RALEIGH, N.C. — Miami kept it rolling, winning its third game in a row after that miserable, four-game October losing streak.
A few things we took away from Miami 27, N.C. State 13:
It’s hard to not play the what-if game. In an alternate universe, Demarcus Walker doesn’t block the extra point and Miami wins in OT, the ref doesn’t give UNC that Autin Proehl touchdown, Miami stays healthy enough to steal a win at Virginia Tech, Jamal Carter falls on the fumble at Notre Dame, and Miami is 11-0.
In this current universe, the Hurricanes are a few plays shy of an excellent season, which is both hopeful in that they were that close and frustrating in that they couldn’t close the deal. Winning its senior-day game Saturday against Duke and whatever bowl game comes next will allow everyone in the program (and recruits, most importantly) to fully believe the program is on the rise.
But Miami simply must win those games. A bowl loss would make many think, “Same old Canes,” and a home loss to Duke (4-7) would be unacceptable.
“We’d like to finish with eight wins, obviously,” Mark Richt said. “We know we’re going to a bowl, which is great. I’ve always seen the senior day to be a very meaningful day. It’s very meaningful for our seniors, obviously. I think our teammates respect our guys enough to want to really help them have a great experience in their last home game.”
Ahmmon Richards is a star. Forget the “rising” or “future” modifiers. Richards probably won’t be in college past his junior year at this rate. Miami would love for him to stick around for four years, but you may have noticed its coaches took to Twitter to remind recruits that freshmen shine early at UM.
Richards has everything you want in a receiver: smooth route-running, top-flight speed, good strength for a freshman, size (6-foot-2, 190 pounds), shiftiness, awareness, hands (a few drops, but nothing nagging), and ever-growing confidence. He is better than Stacy Coley was as a freshman, because he’s in better shape and more physical. It’s easy to argue he’s better than Coley now.
If David Njoku and Brad Kaaya return, the Hurricanes could be very potent offensively with Kaaya, Richards, Njoku and Chris Herndon, a returning Lawrence Cager, a boatload of running backs, four battle-tested offensive linemen and ideally, a top-10 recruiting class.
Miami’s offensive line has a major offseason challenge. Those offensive dreams are sullied if the O-line can’t protect and push, and Kc McDermott’s struggles to fend off Bradley Chubb served as more confirmation the Hurricanes can’t handle good edge rushers. But even if UM nails signing day, it will have young and raw talent (and any transfers, like LSU’s George Brown, will be in their first years as Hurricanes).
It’s on McDermott, Trevor Darling and Nick Linder to get healthy and improve entering their senior years, and be a strength for an offense that might return a lot of talent. It’s good for Miami sophomores Tyler Gauthier and Tyree St. Louis are seeing extensive action. Richt admitted he was “very nervous” when St. Louis came out for a couple plays with an apparent injury. He returned.
Let’s face it: if the offensive line held up all season, those just-misses and almost-had-’ems referenced above may not have been that close. And Mark Walton may have reached the 1,000-yard mark a few games ago.
Malek Young is improving. That’s vital to a secondary that loses Corn Elder, who is playing so well teams are desperate to avoid throwing his way, and safety starters Jamal Carter and Rayshawn Jenkins. Young’s end-zone interception in the third quarter came after he read his man and made a play. He has excellent speed, which is a reason he’s starting over sophomore Sheldrick Redwine. Young plays nickel for Miami, too. Versatility is always good.
Next year, he will be counted on to help replace Elder, while junior-to-be Jaquan Johnson will be a vital piece at safety. Miami is praying corner recruits like Trajan Bandy can make immediate waves, but Young is more evidence that talented players, coached properly, don’t need too long to cook.
It was another fine day for Miami’s defense, which is allowing 3.4 yards per carry in three November games, after surrendering 4.9 in five October games. UM has made its last three opponents largely one-dimensional.
Justin Vogel will be missed. We knew this already, but here’s to UM’s senior punter. Saturday’s was the type of game a punt was a standout play, and Vogel’s sky-high, 58-yard bomb flipped the field at a critical time. “A monster,” Richt said. “It had to be at least a 5.0 [seconds] hang time, which is very, very rare. To kick it 58 and get a guy to fair-catch it, that’s hard to do.”
Two of Vogel’s five punts went for 50-plus. He ranks 24th nationally in average (44.07) but punting average is a flawed stat; accuracy and consistency are more important than pure yardage. Vogel, whose career long is 73 yards, doesn’t miss many. He may not get drafted, but he’s every bit as good as Pat O’Donnell, who punted for Miami in 2013 and became a sixth-round pick of the Chicago Bears. Every team should be as lucky.