CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Miami’s three-back attack bowled over Virginia – and helped make the Hurricanes bowl-eligible.
Mark Walton, Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards rushed for 222 combined yards, true freshman Ahmmon Richards’ 77-yard catch-and-run touchdown put the game out of reach, and UM gained four second-half turnovers to cruise to a 34-14 win.
The Hurricanes (6-4, 3-3 ACC) had their best rushing day since a Sept. 10 win over Florida Atlantic (279 yards). UM averaged 102 yards in the seven games since, with the run game disappearing almost entirely in losses to Florida State (62), Virginia Tech (42) and Notre Dame (18).
Walton led the way with 111 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Edwards had 68 on 11 touches. Yearby added 53 and a touchdown on nine.
“We thought we could run the ball this week,” coach Mark Richt said. “Some of it was some great effort on runs and some of it, obviously, was the blocking for our backs.”
They did it behind a patchwork offensive line that was missing starting left tackle Trevor Darling and center Nick Linder to injuries. Left tackle Kc McDermott, first-time starting left guard Tyler Gauthier and center Alex Gall joined right guard Danny Isidora and right tackle Tyree St. Louis — the latter pressed into starting duty after an injury to starter Sunny Odogwu.
Quarterback Brad Kaaya said the line did “a phenomenal job” opening holes and giving him time to throw.
It was also Miami’s first win in Charlottesville since 2008. It lost its previous three.
A week after breaking their four-game losing streak with a 51-28 blowout of Pittsburgh, Miami was far from perfect. It struggled to cover at times, a major reason the Cavaliers – 115th nationally in third-down offense entering the game — converted 9-of-17. The Hurricanes committed 45 yards in penalties, the first of which came when Michael Badgley booted the opening kick out of bounds.
But Virginia (2-8, 1-5) committed 10 penalties for 110 yards, allowed Miami to gain 6.8 yards per play, and surrendered five sacks and nine tackles for loss. They also struggled to hold onto the ball, and quarterback Kurt Benkert never looked comfortable.
Kaaya threw a strange-looking interception in the first quarter when a pass bounced off tight end Chris Herndon’s hands and into those of Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser. “It was almost like a glitch in a video game,” Kaaya said. Cavaliers running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell scored on a 2-yard rush.
Yearby’s shifty, 10-yard touchdown tied the game on the ensuing drive. Walton converted a fourth-and-1 at midfield when he bounced outside for 26, and turned a third-and-9 into 13 yards by shaking off two tackles.
“Just running hard and trying to be physical,” Walton said. “Just being more powerful than the other guys. I guess they thought the play was over.”
Those two and Edwards ripped off run after run on the next drive, but Miami settled for Badgley’s 40-yard field goal.
Kaaya, who finished 14-for-29 for 229 yards with a pair of touchdowns and the interception, wasn’t sharp — “for him,” Richt said. But he put Miami up 17-7 with a 13-yard fastball to tight end David Njoku with 9:28 left in the first half. On that drive, he passed Jacory Harris for third on UM’s career yardage list. With 9,005, the junior has only Ken Dorsey (9,565 yards) to surpass.
“I’m sure I’ve had better games,” Kaaya said. “We won the game, so that’s all I’m worried about. We’ll correct all the other stuff.”
Virginia cut the lead to 3 with 2:42 left in the half when Benkert threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to David Eldridge. Another Miami miscue — a dropped interception by safety Jaquan Johnson – bailed out the Cavaliers. They converted three times on third down, including the touchdown. That helped offset two holding penalties they committed while struggling to deal with UM’s stout defensive line.
Badgley added a 44-yard field goal at 10:48 of the third. With 3:25 left in the quarter, Richards caught a sideline pass, put a spin move on cornerback Juan Thornhill, and outraced Virginia’s coverage to the end zone. He held a finger to his lips after crossing the goal line.
Kiser admitted Richards’ highlight-reel play “broke us a little bit. … I tip my hat to that guy.”
Before that, UM left points on the field after forcing a turnover. Defensive end Joe Jackson recovered the ball after Corn Elder’s strip-sack, but Badgley missed a 50-yard field goal. They made up for it with 11:17 left.
After Virginia punter Nicholas Conte fumbled, defensive end Trent Harris recovered at the 39. Walton’s 15-yard touchdown run caused many home fans to head for the exits. Those who remained saw Jackson force another fumble with 10:19 left, slapping the ball from Benkert. Darrion Owens recovered. Elder picked up another loose ball with 2:54 left.
“It just feels good to get in the pattern of winning again,” Kaaya said. “Just more momentum going forward. … We’ve got to keep playing so we can get placed in one of the top-tier bowls.”