CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Hurricanes made strides this year, reaching their first ACC Championship and winning 10 games for the first time since 2003.
But they crashed in Charlotte.
A quality season for Miami ended in dismal fashion with a frustrating, utterly forgettable 38-3 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
Clemson, class of the ACC
Miami wanted revenge for its worst loss in program history, the 58-0 shellacking in 2015 that stood as its last shutout loss.
Clemson looked like it could have pulled a repeat. It nearly pitched the first shutout in ACC title-game history.
The Tigers, who captured their third straight ACC title and will undoubtedly hold onto their No. 1 ranking when playoff selections are made Sunday, were deeper, more experienced and poised. It’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions from a single game, but Saturday, Clemson showed Miami how far it has to go to reach the top of the league.
The Canes were outscored 96-0 in two games against Clemson (12-1, 7-1 ACC) before Michael Badgley’s 22-yard field goal with 3:29 left.
Even when things went well for UM, they quickly reversed course. In the third quarter, the Canes found a spark with DeeJay Dallas in the Wildcat. He gained 26 yards on his first three carries, until Miami ran a double-reverse, Dallas to Lawrence Cager to Malik Rosier.
He overthrew Braxton Berrios deep behind coverage, then threw an interception on the next play, a tipped ball by Dexter Lawrence. Lawrence stunted on backup left guard Corey Gaynor and was alone in front of Rosier.
On the ensuing Clemson drive, RJ McIntosh ripped the ball out of running back CJ Fuller’s grip, and Michael Pinckney lost the fumble. It was a loss of 14 yards for Clemson, but Deon Cain scored on a 27-yard reception on the next play to make it 38-0.
Another Clemson touchdown was set up after Malek Young couldn’t hold onto a Tigers fumble downfield, which was recovered by the Clemson offense for a 40-yard gain that set up six points.
A season to remember.
It was No. 7 Miami against No. 1 Clemson with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line. Expectations will soon rise, but writing that sentence at the end of the second year of Mark Richt’s tenure is a measure of success.
The Hurricanes (10-2, 7-1) are assured a spot in the Dec. 30 Orange Bowl as the top-ranked ACC team not in the playoff, would meet a high-ranked team from the Big Ten or SEC, possibly Alabama. The selection show begins noon Sunday (ESPN).
Not a small consolation, that. It would be UM’s first Orange Bowl appearance since 2003 and the first marquee bowl game for the Hurricanes since 2005.
After Hurricane Irma sideswiped September, Miami went to Tallahassee and snapped its seven-game losing streak to Florida State with a fourth-quarter comeback, pounded Virginia Tech (to all but clinch the Coastal) and Notre Dame (to the unending delight of Miami fans), and made it to Charlotte. Miami fans would undoubtedly show up strong at Hard Rock Stadium.
Coaches will hit the road recruiting Sunday in advance of the Dec. 20-22 early signing period. UM expects a host of official visitors on campus in two weeks, and a large chunk of a highly ranked recruiting class to sign early. Current players will be smarting from this loss, but not for long.
Offensive issues doomed Miami.
Malik Rosier could enter spring drills in an odd position: despite winning his first 11 career starts, 10 of them this season, he may be fighting for his job.
Miami’s first-year starting quarterback was inaccurate on his throws, an issue that got worse as the season wore on. Perhaps some of it was his shoulder injury Oct. 28 at North Carolina. Certainly against Clemson, some of it was not having Chris Herndon and Ahmmon Richards, his second- and third-leading receivers. But Richt should take a long look this spring at N’Kosi Perry, the former four-star prospect who redshirted this year.
Rosier, for all his comeback prowess this year, couldn’t rally from a 21-point halftime deficit, tied for the largest in an ACC Championship Game. It didn’t help that Jeff Thomas fumbled away the ball once, and Darrell Langham tipped an interception into a Clemson defender’s hands.
Rosier was 14-of-29 for 110 yards and two interceptions.
Ran out of steam.
This game didn’t feel like Clemson 58, Miami 0 in 2015, when the Hurricanes were healthy but thoroughly outclassed by their opponent. It had the look of the 2013 Russell Athletic Bowl, when Miami’s offense was hobbled and went 0-for-11 on third down in a 36-9 blowout loss to Louisville.
Missing Richards and Herndon, plus Mark Walton, was a lot for the offense to overcome. A host of Hurricanes defenders spent time on the sideline. Nickel back Trajan Bandy was hurt on the first series and did not return. Four other starters — linebacker Zach McCloud, defensive tackle Kendrick Norton, defensive end Chad Thomas and cornerback Michael Jackson — were hurt and returned.
Clemson didn’t have a player down on the field with an apparent injury until the final minutes, when running back Fuller jogged off.
The Hurricanes were playing their 11th game in a row, the unfortunate side effect of an Irma-related game cancellation and the rescheduling of two others.
Defense not at fault.
Miami didn’t allow a rush longer than 11 yards and held the Tigers to a 1.8 yards per carry. But the offense lost the field position battle all evening, and Clemson scored four short rushing touchdowns. The Tigers were content to attack through the air. Quarterback Kelly Bryant completed his first 15 passes — breaking former star Deshaun Watson’s ACC title-game record of 13 — closed 23-of-29 for 252 yards and a touchdown, and watched most of the fourth quarter from the sideline.
Clemson was 8-of-16 on third down, but that was after UM’s defense tightened. The Canes allowed conversions on the first seven tries, but the Tigers had a tough time after.
The Turnover Chain came out once, after Miami’s first offensive series. Clemson’s Ray Ray McCloud muffed a punt, and Trent Harris pounced on it. It was only the second lost fumble for Clemson in its five ACC Championship appearances. And Miami couldn’t do anything with it. It lost 7 yards on a third-down screen, and Michael Badgley missed a 46-yard field goal. It got worse after that.