MIAMI GARDENS — After building up so much momentum, after looking so good, after rising to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Hurricanes were determined to not have a letdown game.
The fans showed up, a loud group numbering 63,415, for a noon, senior day game against a non-marquee opponent. But until Michael Badgley’s 44-yard field goal with 0:21 in the third quarter, Miami didn’t have a lead.
UM (10-0, 7-0 ACC) survived an inspired charge from Virginia (6-4, 3-4), reverting back to its October form of winning close games. And then, down by two touchdowns at 12:21 of the third, Miami scored 30 unanswered points to win 44-28.
It was the Hurricanes’ 15th victory in a row, and secured their first 10-win season since 2003. Fans left Hard Rock Stadium happy, but after the thrills of the last couple weeks, they spent most of the day wondering if their team was going to blow it.
Crisis narrowly averted.
Mark Richt asked his players, who had thrived on being underdogs, if they could handle prosperous times. How did they answer? Not resoundingly.
Mistakes, like a roughing the punter penalty by Zach McCloud early in the fourth quarter, kept Virginia drives going. Near-misses, like the Cavaliers dropping a potential pick-six in the third quarter of a tie game, could have sunk the Canes. On the road against the third-ranked team in the nation, 19.5-point underdog Virginia was expected to play with their hair on fire. They nearly burned Miami’s house down.
A week after Miami played a complete, clean game (one penalty for 5 yards) in a thrashing of third-ranked Notre Dame, UM had nine players on the field for a (successful) extra-point attempt. They had two No. 4s on the field on a fourth-quarter punt return. Virginia had a 28-14 lead early in the third.
Should be interesting Tuesday: does that showing keep Miami in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings? No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson are likely to remain there after stomping FCS teams. No. 4 Oklahoma was visiting Kansas in the afternoon.
Not Malik Rosier’s best game.
Miami is earning their rep as a team that lives and dies by turnovers. When the defense is forcing them, the Canes are in good shape. When their quarterback is turning it over, they can get into trouble.
Rosier threw two interceptions and could have had a few more. His first pick came on a deflected pass. In the third quarter, nearly threw a pick-six on a screen to Michael Irvin, but corner Bryce Hall bobbled it. On the next play, Juan Thornhill boxed out the smaller Jeff Thomas and hauled in an interception at the 11. Miami’s defense saved him with a stop.
Rosier made a pair of strong touchdown throws, a 10-yarder to Ahmmon Richards and a 9-yarder to Lawrence Cager, and weaved through blocks by Trevor Darling and Tyler Gauthier for an 8-yard touchdown with 4:03 left that put the game out of reach. He also picked up a critical first down (24 yards) with his legs on the third-quarter drive that cut Virginia’s lead to 28-21.
Rosier finished 15-of-28 for 210 yards and three touchdowns (plus one on the ground), but his two interceptions remain cause for concern.
What happened to Miami’s run game?
It was a sub-par day for UM’s offensive line, which was dominant in the last two games. Whether it was the noon start, a fired-up Cavaliers defense or something else, the front five got little push.
Aside from Rosier’s 24-yard keeper and Travis Homer’s 36-yard burst that set up Rosier’s touchdown, Miami didn’t have a run longer than 9 yards until Homer’s 19-yard rush with 1:16 left. The Hurricanes, after rushing for a combined 5.88 yards per carry against excellent defenses the last two weeks, managed 4.6 (148 yards, two touchdowns on 32 carries).
Homer put up 96 yards and touchdown on 17 carries. Rosier had 38 and a touchdown on nine carries. DeeJay Dallas never got going, finishing with 15 on five totes. Virginia had four tackles for loss for 21 yards and produced three sacks.
In that area, “they whipped us,” Mark Richt said.
What happened to Miami’s pass defense?
Miami entered the day ranked fourth in the nation in that category, holding quarterbacks to a meager 97.22 rating. And Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert played the game of his life.
His only incomplete pass in his first 19 attempts: a throwaway, when he was chased by Chad Thomas. He opened 18-for-19 for 288 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback to hang four TDs on a Miami defense since Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. in Sept. 2015.
He didn’t make a mistake until Jaquan Johnson’s interception, returned 30 yards for a touchdown, tied the game at 28. Benkert, who closed 28-of-37 for 384 yards, finished with a passer rating of 193.1. It was the highest against Miami since Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas in Nov. 2013.
Miami’s defensive front looked little like the unit that swarmed Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, but the issues were mainly downfield. Benkert kept moving, threw darts on the run, and didn’t flinch. On one play in the first half, he saw a free-rushing Shaq Quarterman steamrolling toward him, and completed the pass while absorbing everything the 6-foot-1, 240-pound middle linebacker had.
Miami’s defense, as always, saved the day.
UM clamped down in the second half, allowing seven points and 129 total yards. After Rosier threw the interception, with the game tied at 28 and 4:34 left in the third quarter, Virginia set up at its own 11.
The response from Miami: Joe Jackson and RJ McIntosh combined for a sack and a 7-yard loss. McIntosh and Michael Pinckney swarmed running back Jordan Ellis for a loss of 1. A blitzing Trajan Bandy and Quarterman combined to stuff Ellis after a 2-yard gain.
When Virginia was looking for at least a game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter, Trent Harris (two sacks, eight this year) sacked Benkert on fourth down at midfield. No points for you.
The Hurricanes finished with 11 tackles for loss (tying a season high) and five sacks for the second week in a row. They forced a turnover on downs with 2:50 left that sealed the deal. They held UVa to 2.0 yards per carry. Championship defense — at least, when they needed it most.