No. 14 Miami Hurricanes pass first conference test, beat Georgia Tech 35-21

Joe Jackson rumbles for a touchdown after recovering a fumble against Georgia Tech. (Getty Images)

Joe Jackson rumbles for a touchdown after recovering a fumble against Georgia Tech. (Getty Images)

[Live game blog: all the action as it happened]

[Pregame notes, photos, videos]

ATLANTA — The Hurricanes were hopeful, yet unsure, about how their young defense would handle Georgia Tech’s pounding, confounding triple-option offense.

Those watching Miami wondered if it was for real after three dominant wins over lesser programs.

Though not all questions were answered and tougher games remain, the 14th-ranked Hurricanes (4-0, 1-0 ACC) passed their first conference test with a 35-21 win over the Yellow Jackets on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“We won,” coach Mark Richt said, asked to judge how well his defense played. “That’s it. It’s about winning. This is not a stat game.”

A few stats he should like:

  • His team is 4-0 for the first time since 2013. That year, they were 7-0 and ranked No. 7 before a loss at No. 3 Florida State. The Seminoles, 3-1 and ranked No. 12 entering Saturday, visit Hard Rock Stadium next week.
  • And Richt, who beat Georgia Tech regularly while he was Georgia’s coach the last 15 years, improved to 14-2 (9-0 on the road) against the Yellow Jackets (3-2, 1-2).
  • Junior quarterback Brad Kaaya, who like many UM upperclassmen wanted comeuppance for a dismal loss here in 2014, threw for 241 yards and a touchdown on 13-of-19 passing, and Mark Walton and Joe Yearby rushed for a touchdown apiece.
  • Those freshmen defensive players? They did all right, helping limit Georgia Tech to 4.9 yards per play and 5-of-16 on third and fourth downs.

They also scored two of Miami’s touchdowns.

Scoop-and-score fumble recoveries by linebacker Shaq Quarterman and defensive end Joe Jackson put the Hurricanes up 28-7 with 5:04 left in the first half. That was part of a wild sequence in which Miami scored 21 points in 98 seconds.

The first seven points, a 14-yard touchdown run by Mark Walton, came after a masterful scoring drive.

Facing a rapidly-growing time-of-possession disparity against Georgia Tech’s ball-control attack, UM coach and offensive play-caller Richt kept it on the ground for six plays. He let Kaaya throw twice. Those plays kept his team moving forward. Walton finished the rest.

The next two touchdowns were more madness than method.

Defensive end Trent Harris, who saw scant action in the first three games because of a broken hand, made his first tackle of the season. It was a thunderous hit between the numbers of Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, who lost the ball. Quarterman snatched it and ran 17 yards. Excitable defensive coordinator Manny Diaz doubled that yardage, jumping and chest-bumping anyone he saw on the sideline.

Moments later, more celebrating. Thomas lost the ball again. Jackson returned it 18 yards for a touchdown.

“The first of many touchdowns as a Hurricane,” said Jackson, 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds of confidence.

Harris, a junior, finished with seven tackles (six solo), two sacks, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Safety Jamal Carter, part of a veteran secondary which cleaned up mistakes all day, had a game-high nine tackles, all solo.

After Georgia Tech freshman A-back Dedrick Mills scored on a 9-yard swing pass before the half and a 1-yard rush at 5:01 of the third quarter, Kaaya responded.

From his own 26, he hit freshman Ahmmon Richards for 12 yards, then 31 – Richards juked his way past one defender and burned another. Kaaya’s next pass, a slant, found Stacy Coley for a 31-yard touchdown.

Four plays, 1:33 off the clock. It didn’t balance the time-of-possession scale, but it put Miami up by 14 points again.

“It was big for the momentum,” Coley said. “We came out slow in the second half. Coach Richt told us to settle down and make plays when they come. That’s what we did.”

Miami’s defense sealed the win. Senior defensive backs Corn Elder and Rayshawn Jenkins broke up passes in the end zone to stop one late drive. Freshman linebacker Michael Pinckney intercepted a fourth-down pass with 2:21 left.

In total, Georgia Tech held the ball for 39:54 of game clock, more than double Miami’s total. But the Hurricanes, in a scene vastly different the one two years ago, celebrated with their large group of traveling fans afterward, and about 150 fans waited outside the gate to chant Richt’s name as he departed.

Instead of rushing the field, the home fans shuffled away quietly.

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