Can’t say that ACC title game disaster was a total dead end, not when Miami clearly is on the right route

CHARLOTTE, NC -Braxton Berrios of the Miami Hurricanes looks on against the Clemson Tigers in the second quarter during the ACC Football Championship at Bank of America Stadium on December 2, 2017. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You’ve got to be in it to win it. That’s what Miami will take out of Saturday night’s 38-3 collapse in the ACC Championship game, a stage no other Hurricanes team had reached.

There’s no need to think much more about it. Some teams, like Clemson, are built to win national championships, and maybe even to string a few of them together. They start out good and get better as the season goes along, a product of talent and depth and consistent coaching.

Miami should get there soon, if the 10-2 season still in progress counts for more than a shiny new Turnover Chain tradition. I think it does, because of all the fearless freshmen and sophomores out there making plays, and because Mark Richt, a landslide winner in the ACC Coach of the Year voting, is only two years into this project himself.

“I don’t think we’re a team that can line up and just impose our will,” Richt said, as he’s been saying all along. “We’re not there yet. We’ve got some more recruiting to do. We’ve got some more development to do. We’ve got some guys that can play against anybody in America but I don’t know that we’ve got enough of those guys yet.

“In time we’ll catch up to the measuring stick.”

He’s talking about Clemson, which put on Richt the worst postseason drubbing of his career. While the Hurricanes are proud, and rightfully so, of the 15-game win streak they built at the zenith of this season, the Tigers have beaten 11 Top-25 opponents in a row. That’s carrying a big stick, all right, and whoever draws Clemson in the national semifinals will feel it.

So chalk this humiliating loss up to experience, the kind that Florida State and Florida didn’t get this year. They’re starting over with new coaches at both of those places. Meanwhile, the worst you can say for Miami is that the Hurricanes are playing in the Orange Bowl and will open next season in the AP Top Ten.

That may not equal the mountaintop moment of a College Football Playoff appearance, but injuries to touchdown makers like Mark Walton and Ahmmon Richards and Chris Herndon would have made it difficult to make any noise there anyway. Malik Rosier needed those guys on Saturday night the way a sailboat needs a breeze.

He and Miami were dead in the water instead on Saturday, with 64 yards in total offense by halftime and almost as many punts overall (9) as first downs (10).

Clemson’s defense was too powerful. Dabo Swinney’s head start on Richt in stacking and developing of championship players at every position was too great. Four Clemson players rushed for touchdowns, for example. Miami hasn’t had anybody rush for a touchdown in the last two games, including that streak-breaking surprise of a loss at Pittsburgh.

Still, a sizable crowd of UM fans stayed at Bank of America Stadium to see it through. More than 20,000 Hurricanes fans reportedly bought tickets in South Florida to see this game, contributing to a sellout of 74,372 that ranked second in the history of this championship game.

They stomped around uptown Charlotte like they owned the place, which is what every committed fan base for every major program does at title time.

This, too, is a significant development, a sign of real investment and not just an occasional dip into the old Hurricanes memorabilia drawer for a big-game party or two.

Think of Howard Schnellenberger’s original construction project at Miami. That first national championship season was five years in the making, and even then it began with a demoralizing 28-3 loss to Florida.

The celebration of this season lies in the fact that the Hurricanes kept that lightning in the bottle for as long as they did. They got past Virginia Tech and Notre Dame without cracking. They won the close games that too often had slipped away. They beat FSU, for crying out loud, and won the Coastal Division, finally scratching an itch that never should have lasted through this many coaching regimes.

“This season has still been a success,” linebacker Shaq Quarterman said. “You’ve seen what’s happening. Year One. Year Two. It’s only gonna get better.”

Not exactly smack talk, but straight talk. The Hurricanes need to keep that going or else it all becomes fool’s gold, like the 10-1 start that Jim McElwain had at Florida and the three-game losing streak that ended that season.

This is tricky business, and that’s why you can forgive Richt for passing on a late fourth-and-inches and taking a short field goal to avoid the first shutout in ACC championship game history. Three points is all that Kent State and the Citadel managed against Clemson in a couple of cupcake games this season. Recruits need to know that Miami, a team that means to win the ACC next year, is at least that competitive when their best players are going against Dabo’s best.

If there’s a gnawing question from this night that will echo throughout the offseason, it’s what Richt will do with his quarterback position. Rosier, who completed 14 of 29 passes with two interceptions and four sacks, ran out of gas at season’s end, but so did the rest of his unit. If Richt believes that N’Kosi Perry can bring more spark to the offense, he’ll make the switch in 2018.

Neither one is up to the level of Clemson’s Kelly Bryant, who completed his first 15 passes on Saturday and left the game early with 252 passing yards, but Bryant learned behind Deshaun Watson, who’s starting in the NFL these days, and Watson learned behind Tajh Boyd, who is second all-time in ACC career passing yards behind Philip Rivers.

Again, these things don’t happen overnight. Miami fans are never going to want to hear that, not after five national titles in no time flat and about a million first-round draft picks graduated to the NFL, but it’s so, and there is no shame in acknowledging it.

“We are the first team to win the Coastal and get to the ACC Championship game,” said defensive end  Chad Thomas, who was around for the miserable 58-0 loss to Clemson that cost Al Golden his job in 2015. “So we know what it feels like to be here and it won’t be a surprise when we are back. We just have to win. We have to dominate, play like ‘The U.’ “

Playing like Clemson, a defending national champion with a taste for more, might be the better template now, for Miami and for everybody else.

 

 

 

Hurricanes can’t be lower than No. 4 after blasting Notre Dame 41-8

The least Miami can do now is to play for their first-ever ACC championship, which in the grand scheme of things is major progress.

And what’s the most that the 9-0 Hurricanes can do?

Well, they could dominate Clemson on Dec. 2 the way they did No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday night, and then they could plow through the College Football Playoff field in the same overpowering fashion and then they could rule college football with an iron fist or a gold Turnover Chain or anything else that suits them.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL -Braxton Berrios of the Miami Hurricanes celebrates a touchdown during a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Hard Rock Stadium on November 11, 2017. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

None of this stuff seemed worth saying or even picturing until Miami stretched its best-in-the-nation winning streak to 14 games and, in doing so, stretched the bounds of the wildest imagination.

How could the CFP committee place the Hurricanes anywhere lower than No. 4, within the potential brackets of the playoff field, with next Tuesday’s vote? What more could they want to see?

This wasn’t a last-minute squeaker against Georgia Tech. It was a 41-8 manhandling of the No. 3 team in the CFP rankings. The last time Miami did anything like this to the Irish it was a 58-7 humiliation of Gerry Faust’s final team, a lackluster 5-6 crew, in 1985.

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Saturday was supposed to be a battle of equals, of playoff contenders, and maybe it would have been a little closer if the game was played somewhere else. Hard Rock Stadium, however, is the place where another supposedly great Notre Dame got steamrolled by Alabama in the 2013 BCS title game, and it’s the place where Miami suddenly can do no wrong under second-year coach Mark Richt.

“We do have some quickness for sure,” Richt said after his guys limited Notre Dame star Josh Adams to 2.5 yards per carry, “but we’ve got some pretty big boys in there, too.”

That’s a combination that Virginia and Pittsburgh really shouldn’t be able to budge the next few weeks in the final regular-season challenges for Miami’s Coastal Division champions. It took a while longer than expected to wear that title, but everything is coming so fast now that it’s almost difficult to process it all.

What ABC’s national broadcast captured Saturday was a blast from Miami’s past and an overpowering whiff of the program’s rejuvenated future.

There will be waves and waves of great defensive players wanting to come to Coral Gables now to change prime-time games in the way this one was, with a 65-yard Trajan Bandy interception return for a touchdown and two more Miami picks converted into 10 additional points and a fumble recovery setting up one last touchdown in garbage time.

There will be fleet running backs, too, who want to be like Oxbridge Academy’s Travis Homer (146 yards on 18 carries against the Irish) and quarterbacks who want to want to step right into the lineup and win their first 10 starts like Malik Rosier has, and receivers who know that fourth down is as good a time as any for a pass to come their way once the Hurricanes get rolling.

That’s how it went in the third quarter of Saturday’s blowout, with Richt leaving the offense on the field on fourth-and-9 at the Notre Dame 36-yard line.

The score already was 27-0. The deed clearly was done. Rosier was cleared to throw for more, however, and Lawrence Cager is most definitely programmed to receive, so the two of them hooked up for a 28-yard gain on a floating pass and a leaping catch that stung like a bee.

Plays like that, and the 90-yard touchdown drive that it advanced, tell the rest of America what it doesn’t want to hear, that Miami will do whatever it wants whenever it wants.

Within the rules this time, for the Hurricanes were penalized just once for 5 yards against Notre Dame. Without further delay, too, for this is merely Richt’s 22nd game coaching at his alma mater.

Kelly, by contrast, has worked the Notre Dame sidelines for 100 games now, reaching a landmark that only Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz have hit before him. All those others won national titles for the Irish. Kelly was pushed off that path by Miami on Saturday and with cruel efficiency.

Can Clemson expect anything less than a frightening pulse of momentum from Miami in the ACC Championship game?

The Tigers are defending national champions, of course, and do not anticipate the Hurricanes or anyone else making them look foolish. There are no programs, however, more confident in their own traditions and talents than the Fighting Irish, who showed up at Hard Rock in helmets so boldly gold that it seemed they had been coated in Turtle Wax.

The Hurricanes bring the bling instead, with Hurricanes legend Ed Reed flashing a national championship ring for the cameras as honorary captain and the Turnover Chain being passed around like treasure among buccaneers as the game progressed.

“I knew this week it was gonna be magical,” said linebacker Shaq Quarterman, and a big part of that was the howling crowd of 65,303, a season high at home.

For hours on Saturday afternoon that mass of Miami fans filled the tailgate lots with charcoal smoke and champagne dreams. Afterwards they honked horns and slapped fives. They feel that “The U” is back, or at least that it’s almost there.

“We’ve got to get a ring first,” Quarterman said when asked for his view on that. “The standard is to get a ring.”

That last happened for Miami in 2001, when 6-foot-7 offensive tackle Kc McDermott was a kindergartner.

“This isn’t something that’s been just a one-year thing,” said McDermott, from Palm Beach Central High School. “it’s something that has taken years and blood, sweat and tears out of multiple classes of recruits.”

Richt and his staff have found the right guys and pushed the right buttons to finally stop the tears.

There will be blood, though. This Miami resurgence is just getting serious now, and with No. 1 Georgia going down and the rankings in shuffle mode, the search begins in earnest now to find someone who can stop it.