RALEIGH, N.C. — He was talking about his team’s attempts to run the ball against North Carolina State, but his thought could stand as a summation of Miami’s season to this point.
“Sometimes,” coach Mark Richt said, “you’ve got to chip away, and eventually something will break.”
That’s how the Hurricanes won Saturday, scoring 24 points after halftime and leaving town with a 27-13 win. That’s what they’ve had to do this year, which now includes a three-game winning streak after a four-game October losing streak. Reaching this point — 7-4, 4-3 in ACC play — has taken patience on the part of a youthful team and its first-year coaching staff.
“They’re really coming into the understanding of what we want as a program,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “Our eyes are beyond this season.”
After a win over the Wolfpack, a team that plays tougher than its record (5-6, 1-5), Miami can look forward to Saturday’s regular-season finale against Duke, and with a win there, one of the ACC’s top-tier bowl games. The Hurricanes won in Raleigh largely because Diaz’ defense held the Wolfpack to one touchdown, they snatched away two second-half possessions on turnovers, and the offense found cracks in a stout, veteran defense.
Sophomore Mark Walton scored three times, including a 24-yard touchdown with 2:06 remaining to put the game out of reach. He passed 1,000 yards, giving Miami a 1,000-yard rusher for the third year in a row (Joe Yearby 2015, Duke Johnson 2014).
Walton (120 yards on 19 carries) gave the Hurricanes a boost 55 seconds into the second half, when he scored from 30 yards. That, and his 1-yard plunge at 7:11 of the third, were major achievements against N.C. State. The Wolfpack, which entered the day fifth in rushing yards allowed (99.4 per game), allowed 129 on 32 carries, including a pair of sacks.
“We were able to break out with a couple long runs, and that was the difference in the game I thought,” said Richt, who had Ahmmon Richards, David Njoku and Stacy Coley to rely on when the ground game stalled.
Richards, the star freshman from Wellington High, caught a career-high nine passes for 117 yards and broke Michael Irvin‘s 31-year-old UM freshman receiving record. Like Richards, Njoku (six catches, 72 yards) was a matchup problem. Coley had a quiet day until a 51-yard catch-and-run that set up Walton’s 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter, which made it 17-3. Freshman cornerback Malek Young‘s interception in the end zone, with 10:37 left in the third quarter, gave Miami the ball.
Miami’s defense, for the first time this year, did not register a sack and had a season-low four tackles for loss. It also held the Wolfpack to 4.5 yards per play, and two Connor Haskins field goals. Running back Matt Dayes (20 carries, 76 yards) scored his team’s only touchdown, a 3-yard rush with 50 seconds left in the third.
That cut Miami’s lead to seven points, but Michael Badgley‘s 22-yard field goal made it 20-10, after Hurricanes sophomore Jaquan Johnson recovered Bra’Lon Cherry‘s fumbled punt at the N.C. State 16.
Badgley also hit from 31 yards in the first quarter, and missed a 23-yarder wide left on a day where steady, 15-mph winds had flags rippling and trees bending. Quarterback Brad Kaaya, who finished 22-of-38 for 286 yards and was sacked twice, said the wind didn’t affect his efforts. His counterpart, Ryan Finley, finished 20-of-44 for 210 yards.
Haskins, who tied the game at 3 with a 35-yard field goal 1:37 before halftime, made a 25-yarder with 5:23 left. But like Dayes’ touchdown, it came after a drive of six-plus minutes, the work of a defense that made things tough for N.C. State.
It was the first time Miami has won four road games for the first time since 2010. Miami won four combined in the previous two seasons, under Al Golden. It also happens to be the second consecutive “Senior Day” the Hurricanes have spoiled. They won at Virginia last week, 34-14.
“We know there’s a lot of emotion going into games like that,” Richt said. “But we knew sooner or later, the game was going to settle down, and hopefully our execution could overcome the emotion of the game.”
And now Miami will try to honor its seniors with a win.
“It’s crazy,” senior safety Jamal Carter said. “I’m definitely going to miss it. I’m glad I got this year in with this coaching staff. It was a great year. We’re not done yet. We’re still going to finish strong.”