ORLANDO — They have dreams of hoisting a more hallowed trophy. Perhaps, one day, they will.
For now, the Hurricanes are happy with this one.
They earned their first bowl win in a decade — and some hardware — at Camping World Stadium, routing No. 16 West Virginia 31-14 in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Wednesday night.
Miami lost six bowl games between the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl and Wednesday, a dizzying stretch for a program that has produced five national titles and some of the greatest college football teams in history. In the past 10 years, the Hurricanes have made four coaching changes and are 80-60 overall.
They’re a long way from back. But under warm, 70-degree skies in a stadium 240 miles from campus, they earned the right to say they’re on the right track.
Under first-year coach Mark Richt, the 56-year-old former Miami quarterback, Florida State assistant and Georgia coach, UM finished 9-4 (5-3 ACC) and won its final five games. It will almost certainly be ranked when the season’s final polls are released.
“It’s fun to win,” Richt said, wearing wet clothing as his players shook the walls with their shouts from the locker room down the hall. “There’s nothing like it.”
The win came after quarterback Brad Kaaya caught fire, leading the Hurricanes to 28 unanswered points after falling behind early, and UM played its usual ferocious defense, keeping the Mountaineers (10-3) from winning 11 games for the sixth time in their 125-year history.
Kaaya, a junior who is expected to declare for the NFL draft, was named most valuable player. After an unimpressive start, he finished 24-of-34 for 282 yards and four touchdowns. He waved his arms to the heavy Miami contingent in the crowd, as UM players doused Richt with water in the final minute.
Afterward, fans chanted “one more year” at him.
Kaaya opened 5-of-13 for 29 yards, drawing heavy criticism from ESPN’s broadcast team and, as usual, social media. Miami gained 19 yards in the first quarter, 1.4 yards per carry, and started 0-for-6-on third down. The Hurricanes didn’t achieve a first down until 11:04 of the second, and that was on a penalty. They fell behind 7-0 after running back Kennedy McKoy scored from 6 yards out at 5:40 of the first.
Richt called it “sorry.”
Ahmmon Richards changed all that. The freshman All-American receiver from Wellington High, Richt said, pulled a hamstring 10 days before the game and hadn’t practiced much. But he took a short pass 51 yards to the end zone, slipping by star WVU cornerback Rasul Douglas, to tie the score with 6:30 left in the first half.
Kaaya – and the Hurricanes’ offense — looked quite comfortable from there. The Richards reception began a stretch in which Miami’s No. 15 completed 18 of 20 passes for 247 yards and four scores.
He floated a 3-yard TD pass to Malcolm Lewis with 2:11 left in the half and hit a wide-open Braxton Berrios for a 26-yard score with 27 seconds left.
“If you want to win a game like this, you’ve got to play well all four quarters,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said, who called UM’s defense the best it had seen all year. “We didn’t play well in the second quarter.”
Tight end David Njoku — a redshirt sophomore who declared for the NFL draft after the game– fought off a leg tackle attempt and high-stepped through the end zone to make it 28-7 at 11:04 of the third quarter.
“We [opened with] six drives with nothing,” Richt said. “Their down linemen whipped us in the run game.”
The Hurricanes lost a key defensive player when freshman linebacker Michael Pinckney was ejected for targeting at 10:55 of the third. Pinckney made clear helmet-to-helmet contact with WVU receiver Shelton Gibson, who was spinning to the ground as he was tackled by Corn Elder.
Quarterback Skyler Howard responded with a 26-yard completion, and scooted into the end zone from 4 yards out with 7:50 left in the third, making it 31-14.
But Miami turned to sophomore running back Mark Walton, the 1,000-yard rusher, who helped Miami put together a drive lasting 7 minutes, 41 seconds, sealing the victory.
Miami recorded nine tackles for losses and four sacks, holding the offensively gifted Mountaineers to 229 total yards, 95 on the ground. West Virginia failed to convert a pair of fourth-down chances and committed 11 penalties for 108 yards. Miami had eight for 89, and was 3-of-12 on third down.
According to the Associated Press, 109 FBS teams have won a bowl game since Miami last did. On that list: the other six FBS teams in the state of Florida and Old Dominion, which resurrected its football team in 2009. In Year One of Richt’s tenure, that inglorious streak is no more.
Miami beat its highest-ranked opponent since defeating No. 12 Florida in 2013, capping a promising season that included some big hits and a few razor-thin misses.
“We battled in every game,” Richt said. “We fought hard. We’ve just got to win the close ones.”
Russell Athletic Bowl 2016