PITTSBURGH — Mark Richt felt he had to clear it up for those on social media.
“For the record,” he tweeted Friday afternoon, Malik Rosier is our starting quarterback.”
That was the second time this season the coach made that announcement. The first was in August, after the redshirt junior won the job. The latest proclamation came after Rosier’s struggles in second-ranked Miami’s 24-14 loss at Pittsburgh caused a fan firestorm. Whether Richt was getting out ahead of the story or reacting to the rage is unclear.
The postgame comments by the coach, his players, and Rosier himself in the chilly underbelly of Heinz Field left no doubt Miami is riding with its first-year starter.
“Losing magnifies everything,” said Braxton Berrios, a wise senior. “Winning seems to mask things. We try to get better and better each week, and I think we have. This was one of those games … We’re going to learn from it, and flush it.”
That “amnesia,” as Berrios called it, had proven to be one of Rosier’s greatest attributes. When he throws an interception, and he will, he typically shakes it off. First-half struggles? Flushed, usually. He couldn’t do it Friday, which is worrisome considering Clemson, which Miami meets in next week’s ACC Championship Game, has learned quite a bit about winning of late.
Don’t forget that Rosier, who lost for the first time as a starter (11-1), has played his best in big games. But if you have your doubts about him after Friday, they are well-earned.
He took full ownership of his 15-of-34, 187-yard, two-touchdown performance. Pitt’s defense made plays — it deflected 11 passes — and shut down UM’s run game, but the Hurricanes’ offensive struggles were mostly due to poor quarterback play. Rosier is their engine, and he stalled too often.
“A lot of it started with me,” Rosier said. “Missed multiple receivers. That’s something I have to fix. It can’t happen next week. The big thing is just to learn from this experience. There’s multiple times where we’d play lackadaisical in the first half and in the second half we’d explode. That’s something I have to fix. I have to motivate those guys in the first half, so the second half doesn’t have to be some kind of miracle.”
He was toughest on himself.
“I guess I got complacent,” Rosier said. “I was out there to be out there. I was kind of like, going through my reads instead of dialing in and focusing every snap.”
Rosier said he knew his coach wasn’t happy when at halftime, he asked him, “Are you ready to lead?”
“I knew if I kept making mistakes, he would wind up pulling me,” Rosier said.
So Richt pulled him. He put in redshirt sophomore Evan Shirreffs, whose only previous pass attempts came last month at North Carolina, when a struggling Rosier missed one series with a shoulder injury. Shirreffs was not the answer, going 0-for-2 and taking a sack. Neither was true freshman N’Kosi Perry, a bright talent who remained on the sideline. It would be foolish to burn his redshirt the day after Thanksgiving.
After Shirreffs went three-and-out, Rosier said he approached his coach.
“I know I’m not in,” he asked, “But I’d really like the chance to lead this team back. These are my guys. He was like, ‘No, you’ll have to wait until next week.'”
His teammates consoled him. He had his head down on the sideline, feeling like he blew the game. He said quarterbacks coach Jon Richt told him,”Remember this feeling.”
The offensive struggles meant Miami’s defense was on the field for 36 minutes, 30 seconds. They broke, allowing a 90-yard touchdown drive lasting 12 plays and more than six minutes. With the score 24-7 and 2:54 on the clock, Richt knew Rosier was capable of attempting a late comeback. He had before, after all.
Rosier found Braxton Berrios for a 39-yard touchdown, capping a three-play drive. You could look at that two ways: wonder why UM didn’t show that kind of fire earlier, and be encouraged that Miami at least had some life.
“That drive was how the whole game should have been,” he said. “We can’t wait that late to try to drive down the field and score, make some miraculous comeback.”
They did so, and survived Florida State, Georgia Tech and Syracuse. They rose to the level of their best opponents, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, before reverting to Comeback Canes mode last week against Virginia. In this noon game against a formerly down-and-out team, playing with fire finally burned them.
Was Miami too confident? Too complacent?
“I doubt it, but you get used to winning,” Richt said. “You get used to being behind a little bit and saying, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ That might have come into play somewhere along the way, but it came down to them playing better than us.”
This loss sullies Miami’s unbeaten season, snaps its 15-game winning streak, and dulls the finish of an otherwise sparkling regular season. Recall that at worst, Miami (10-1, 7-1) is likely headed for the Orange Bowl. That’s a success, given the inexperience and depth on this team. They still might make the College Football Playoff.
But they’ll have to rise to the level of Clemson, the ACC’s current gold standard: Defending national champions, twice a semifinalist and twice a league champion the last two years. They’ll assuredly be out of the top four heading in, and Clemson will be favored.
That’s what complacency gets you.
“If we win and get in, great,” Rosier said. “If we win and we don’t, that’s something we have to live with. It was our play who got us where we’re at.”