CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the Hurricanes’ contingent drove to The Westin Charlotte hotel for their turn at ACC media days Wednesday morning, they passed by Bank of America Stadium.
Just the sight of it brought back bad memories. Only seven months ago, Miami was crushed by Clemson 38-3 in the league’s championship game at that stadium on Dec. 2.
“I definitely got mad when we passed the stadium,” Hurricanes senior safety Jaquan Johnson said. “I tapped Ahmmon [Richards]. He was looking at his phone and he was like, ‘That’s the stadium?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I’m never going to forget that stadium. I’m hoping we really get back to the ACC championship this year.”
Wide receiver Ahmmon Richards, who served as one of the Hurricanes’ players representatives at the ACC Kickoff along with Johnson, confirmed that story.
“We drove past the stadium and I saw Jaquan’s face as he looked at the stadium, and he kind of got mad a little bit because it’s just that feeling in the stadium that you left with,” said Richards, who did not play in the ACC championship because of a knee injury. “I wasn’t there. I watched on TV and it sucked, and I know my team. That’s not the way we wanted to end the season, obviously.”
That loss to Clemson was part of a three-game losing skid that Miami ended the season on after starting 10-0. The Hurricanes have used their disappointing finish as motivation in the weight room and on the football field this offseason.
But motivation isn’t going to close the gap between the Hurricanes and Tigers. While a 35-point loss makes it seem like Miami has a long way to go to catch up, players and coaches believe the gap isn’t as large as it looks.
“We’re definitely real close, I believe,” Johnson said. “A few slip-ups, those last three games, actually, those were the slip-ups. We can’t get unfocused. We have to execute on every opportunity that we’re given and those were the games that we lost.”
When asked how Miami can catch up to Clemson, Richards said: “Just watching film, man. It just comes down to little things. You may see they have a lot more talent than us or they’re more experienced in big games than us. But I feel like we can play with them. You just watch the film, it’s just little plays that make a big difference – whether it’s on offense, defense or even special teams. It’s little things that will literally make the difference in the game.”
It also helps to have a healthy roster, as the Hurricanes were without three of their top offensive weapons in the ACC Championship Game. Running back Mark Walton (ankle), tight end Chris Herndon (knee) and Richards (knee) all missed the contest with injuries.
But Johnson refuses to use that as an excuse.
“I mean, when it boiled down to it, we didn’t execute the game plan, so with healthy players or not, we don’t execute the game plan, we get [blown] out,” Johnson said. “And that’s what that was. We didn’t make the plays we normally made the entire season and we didn’t do anything on offense. That’s the bottom line with that game.”
The good news for the revenge-minded Hurricanes is that Clemson is the clear favorite to win the Atlantic side of the conference. With Miami also favored to win its side of the ACC, a Hurricanes-Tigers rematch in the league championship is realistic.
“I want Clemson to come out on the other side,” Johnson said. “I look forward to the competition and the challenge that Clemson brings. The recruiting class and the players that came back, they’ve got a stacked house. It’ll be good taking them down.”
Until then, Johnson will continue to study last season’s ACC championship loss. No matter how much it hurts.
“It pops in my head every day,” he said. “It’s tough to watch it, but I watch it. I watch a few plays a day, just looking at it because I want to see what wrong, when it went wrong and how a play was right there and we didn’t make it.”