for an in-state rival and making mincemeat of the Canes; at times felt like the bleeding would never stop—both on the field, a well as the recruiting trail.

The Hurricanes are thankfully getting back to keeping those next-level running backs at home, too—as the coming out party for both Don Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton continues. Knighton, a former FSU commit flipped to UM after Chaney Jr. had committed, welcoming the competition—while Chaney Jr. is one of those throwback talents who was all about ‘The U’ from day one. Both freshmen hit the ground running this fall and are proving to be ideal compliments to the hard-nosed Cam’Ron Harris, who already matched last year’s five touchdowns three games into 2020.

Miami put up 517 yards against Florida State, going into cruise control-mode at the half, sitting on a 35-3 lead. The Noles finished with 330 total yards against a Hurricanes defense that held them in check all evening. The iconic Turnover Chain made three appearances, while players like Harris declined the Touchdown Rings after his two scores, giving them to his offensive linemen instead—the culture seemingly changing one play at time.

LONG-AWAITED CULTURE SHIFT FINALLY UNDERWAY

A small gesture, but one that certainly confirms a culture shift is underway at Miami and should have fans excited about the future. First-year football Chief of Staff, Ed Reed is also already having a cultural impact—as every facet of this program top to bottom will instantly be better by way of an all-time Miami great—and NFL Hall of Famer—so closely tied to UM’s day-to-day.

Miami moved up to No. 8 in both polls and will go into a bye week 3-0 before a road trip to take on No. 1 Clemson in Death Valley—again, in primetime. It’s the ultimate litmus test in a quirky season where the Canes and Tigers weren’t set to meet, until out-of-conference games got the boot in favor of a few more in-conference match-ups—and should be welcomed by all, as getting a crack at top programs is the only way to tell where one truly stands.

Critics continue asking if the Hurricanes are “back”—the annual premature build-up of Miami, only to tear the program down if or when it gets tagged in the mouth at some point this season. Understandable as it’s good business for the media to over-hype the polarizing program that is nationally loathed, but locally loved.

As the legend Jimmy Johnson stated after the Canes’ 10-0 start in 2017—Miami won’t be “back” until that sixth national championship is claimed—but on a weekend college football went so haywire for many, UM getting to 3-0 in dominating fashion over a bitter rival; it was a hell of a way to close out September.

Those paying attention saw No. 3 Oklahoma blow a 21-point third quarter lead against a Kansas State team who fell to Arkansas State in their opener—the unranked Wildcats tearing off 24 unanswered in the upset. Meanwhile, down in Baton Rouge, No. 6 LSU was the first SEC victim of Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense—the Bulldogs hanging 623 yards and 44 points on the defending champs.

There was also No. 8 Texas barely surviving a road test at Texas Tech—down 15 with 3:13 remaining, before tying things up and surviving in overtime, despite giving up 56 points in regulation.

Meanwhile, Miami continues shocking the nation with a best-case-scenario turnaround after a dismal 6-7 run last fall—on the heels of a 7-9 under Mark Richt, after his squad’s 10-0 start in 2017.

The hiring of Lashlee, the reeling-in of King—as well as poaching a crosstown kicker in FIU’s Jose Borregales—it gave Hurricanes supporters off-seasonhope, though it was somewhat tempered based on Miami’s over-hype the past 15 seasons. Even when everything looks like it’s lining up the correct way, all hell has had a way of breaking loose for UM—dating back to that late Fiesta Bowl flag in the wee hours of 2003.

FAST START DOESN’T ABSOLVE LAST YEAR’S FLOP

Just like the Hurricanes aren’t officially “back”, Diaz also isn’t yet out of the woods after a brutal inaugural season—one that won’t soon be forgotten after the year ended with a three-game losing streak to lowly FIU, Duke and Louisiana Tech, who shut the Canes out in a third-tier in the bowl game.

Toss in the fact Miami faithful have bought into fool’s gold the past decade, by way of wrong-fit head coaches, or seasons that started strong, but ended with a thud—it’s going to take more than wins over UAB, Louisville and a bad Florida State team to crown Diaz “the one”. Keeping this team level-headed after any modicum of prosperity; it was a killer in 2019, as well as recent years passed.

Again, that mortifying three-game losing streak last fall—it came on the heels of big wins over the Noles and Cardinals, when Miami got big-headed and dropped its guard. Learning from those mistakes, these Canes must be mentally prepped for the meat of the schedule with Clemson, Pittsburgh and Virginia on deck—some thorn-in-the-side ACC programs that have all caught Miami slipping.

The rout of Florida State was a definite step forward for Miami, but it also must be taken in context. The Seminoles aren’t a good football team—haven’t been in a few years now—and the Hurricanes are riding high due to a level of maturity and experience at quarterback that the program has been void of for almost two decades. Despite most knowing this to be the case, it hasn’t stopped a lot of premature and overconfident, “We want Clemson!” chatter as Miami rolls through a bye week.

In a season where the fifth-seeded Miami Heat defied bubble odds with a 12-3 playoff run that had them toppling #4 Indiana, #1 Milwaukee and #3 Boston, en route to the franchise’s first Finals appearance since 2014—it’d be foolish to not give the Canes a fighting chance against the Tigers. This 2020 sports calendar has been as quirky and unpredictable as any in recent memory—and where a neutral court and no fans put the Heat in a mano y mano competitive situation—Miami playing in a sparsely packed Death Valley is not the same as full-throttle Clemson.

Still, that is a far cry from a belief that the Hurricanes belong on the same player-to-player, competitive field as the Tigers, program-wise right now—and Miami fans failing to acknowledge this are setting themselves up for a lot of misguided frustration this season, as well as 2021 when King is (most-likely) gone and a fresh new, inexperienced face is under center.

Those needing proof, just look at the past decade-plus of Miami football and all the program’s false starts that supporters have over-bought into.

CANES LOOKED “BACK” IN RECENT YEARS, BUT WERE FAR OFF

The Canes landed on the right side of a season-opening shootout at No. 18 Florida State in 2009 and went from unranked to No. 9 in the country after taking out No. 14 Georgia Tech at home a week later. Cue the standard “we back” chatter going into No. 11 Virginia Tech, where Miami was slaughtered, 31-7. From there, eked out a one-point win over No. 8 Oklahoma in a bounce-back game—the Sooners without veteran starter Sam Bradford—and picked up wins over Florida A&M and Central Florida, before blowing an overtime loss to Clemson late October.

Miami then beat Wake Forest, Virginia, Duke and South Florida—but sandwiched between those, another loss to the Butch Davis-led Tar Heels for a 9-3 regular season that ended with a Citrus Bowl loss to Wisconsin. A year later, Randy Shannon stumbled to 7-5 in his fifth season as head coach and was fired weeks before the Canes got crushed in the Sun Bowl by Notre Dame.

In 2013—year three of the Al Golden era—Miami rolled out to a 7-0 start, hyped by a defensive-fueled win over a No. 12 Florida squad that went on to finish the season 4-8, with a bottom-out home loss to Georgia Southern. The Canes crept all the way up to No. 7 for a road showdown against No. 3 Florida State and left on the wrong end of a 41-14 beatdown.

An unranked Virginia Tech squad gave the No. 14 Hurricanes an even worse beating a week later—42-14—before Miami surrendered 18 unanswered in the final quarter at Duke the following week, knocking them out of the Top 25. Wins over Virginia and Pittsburgh followed, before getting embarrassed by homegrown Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville in the Citrus Bowl.

The 2017 season felt different talent-wise. Malik Rosier was a question mark at quarterback, but he managed to overachieve in what should’ve been a strong senior campaign from Brad Kaaya.

Coming into the new season fresh off the program’s first bowl win in a decade, a gutsy Miami squad finally broke that seven-game losing streak Florida State, with a last second win in Tallahassee. UM seemed to gain momentum each week in “Cardiac Canes” fashion—while late game heroics against Georgia Tech, Syracuse and North Carolina kept Miami’s dream season alive and an undefeated record resulted back-to-back November primetime showdowns at home.

No. 9 Miami pulled away late against No. 13 Virginia Tech, 28-10—setting up the perfect scenario with No. 3 Notre Dame looming. ESPN’s GameDay made for an electric atmosphere, the Irish were swamped early and the Canes experienced one of those rare perfect evenings where everything just works, in game-of-the-season, 41-8 rout.

Miami survived two 14-point deficits to Virginia the following week, before the offense was exposed by a four-win Pittsburgh team in the regular season finale. Clemson rolled big in the Canes’ first-ever ACC Championship Game appearance, 38-3—before Wisconsin out-gutted Miami in the Orange Bowl; an early 14-3 lead gone by half in a 34-24 loss and three-game losing streak that took all the piss out of that 10-0 start.

Three cautionary tale seasons in recent memory—yet few seem to have learned their lesson about what it takes for Miami to be back to true contender status.

TWO-DEEP STILL WAY OFF FROM TRUE CONTENDER STATUS

Even with a win over Clemson and a would-be, socially distanced miracle season—Miami still lacks a two-deep that could hang with the likes of bigs like Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia or Alabama—and is literally one or two injuries away from a fully derailed season. Contrast that to legit contenders who reload across the board the way the Canes used to in the dominant 80’s.

Come 2021, Miami is not only set to see King headed to the NFL—a slew of would-be seniors will most-likely forego their final year of eligibility to chase NFL paychecks.

Tight-end Brevin Jordan is playing his way into a first or second round pick, while there’s no reason for Harris to keep taking that uncompensated running back abuse. Those highly-touted, former 5-Star transfers from the Pac-12—Bubba Bolden and Jalean Phillips—are both also having the type of seasons that will send them packing a year early, while Temple transfer Quincy Roche is another who will probably decline the NCAA’s bonus year—content with a solid one-year showing at UM.

Longtime Canes like Jon Ford, Amari Carter, Zach McCloud and Mike Harley all graduate—not to mention other yet to be named, would-be seniors who follow current Canes’ culture by leaving prematurely; feeling they’re ready, despite experts and scouts telling them otherwise.

All the news isn’t bad, as the future is certainly bright for Miami—the 2020 class already yielding positive results by way of what Chaney Jr. and Knighton are showing in early season toughness and work ethics as true freshmen. Quarterback of the future Tyler Van Dyke was also part of this most-recent haul, as well as quality kids like Avantae Williams, Jalen Rivers, Elijah Roberts and Chantz Williams.

The drops and inconsistency at wide receiver, by anyone not named Dee Wiggins—Miami is prepping for guys like Michael Redding, Dazalin Worsham, Xavier Restrepo and late addition Keyshawn Smith to take over; all of which seem to have the tools and toughness needed at the position.

The Canes finally landed a their first 5-Star crown jewel type player since running back Duke Johnson in defensive tackle Leonard Taylor, of Palmetto—as well as American Heritage athlete James Williams. Miami currently has the ninth-ranked class—second best in the ACC—with 22 “hard commits” and that number can grow based on how the Hurricanes look against Clemson, as well as the rest of this season.

MAXIMIZE POTENTIAL DREAM SEASON; STAY LEVEL-HEADED

In a year when up is down, left is right and little adds up—the processing and summing up of these Hurricanes remains one more thing to try and make sense of. Who are these Hurricanes right now, what will they grow into this season—and how does one temper the excitement of this season, while properly assessing where the team will be year three in the Diaz era, without this season’s key components?

In most cases, the modus operandi would be to soak up 2020 for all it’s worth and to deal with next year, next year—but the Hurricanes’ experience is always a different animal in comparison to other more traditional programs. Miami’s rich championship history, coupled with a decade and an half of irrelevance—and the embarrassment associated with that level of failure—it’s the catalyst for overbuying into false starts over the years, instead of looking at things through a more logical and reasonable lens.

While Miami continues its preparation for Clemson and looks to shock the world once again—Hurricanes faithful might want to use that time wrapping their arms around what is, what could be and what lies ahead. A special year is underway, by way of a game-changing veteran quarterback and high-octane offense—which should have all Miami fans optimistic for all things 2020.

The trick lies in accepting this season at face value, while not prematurely getting caught up in the being “back” route—or fast-tracking the timeline regarding being a bonafide contender again.

Make 2020 all it can be, close strong recruiting-wise for 2021 and identify that next crop of team leaders ready to fill the void of the mature group that is captaining the ship this fall.

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.

HURRICANES ARE AGAIN OFF-SEASON KINGS; NOW WHAT?


After a three-game skid and 6-7 finish to last season, there has been little good to say about the Miami Hurricanes and a once-proud football program wallowing in mediocrity for a decade and a half.

No mincing words; year one was a complete and utter disaster for Manny Diaz at the University of Miami—on every level. It’s impossible to sugarcoat anything about a losing season; especially the fashion and manner in which the Hurricanes reinvented ways to the shit the bed.

Thrice losing as a two-touchdown favorite; the first time this embarrassing feat had been accomplished in a season in almost four decades—as well as the who, why and how regarding a three-game skid to end the season; Miami shown-up by a cross-town commuter college, a basketball school and the third-best football team in the Bayou State.

It was a worst-case scenario that quickly became a reality—on the heels of the Canes seemingly turning the corner with a late comeback at Pittsburgh, a convincing win in Tallahassee and a Senior Day rout of Louisville.

Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”—and unfortunately for Diaz, he’d been spittin’ chiclets since his catching that 0-2 uppercut that launched his inaugural season. The result; rock bottom. Deja vu all over again, yet different as this program has been punch-drunk for way too long.

None of this what anyone prepared for year one after last year’s Transfer Portal heist, an Alabama assistant taking over an anemic offense, Diaz’s swag-a-licious social media game—as well as that whole yacht-to-a-booster-event thing—but let’s be honest; that’s on the buyer’s naivete, not the salesman’s pitch.

WHO’S THE FOOL WHEN FOOLISHLY BUYING FOOL’S GOLD?

Anyone delusional enough to call for 12-0 last fall—as well as expecting to roll Florida in the opener, while begging for a crack at Clemson and treating the Coastal like it was a gimme—those rubes deserve everything they got last fall, and then some.

Diaz was Miami’s fifth hire in 14 seasons; taking over a program 16 years into it’s move to the ACC, with nothing more than one lowly divisional title, after being poached from the Big East to bring more football cred to the basketball conference.

Those stuck in yesteryear can bitch-moan-and-complain about the expectation level; it doesn’t change the fact these Hurricanes are 97-71 dating back to that Peach Bowl ass-kicking—40-3—courtesy of LSU back in 2005, and a 35-3 massacre in the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl. It was a Brooklyn-beatdown so bad, veteran head coach Mark Richt called it a career within 24 hours of Wisconsin owning Miami a second post-season in a row.

Richt survived a decade in the SEC, dealing with pent-up Georgia fans itching for their first championship since 1980; yet not one  title game appearance—yet three seasons in that Coral Gables meat-grinder; an instantaneous decision that retirement sounded more optimum than a fourth go-around at rebuilding The U.

Miami hasn’t had a next-level quarterback since the 2004 season; D’Eriq King’s addition can’t be understated.

ALL THESE RECENT MOVES, NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP

One year in Diaz just might’ve gotten the worst out of the way—courtesy of the type of humiliating debut that forces fast change. Even the most-stubborn leader couldn’t double-down on what he just witnessed out the gate; his hand immediately forced.

When one can officially get past the Florida International, Duke and Louisiana Tech debacles—it’s easier to fall into that blessing-in-disguise place, as the past six weeks Diaz has been aces with literally every move he’s made; all made possible by the horrific nature in how year one played out.

Going back to the final week of last December, the following has occurred for Miami, just after that post-season shutout in Shreveport was in the books:

Offensive coordinator Dan Enos was “relieved of his duties”; the news leaking before the the bowl game even kicked off. 9-4 and winning out arguably would’ve staved off that execution, but it’d have been a ruse of a season, as Enos was off-brand and not wired for the Miami job from the get-go. This had to be done and it was; the former Alabama assistant not even lasting a full calendar year at UM.

A byproduct of this move also sent offensive line coach Butch Barry packing, as well—Barry with ties to Enos from their Central Michigan days, and equally as useless, as the only thing worse than Miami’s quarterbacks room in 2019 was anything having to do with an offensive line looked as terrible in December as it did late August.

Any preconceived notions about what Diaz thought Miami’s offense could and should look like; shattered by Enos’ incompetence—to the point where the spread offense was finally welcomed at UM and a guy with a strong acumen for running it was hired in SMU’s Rhett Lashlee.

Losing seasons don’t often produce great hires, but Diaz appears to have landed a good one in Lashlee; whose stock went up even more the moment his presence helped Miami reel in Houston quarterback D’Eriq King as a one-year transfer—far and away the top Portal quarterback option this cycle.

In an off-season where it was reported the Hurricanes’ three gunslingers got lost in a THC-induced fog—the entire dynamic was flipped on its ear when UM landed King; to the point last year’s starter Jarren Williams bolted for the Portal, while N’Kosi Perry and Tate Martell quietly became afterthoughts; No. 5 most-likely the back-up, while No. 18 will probably move to wide receiver for good.

While the mere mention of Martell will prompt chatter about Diaz’s off-season efforts in 2019 not yielding the intended efforts—if one is deluded to the point they see the move as nothing more than just “bringing on another quarterback”—opposed to the difference between an inexperienced kid with potential, versus a bonafide Heisman candidate; again, there’s no fixing stupid.

Hardly a stretch if one were to say Miami literally lost three games last season by way of the kicking game—Florida, North Carolina and Georgia Tech fast come to mind—leaving the name Bubba Baxa painfully carved into UM folklore; payback for all those years of trashing FSU kickers.

In a welcomed twist of fate, the same Jose Borregales who played a part in FIU upsetting Miami—he’s now a Hurricane and an immediate upgrade to one of UM’s most-troubled positions.Toss in the addition of Temple defensive end Quincy Roche as an immediate starter, as well as last year’s west coast transfers—Jaelan Phillips and Bubba Bolden—this Canes’ defense is primed to be a feisty bunch come fall.

Lots of early-year chatter about Alonzo Highsmith returning to his alma mater; a name that sounded ideal out the gate, but less feasible when picturing a 54-year old with eight years of NFL experience, working towards a GM-type role—taking a step back into an assistant athletic director-type position which has become en vogue in college football, as the head coaching position has become a bigger beast.

The knee-jerk go-to—present company included; a dig that neither Diaz or Miami’s admin wanted an alpha-type dog in the position. The notion was quickly dispelled when former safety Ed Reed was brought home in a Chief of Staff role.

The most-jaded were quick to call the Reed hire a PR move; funny, as this same contingent roasts UM for “not caring about football”. If the latter is true, why bother with making moves to appease the fan base—and when has Miami’s athletic department ever proven PR-savvy?

Fact remains, Reed is as much an alpha as Highsmith—and the the Hall of Fame safety wouldn’t have returned to his alma mater for a fluff role.

Yes, the 41-year old will answer to Diaz, per the org chart, but Reed already has a finger on the pulse—much like Highsmith did when discussing UM—especially in regards to the ongoing theme of a broken culture.

“It’s not a complicated thing,” Reed shared soon after his hiring. “These kids just have to humble themselves … The problem is the people they are surrounding themselves with are the people who are giving them the glory when they haven’t done anything … It’s about being with your teammates and having that accountability. I am not telling you not have fun, because we did have a lot if fun—but we did it together.”

Regarding the job itself, Reed will serve in an advisory role to Diaz—involved in strategic planning, quality control, operations, player evaluations and their development—as well as team building, student-athlete mentorship and recruiting, “as permissible under NCAA rules”.

It will take a few years to truly measure the effects of the Reed hire and the overall impact it has on the program, but in an era where lots of college football programs are adding a position like this—it’s hard to have anything negative to say about the return of an all-time Hurricanes great, as well as the de facto head coach of the 2001 national champs.

Wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield was poached by Penn State weeks back, which no one seemed to care about, as Miami’s wide receiving corps was a mixed bag in 2019 under the first-year position coach.The departure proved to be addition by subtraction for the Hurricanes when Diaz replaced him with veteran Rob Likens; last seen as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator—but with a strong resume across the board.

Likens pent seven years under Sonny Dykes; a proponent of the Air Raid offense, which fits the mold regarding the staff Diaz wanted to hire with this move to the spread.

Last, but hardly least—a National Signing Day surprise with the last-minute addition of 4-Star safety Avantae Williams to the 2020 class. Williams was a former Canes verbal commit a ways back and appeared to be a full-blown Gators lock, before a change of heart and arguably one of the biggest surprises that first Wednesday of February.

Williams was ultimately the highest-ranked player of the class; the top safety in the nation, according to some—and the move itself vaulted Miami from the 18th-ranked class, to 13th—as well as second-best in the ACC, only behind Clemson.The Canes also benefitted from a coaching change at Washington State, nabbing wide receiver Keyshawn Smith late in the process, after Mike Leach left the Cougars for Mississippi State—as well as picking up cornerback Isaiah Dunson days before NSD.

Combined with the addition of the top running backs in Dade and Broward County—Don Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton, respectively—as well as Tyler Van Dyke at quarterback, Jalen Rivers on the offensive line and a defensive line trio including Chantz Williams, Quentin Williams and Elijah Roberts—it was a hell of a haul, considering 6-7 and the way Miami faded down the stretch.

Anyone who thinks Ed Reed retuned to ‘The U’ in a lackey-type role—they simply don’t know Ed Reed.

SIX WEEKS OF CHANGE; THE REMEDY?

When taking full stock in the past month and a half, it’s impossible to not praise the efforts of Diaz and the moves that have been made. Things felt beyond dismal as 2019 came to a close—to the point where most already had an understandable stick-a-fork-in-2020 approach to year two and were counting the minutes until the newbie head coach would be fired.

Instead, a handful of moves that not only can breathe life into this stagnant program—but can serve as a true jumpstart that turns things around rather quickly.

The work still has to be done—and yes, there were some off-season moves made this time last year that didn’t translate to wins in fall—but again, even on-paper, the upgrades were nowhere near as impressive as this latest haul.

Also in Diaz’s and Miami’s favor; the softest schedule the Hurricanes have seen in a good while—unlike 2021, where the Hurricanes open the season against Alabama. This coming season, the opposite as Miami starts off against Temple, Wagner and University of Alabama-Birmingham—all at home.

WEAK 2020 SCHEDULE COMES AT IDEAL TIME

The first road trip takes place late September when Miami heads to East Lansing to take on a Michigan State program that’s been in a downward spiral for years—and just experienced head coaching change, which should play to the Hurricanes’ favor.

Pittsburgh at home, at Wake Forest a few days later and then North Carolina in Miami—a much easier out than facing the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. The Canes head to Virginia on Halloween; Charlottesville always a tough spot—but without Bryce Perkins under center, the Cavaliers are also in rebuild-mode on some level.

Florida State treks south early November, Miami heads to Virginia Tech the following week and close the regular season with a road trip to Georgia Tech, before taking on Duke in the home finale.

Hardly a Murder’s Row schedule for the Hurricanes—and one that affords some early breathing room for King, Lashlee, Justice and a revamped offensive line to get their footing—opposed to opening with a Florida (2019) or LSU (2018), getting tagged in the nose and struggling to regain composure.

September is a lifetime away and the next measuring stick for the Hurricanes will be spring football, where the goal is for Greentree to continue morphing back into that place that breeds competition and brings out the best in Miami kids.

From there, summertime—when coaches are hands-off, but players must take on a leadership role and guys need to self-motivate out of nothing more than a desire to be the best—which is what championship programs do.

FIND IDENTITY; EMULATE OTHERS WHO GET IT DONE

A prime example; Clemson players adopted an in-season, team-wide social media hiatus years back—and it remains in place as the Tigers continue chasing titles. Meanwhile, Miami has literally had to discipline players for social media conduct and has to many me-first guys posting individual moments of glory to the platforms from games the Hurricanes lost as a team.

Clemson is now 101-12 since adopting this player-driven social media policy—”We don’t have time to be on social media, to be honest—so it’s no big deal,” senior defensive end Austin Bryant shared a week prior to the 2018 season, where the Tigers went 15-0 and won the national title—so safe to say, it has merit.

Champions don’t become champions overnight, nor are high-caliber coaches all winners out the gate; Dabo Swinney having his struggles early on in Clemson, before finding his footing, creating his team’s identity and becoming the top-tier guy today.

The road to success is always paved with failures; but it’s those setback moments where growth occurs. Diaz and his Canes certainly stumbled out the gate—but many of those potholes got smoothed over this off-season, giving reason for optimism in 2020 and a logical, legitimate step forward year two for Miami’s homegrown head coach.

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.