MIAMI (AP) — Before every game, Miami safety JoJo Nicholas reaches into his gym bag and pulls out a blanket, then rubs it on his hands while saying a quick prayer.
He prays to his son, who died a few weeks ago after being prematurely born.
It’s these moments that make him savor days like Saturday so much more.
Nicholas recovered a fumbled punt for a touchdown plus added an interception, Lamar Miller ran for 93 yards and a score and Miami’s banged-up defense was dominant as the Hurricanes topped No. 20 Georgia Tech 24-7 on Saturday — holding the high-octane Yellow Jackets more than 300 yards and nearly 36 points below their season averages entering the game.
“The first thought that came to my mind was my son,” Nicholas said. “I’ve always appreciated football, and then you learn to appreciate it even more, because life is never guaranteed.”
Mike James also had a touchdown run for Miami (4-3, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), which won consecutive games for the first time this season and has now beaten Georgia Tech three straight times by a combined score of 92-34.
“Everybody talks about the ACC race or this and that,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “I’m trying to teach them the process. The process, when it takes traction, is what allows you to win multiple games in a row. That’s it.”
Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2) came into Saturday averaging 517 yards of offense. The Yellow Jackets got only 211 on Saturday, their lowest total since a loss to Iowa in the Orange Bowl after the 2009 season. In its last 35 games, Georgia Tech has rushed for less than 200 yards only three times, all at Sun Life Stadium — 95 at Miami in 2009, 143 in the Orange Bowl and 134 in this one.
“It’s frustrating every time you lose,” said Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington, who threw for 63 yards and ran for 36 more — a team-best. “All week long we had a good game plan to come out and get a victory. It’s frustrating for me because I feel I let the team down.”
Washington threw right to Nicholas on the Yellow Jackets’ first offensive snap of the game, a mistake that set Miami up at the Georgia Tech 46. It was doubly costly for the Yellow Jackets, with center Jay Finch going down with what appeared to be a knee injury and eventually getting carted off the sideline for evaluation.
The Hurricanes needed 12 plays to score from there, Harris extending the drive with a 13-yard pass to Phillip Dorsett on fourth-and-3 from the 39, and James later capping it with a 2-yard run for a 7-0 Miami lead.
Nicholas’ other big plays in the first half?
Lots of hustle, and lots of help from Georgia Tech.
“Something we’re doing ain’t right,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.
Georgia Tech wide receiver Roddy Jones took a pitch and ran 34 yards with 4:09 left in the first quarter, fighting Nicholas off a little too vehemently for the last few of those. Jones was pulled down by an illegal horse-collar tackle, but he also got his fingers inside Nicholas’ face mask while stiff-arming the Miami safety on the play. The penalties offset, and the big gain was wiped away.
With 10:17 left in the half, Nicholas found himself again in the right place at the right time for Miami.
Zach Laskey dropped back to receive a punt for Georgia Tech, the bouncing ball coming straight at him as he stood at the 9-yard line. He tried to grab it as a horde of Hurricanes sprinted toward him, misplayed it and could only watch as the football kept going into the end zone. Nicholas dove on it just past the goal line for a touchdown that put Miami up 14-0.
“On that punt, my job is to get to the ball,” Nicholas said. “It just so happened the ball came to me.”
In the first half alone, Georgia Tech failed on a fake-punt attempt, had the interception to help create one Miami touchdown and then the blown punt return to give the Hurricanes seven more points. Nonetheless, with 1:02 left in the half, the Yellow Jackets were within 14-7.
A 20-play, 92-yard drive for Georgia Tech on the scoreboard. Washington completed all three of his attempted passes during the marathon possession, plus rushed the ball nine times for 22 yards — including a 1-yard touchdown plunge.
“We never hit any big plays,” Johnson said. “We had a heck of a drive in the second quarter to get back in the game, then we give up the touchdown.”
That they did.
Travis Benjamin ran the ensuing kickoff back 48 yards, and Harris hit Tommy Streeter with a 32-yard gain on first down to get Miami to the Georgia Tech 14. Two plays later, Miller ran up the middle for a touchdown from there with 25 seconds left in the half, restoring the 14-point cushion and getting help from a sealing block by guard Jon Feliciano.
It was a costly celebration. Feliciano got hurt jumping around after the score, leaving the game with a leg injury. He rejoined his teammates on the sideline late in the third quarter, on crutches and wearing a walking boot on his left ankle. An X-ray was negative, but Golden is not sure of Feliciano’s status.
(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)