Mark Richt’s fiery words, physical play helped Miami Hurricanes’ offense turn its season around

Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier (12) celebrates his touchdown run in the first quarter at against Notre Dame. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

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ESPN’s Desmond Howard once won the Heisman Trophy for his punt-return skills, but he was also a wide receiver. Knowing the intricacies of the position, he was so fired up about the Hurricanes’ receivers that he rose from his seat while narrating a segment on College GameDay last Saturdday.

“They are some of the best blockers in the nation,” Howard said, his voice rising to a shout over a clip of Ahmmon Richards flattening an unsuspecting Florida State defender. “Those are championship plays. … That gets me going. I love that.”

Miami’s downfield blocking has been strong this year, especially on long passing plays. But Miami has had trouble moving bodies in the run game, particularly up front. It especially irritated Mark Richt at North Carolina on Oct. 28, when Miami scored 24 points and rushed for 1.8 yards per carry against a team that’s currently 2-8.

“Coach Richt is really big on physical dominance,” quarterback Malik Rosier said Wednesday. “You watched the UNC game. We weren’t that physical. He took that to heart. He was pissed off all week going into the Virginia Tech game. He told the offensive line, if you guys aren’t physical up front, we won’t win this game.”

They rushed for 210 yards that week in a 28-10 win, then 237 yards in last week’s 41-8 win over Notre Dame, nearly doubling their averages coming into those games. They scored a combined five rushing touchdowns, and last week, called 24 run plays in a row (“a first for me,” Richt said).

It’s one reason Miami’s offense is more dangerous entering the final weeks of the season: when others are finishing their blocks, drives are sustained, and big gains come easier.

“We aren’t overlooking teams anymore,” Rosier said. “Our receivers, too. They’re bringing a more physical presence in the run game. You see Ahmmon Richards and Lawrence Cager … blocking three or four yards down the field. That’s the biggest difference: we’re playing more physical as an offense.”

Braxton Berrios, who has served up a few pancakes this year, said receivers aren’t rewarded for big blocks. UM’s offensive linemen have a brick for their work, and of course, Miami’s defense has its turnover chain.

“We get a nice pat on the back and laugh about it in the film room,” he said.

“So much goes on for us to get a catch. We have to return those favors.”

Injuries were a factor in Miami’s midseason malaise.

The Hurricanes opened the spring with a starting offensive line of, left to right, seniors Kc McDermott and Trevor Darling, junior Tyler Gauthier, early-enrollee true freshman Navaughn Donaldson and junior Tyree St. Louis. They were together until Oct. 7 at Florida State, when Donaldson sprained his ankle. That was the game star running back Mark Walton went down with a season-ending ankle injury.

While Travis Homer adjusted to life as the No. 1 back, and Miami searched for his new backup, the offensive line shuffled between three guards (Darling, true freshman Corey Gaynor and redshirt sophomore Hayden Mahoney). Things clicked two weeks ago, with Donaldson’s return to form and the emergence of true freshman DeeJay Dallas.

Dallas has 18 carries for 85 yards in the last two weeks, and scored a pair of touchdowns against Notre Dame. Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown called him an “alpha male-type personality.”

Homer looks stronger than ever, with 32 carries for 241 yards, and is ninth nationally in yards per carry (6.67) among running backs with 100 or more carries. Rosier has become more dangerous with his legs of late, with 22 carries for 128 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Miami’s last two games. He’s running tougher, too, lowering his shoulder and careening off defenders on a touchdown against Notre Dame.

Brown likes Rosier’s consistency and handling of young players — “he knows how to get guys lined up” — as well as his improved accuracy.

“He’s obviously doing a better job when we ask him to run the football, making some plays,” Brown said of his first-year starting quarterback. Last week, “he made a couple guys miss and then he came back and told us about [it], which is good.”

Not coincidentally, Miami has seemed to fix another season-long malady: after scoring five touchdowns in its previous 14 red zone trips, Miami has six in nine tries the last two weeks.

“There were multiple times in previous games, especially before the Virginia Tech game, where our defense would have a great stop or a turnover and the offense would get no points out of it,” Rosier said. “We’re not only making people turn the ball over but we’re punishing them for turning the ball over.”

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