Five things we learned from No. 8 Miami Hurricanes’ 27-19 win over Syracuse

MIAMI GARDENS, FL – OCTOBER 21: The Miami Hurricanes line up against the Syracuse Orange during a game at Sun Life Stadium on October 21, 2017 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

[Richt bent out of shape over inconsistency]

[Pregame live: photos, videos, notes]

[Live commentary from the game]

MIAMI GARDENS —  It was another gut-wrenching finish for the Hurricanes, who emerged with a 27-19 win over Syracuse after a sweaty fourth quarter.

The Hurricanes (6-0, 4-0 ACC) went up 20-6 with 17 minutes to go, but the Orange scored the next 13 points to pull within one with 5:23 remaining.

Travis Homer’s 33-yard touchdown run gave Miami permission to breathe, for the first time in several minutes, and extended UM’s perfect start.

Five things we learned:

All goals still on the table

Miami went into the game looking to extend the second-longest winning streak in the nation — 10 games — and hoped to secure its first 4-0 start in ACC play since joining the league in 2004.

They did both, and should remain perfect through next week at struggling North Carolina (1-7, 0-5). Miami has its hardest games ahead, like Nov. 4 against Virginia Tech at Hard Rock Stadium, which could be the de-facto Coastal title game.

“That’s not the final goal,” running back Travis Homer said.

“We’ve still got a long  way to go,” quarterback Malik Rosier said.

But for all its rough patches Saturday, UM owns the ACC’s lone unblemished record. This, despite nearly blowing it against the Orange (4-4, 2-2). Virginia Tech, which blew out UNC 59-7, improved to 6-1 (2-1).

“Everybody’s doubting us right now,” linebacker Michael Pinckney said. “We’ve got a chip on our shoulder.”

Ground game out of gas

No matter how well it did through the air — this is a theme that applied on defense, as well — Miami couldn’t get much going on the ground.

A week after Homer rushed for a career-high 170 yards in his first career start, he gained 45 yards on his first 16 carries. Rosier had the same, on nine carries. No one else took a carry for Miami.

Homer’s 33-yard touchdown run put the game away, and was the result of an expert cut block from left tackle Kc McDermott. Homer finished with 95 yards and a touchdown on 20 totes, and added four catches for 27 yards.

Lack of offensive line push was a major culprit in the run-game struggles. Before the drive ending in Homer’s touchdown, UM’s 3.6 per-carry average was on track to be the second-lowest of the year (2.86 at Florida State). The Canes wound up at 4.3, including the ritual kneeling-out of the clock. Those, and Homer’s touchdown, were just about the only rushing plays UM found easy.

The Hurricanes had opportunities to move the ball through the air, and did. Chris Herndon caught a career-high 10 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown. Ahmmon Richards (see below) and Jeff Thomas (48-yard touchdown, the first of his career) had highlight grabs.

Rosier finished 26-of-43 for 344 yards, a career high, and two touchdowns.  He did not throw an interception.

“I feel comfortable,” Rosier said.  “The coaches do a great job of preparing me for every snap.”

Defense stifling, stumbling

Orange quarterback Eric Dungey opened 1-for-10 for 12 yards and three interceptions, under heavy pressure from Miami’s pass-rush. His top receiver, Steve Ishmael, was the only option who was beating his man in coverage.

Dungey came into the game with four interceptions this season, and hadn’t thrown one in his previous two games. In three years as a starter, he had never thrown more than two picks in a game.

He closed 13-of-41 for 137 yards, with zero touchdowns and the four interceptions. It was arguably the worst game of his career.

But Miami’s run defense posted some of its weakest numbers of the year. Dungey went for 100 yards on 20 carries, including a 33-yarder that set up the Orange’s 53-yard field goal that pulled them within a point. Dontae Strickland, finding massive holes up front and gaps in the second level, gained 105 yards on 14 carries. Moe Neal (14 for 46) scored a 15-yard touchdown, Syracuse’s only time in the end zone.

Miami held Cuse to four field goasl and produced plenty of highlight plays, mostly through the air. Defensive tackle R.J McIntosh broke up five passes, and afterward, thanked “God that I can play this game.” He admitted he was “exhausted” at times, which makes sense; Syracuse ran 93 plays, the most against Miami since Duke ran 94 on Nov. 24, 2012.

Cornerback Michael Jackson intercepted two, and got to wear the Turnover Chain, and Miami’s gimmick is spreading. “We see people in South Carolina at high school games wearing them,” said Jackson, who continues to be a great story; like Darrell Langham, he was buried on the depth chart before this year.

Safety Jaquan Johnson and defensive end Demetrius Jackson registered picks. Pinckney had 2.5 sacks, a career high, and 3.5 tackles for loss.

Richards returned

Miami’s top wideout missed three of the its first five games, and sat out last week against Georgia Tech, as the Hurricanes exercised caution with his balky hamstring.

He looked good Saturday, though he’s still a bit rusty.

Also, he admitted, “a little too excited.”

He caught six passes for 99 yards, including a 31-yarder and a 26-yarder. He also made a catch and hurdled a defender who was 5-foot-10 and standing. Yes, really. Richards, 6-foot-2, leaped over safety Rodney Williams and landed on his feet.

But drops sullied his day. During the game, WQAM’s Josh Darrow reported Richards’ head was down on the sideline after he muffed a potential touchdown in the second quarter (UM settled for a field goal to make it 13-0). His teammates came to talk to him, and settle him down. Richards dropped another potential score, and another pass after that.

“Four,” Richards said, correcting a reporter who asked about his three drops. He was referring to another that did not count because of a penalty. He can’t remember dropping more than two in a game before Saturday. He also admitted he was sore after playing his “first 60-minute game in a while.”

This week, Rosier said, “I’ll make sure he goes to treatment. He’s my roommate.”

Richards has been in and out of practices, so his hands aren’t a worry. But Miami could have used those touchdowns. That would have made it a blowout, and put to bed some of the talk that Miami is a top-10 paper tiger.

After this week, the Cardiac Canes will have plenty of doubters.

The field needs work

The sod at Hard Rock Stadium, replaced late last week, was in poor shape for the second week in a row, and it played into the strategy for both sides.

UM kicker Michael Badgley slipped on two kickoffs, including one in the third quarter that went out of bounds. His counterpart, Syracuse’s Cole Murphy, made a 48-yard field goal in the first half despite falling. The two finished a combined 6-for-6, so kudos to them. Receivers were slipping and falling all over the place.

Richards, who had a bad hamstring coming in, admitted the conditions were “in the back of my mind.”

Mark Richt likely opted to go for it on fourth-and-3 with under eight minutes remaining because of the conditions. UM did not get it, and Cuse made the Canes sweat it out with the aforementioned 53-yard field goal.

“Just slipping too much,” Richt said. “Bang it into the line, they scoop-and-score, and they’re having a party down there.”

Noteworthy: Herndon, who banged up his shoulder in the first half, said he’ll be ready to go next week. …  Defensive end Chad Thomas (shoulder, per WQAM) returned to the game … Mike Harley (ankle) was injured early in the first half and returned.

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