CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The Hurricanes keep winning while looking less-than-worthy of their top-10 status.
They were expected to dominate struggling North Carolina, a three-touchdown underdog on its homecoming day. They nearly lost, escaping Kenan Stadium with a 24-19 win.
Miami (7-0, 5-0 ACC), which entered the weekend as one of eight unbeaten FBS teams, is unlikely to give the College Football Playoff selection committee much to consider before Tuesday, when it issues its first rankings of 2017.
Five things we learned:
There’s a lot to clean up.
The Canes have its toughest games of the season ahead, and frankly, it’s hard to be too impressed. Entering Saturday, their four most recent opponents had a combined record of 11-18. UM beat them by a combined 18 points.
If they’re playing possum for Virginia Tech and Notre Dame (both 6-1), they’re doing a very good job.
“I’ve done it too long to apologize for winning,” said Mark Richt, whose team won its 12th consecutive game. “You take pride in what you do. When it’s not clean as it should be, it’s bothersome. It hurts.”
The Hurricanes played down to the level of an opponent missing 21 players due to injury, had not beat an FBS team and was being outscored 90-219 in ACC play.
The offensive line offered weak protection and a lack of push in the run game. Quarterback Malik Rosier missed a bunch of throws and made shaky decisions, earning some stern sideline words from Richt. Travis Homer’s fumble with 2:56 left set up North Carolina for a go-ahead touchdown. The defense busted for big gains, missing tackles all over the field. Miami even allowed a 43-yard kickoff return.
Miami needed Joe Jackson to cause a fumble, and Jaquan Johnson to recover it under a pile, with 2:11 left after Homer’s fumble nearly gave away the game. It was UM’s first fumble of the year.
Again: UNC (1-8, 0-6) has the worst record in the ACC.
“It’s not to our standard,” left tackle Kc McDermott said. “We need to do better.”
Can this Miami offensive line handle Virginia Tech’s defensive front and quality quarterback next week? Can this defense tackle well enough to slow Notre Dame’s outstanding ball-carriers? Can Rosier make the right throws? Their season likely depends on it. Forget the playoffs: playing like they did Saturday would spell a campaign that ends somewhere other than the ACC title game.
Knowing the Hurricanes of 2017, they’ll clean it all up and play well for four quarters, because apparently they need a dramatic setting to perform.
But they’re hardly playing their best ball entering this critical stretch, so it would hardly be a surprise to see them lose.
Stats, but struggles for Rosier.
Miami’s first-year starting quarterback set a career high in passing yards (356), but was not nearly as sharp as he was in last week’s win over Syracuse. He was off-target for most of the game, finishing 16-of-38. He threw three touchdowns and an interception.
In the fourth quarter, he threw his fourth pick of the season (and first since Oct. 7 at Florida State) after missing Ahmmon Richards in the red zone. He fumbled a snap two plays before, while trying to hand to Homer. Earlier in the quarter, he nearly threw another interception — the ball was short and wide — but a defender pushed his receiver, Jeff Thomas, out of the way and earned a pass interference foul.
Miami was 4-of-17 on third down, after entering the weekend 112th nationally in that category.
“It’s a matter of execution,” Richt said. “I know it’s a boring answer. You pass-protect, throw the ball accurately, you catch the ball when it hits your hands, you create space for a runner.” He said he could “call plays that give us a better chance,” but he’s seeing a lot of stacked boxes and one-on-one coverage.
“It’s a matter of getting better at what we do.”
A slew of mental mistakes.
After Homer’s game-changing fumble, fellow sophomore Zach McCloud was called for a 15-yard personal fould. It put UNC at the Miami 37-yard line, with three timeouts in its pocket. Its crowd, less than half-full for what was expected to be a rout, was making as much noise as possible.
Defensive end Joe Jackson made the game-saving play, knocking the ball out of the hands of running back Jordon Brown. Safety Jaquan Johnson scrapped for the rock at the bottom of the pile, and emerged with it.
That was the fourth turnover Miami gained, but it scored zero points off the miscues.
Michael Jackson, Charles Perry and Sheldrick Redwine intercepted Elliott, UNC third-string quarterback, who finished 16-of-39 for 173 yards and a touchdown after replacing injured starter Chazz Surratt in the first quarter. The Tar Heels also gained 176 rushing yards on 46 carries (3.8 per). They wore down Miami’s defense with 92 plays.
Big-play receivers shined.
Rosier could have had a lot more yardage if he was sharper, because Miami had matchup advantages through the air and a lot of one-on-one coverage.
Speedy freshman Jeff Thomas (101 yards, touchdown on three catches) had the first 100-yard day of his career. Another freshman, DeeJay Dallas, put a devastating downshift on a defender for a 49-yard gain. Tight end Chris Herndon spun out of two tackles on a 51-yard touchdown catch-and-run. Braxton Berrios (seven catches, 78 yards, touchdown) made a gorgeous diving catch for a 42-yard gain. Homer, whose hands failed him later, flashed a reliable pair on a 35-yard grab.
Why can’t Miami run the ball?
After weeks of sticking with a Homer-Rosier run game (remember, Mark Walton is hurt), the Hurricanes got two new running backs into the game. Trayone Gray earned two yards on his lone carry, and Dallas was stuffed for no gain.
Homer and his QB didn’t have it much easier. Homer went 16 times for 40 yards, losing the fumble when linebacker Cayson Collins punched it out. Rosier had 20 yards on 12 carries, and saw swallowed up nearly every time he tried to run. His longest gain was an 18-yard keeper.
UM’s ball-carriers gained a season-low 1.8 yards per carry, finishing with 59 yards on 32 tries.
They didn’t have much room to operate. Miami’s offensive line, which featured a three-man rotation between the two guard spots, was pushed around all day. Richt’s best teams — and most teams that win anything of importance — are solid along the lines.
Miami, which has an outstanding defensive front, is halfway there.
“Everything fires in practice,” Berrios said of the offensive struggles. “If we knew what it was, we’d fix it right now. … It might be just going out there and playing, stop worrying.”
The offense hasn’t had that conversation, he said, but “maybe it’s something that needs to be addressed.”