Steve Walsh drove to check out Miami’s practice Wednesday morning. He hoped to catch up with Brad Kaaya, past and present Hurricanes quarterbacks talking shop. He didn’t have plans to address the team — unless Mark Richt asked him to.
What would he say to the group?
“Just like Jimmy [Johnson] said when he left: beat their asses,” Walsh said, laughing. “I’ve had to live with that for about 30 years.”
The Notre Dame game in 1988, a 31-30 loss in South Bend, was the only setback of Walsh’s college career. Kaaya, a junior with NFL talent, has had a rockier road. He is 17-15 as a starter, has been through a coaching change, and is navigating his third offense in three years.
While the ACC Coastal is likely out of reach, Walsh said Kaaya can lift UM to an enticing bowl game. With UM at 4-3 (1-3 ACC) heading into Saturday’s game at Notre Dame (3:30 p.m., NBC), it will be a heavy lift.
“I think Brad’s got to be the one to carry them a little bit,” Walsh said. “You never want the quarterback to put the entire team on his shoulders, but based on the injuries they’ve had, it’s probably what they need.”
Though Kaaya has been knocked around regularly and his supporting cast is not deep, both Walsh and former UM Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta said Kaaya can be better. That means avoiding sacks, staying on his feet and finding open receivers — or throwing it away.
“It’s hard to say. You’ve got to make a play sometimes,” Torretta said. “It seems like sometimes there’s plays to be made. I’m not looking at the playbook, but it seems like there are a few occasions where guys may be open and it’s there. Once you get hit in the mouth a few times, that changes your clock in your head.”
One play in last week’s Virginia Tech game had Walsh hearing things.
“I had Joe Brodsky ringing in my ears,” he said, referring to the former UM and NFL running backs coach, who died in 2006. “I think Mark Walton was getting out on a route, and a defensive tackle flashed. He was coming right at Brad. Mark dipped his shoulder and was getting into his route. I heard Brodsky: ‘Don’t get into your route until you clean the pocket.’ I’m not trying to put this on Walton, because I don’t know if he was the primary guy or what. But it needs to be a team effort — when you have injuries or mismatches along the lines, it’s got to be a group effort. And the quarterback needs to know who the quick options are.”
Richt is trying to find answers for Kaaya, who is on pace to be sacked 25 times. He was pleased with how quickly Kaaya picked up his offense over the summer, but has of late blamed himself for Kaaya not being coached properly. Torretta said learning a new scheme can slow a quarterback against faster, more talented defenses. Walsh noted that a lot of quarterbacks lack a finely tuned sense of when to throw the ball away. “I think,” he said, “it’s a lost art.”
Neither blames Kaaya for UM’s regression, which saw three losses in a 12-day span after a 4-0 start.
“It’s a combination of, we’re thin talent- and depth-wise, and we’ve played some good defenses on relatively short rest,” Torretta said. “That’s not a good recipe for an offensive line that’s finding its way. When he’s protected, he’s fine.”
UM’s hot start and climb to No. 10 in the polls raised expectations a little too high, Walsh said. But he sees plenty of reason for optimism.
“It’s exciting when you have three young linebackers (Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney, Zach McCloud) that are making plays,” Walsh said. “I know they lost a couple wide receivers, but Ahmmon Richards is making plays. I think there are a lot of encouraging things that have happened so far.”
Torretta, an analyst for SiriusXM and Touchdown Radio, said Notre Dame (2-5) might be in worse shape than Miami.
“I think they’re struggling a little more than we are,” Torretta said. “I would tend to think they have a little more talent than we do, and depth of talent, just because [Brian] Kelly‘s been there longer than Mark [Richt]. They haven’t put it together.
“There’s got to be issues there. You don’t usually fire a defensive coordinator [Brian VanGorder] two games into the season. Normally when that happens, something’s going on that’s not good.”
South Bend flashbacks
The 23 games Walsh won as a starter, including a 24-0 pasting of the Irish in 1987, have been fodder for two popular ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries on UM. But the latest film, Catholics vs. Convicts, is about that 1988 loss and is told from the Notre Dame side.
The film will be shown this weekend on Notre Dame’s campus and will debut nationally Dec. 10. Walsh. who will be in South Bend this weekend for the game and ESPN promotional events, was shown video clips of the 1988 game in a 45-minute interview session with the filmmakers last spring.
“It was cool to see the game again,” said Walsh.
“The big takeaway from that game was, even after we didn’t get the two-point conversion, I had two plays I was thinking about after we got the onside kick. We were going to get the onside kick. That’s the confidence we had.”
Torretta, a backup the last time Miami visited Notre Dame Stadium (1990), has a few memories.
“It was the worst natural grass playing surface I’ve ever played on in college. I remember they had some kind of fungus, and the grass was about four inches long,” he said (Notre Dame installed turf in 2014. “The locker room left something to be desired. It wasn’t a Taj Mahal way back in 1990.”
The rivalry was hot a long time ago, years before any player who will take the field Saturday was born. But Torretta believed players would appreciate being a part of history.
“It’s Notre Dame,” he said. “It’s like if you played Michigan or USC or Ohio State. The fans and alumni know about it more than the players now, but I’m sure they recognize, ‘This is a big opportunity on national TV to make a statement and right the season.'”