This isn’t the end – Miami fans – it’s just the beginning.
Sure, Wednesday night’s 31-14 win over No. 16 West Virginia in the Russell Athletics Bowl snapped UM’s 10-year winless drought in bowl games and allowed Miami to finish its season with five straight victories – including a bowl win – for the first time since 2001.
But the biggest take away from Miami’s more than solid performance in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium would have to be just how bright the future is for the Hurricanes.
After falling behind 7-0, Miami went on to score 28 unanswered points – all coming on touchdown passes by junior quarterback Brad Kaaya – to take full control of the game and send the Mountaineers back to the Big 12 with their third loss of the year.
West Virginia (10-3) was able to capitalize on a targeting penalty – resulting in the ejection of freshman linebacker Michael Pinckney – to cut the Hurricanes’ lead to 28-14 midway through the third quarter, but Miami (9-5) added a 30-yard field goal on its ensuing offensive drive to build the 31-14 lead which its defense protected over the final 19 minutes of the game.
Miami head coach and Hurricanes alum Mark Richt had one word to describe the feeling of leading his team to its first bowl win in a decade.
“It’s awesome,” Richt said on the field postgame. “I really hope that we can end up in the Top 25…I know it’s up to the voters. We played a great football team and played them well. Bottom line is: these guys played their tails off for us and for each other and I’m real proud of them.”
Kaaya, who may have played his final game in a Canes uniform, finished the game 24-for-34 with 282 yards and the four touchdown tosses. Kaaya struggled early the first half – completing just 5-of-13 passes – but got things going midway through the second quarter and ended up completing 19 of his next 21 passes.
Coaching = A-minus
Once again, Miami’s defense showed up big and put the country on notice that UM has one of the nation’s top defenses under the direction of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and his assistants.
Miami held West Virginia to just 229 yards of total offense Wednesday, marking the 11th time in 13 tries this season the UM defense has held its opponent under its season average for total yards and points.
Diaz is chiefly responsible for the high grade because he consistently dialed up blitzes to disrupt Mountaineers quarterback Skyler Howard.
Richt got a plus for electing to move struggling offensive lineman Trevor Darling from left tackle to left guard and he rotated Darling in the game based on down and distance.
Richt’s play-calling got better as the game wore on as well. He didn’t completely abandon the run game – despite Miami’s struggles to create solid running lanes – and he made the adjustment to get the ball out of Kaaya’s hands quicker and put it in the hands of Miami’s capable playmakers.
Quarterbacks = B
It was almost a tale of two halves for Kaaya.
His first quarter was bad and his performance in the early part of the second quarter teetered on the line of mediocre – with a handful of high throws and poor decisions when facing pressure from the West Virginia defense.
Kaaya turned things around when he connected to freshman receiver Ahmmon Richards on a short hitch route – which the speedy youngster took 51 yards for a touchdown.
Kaaya was helped out – tremendously – by the fact that two interceptions were wiped away because the Mountaineers were called for defensive pass interference both times.
Everyone has been wondering what Kaaya would do following the season – return for his senior campaign or enter the upcoming NFL Draft.
After the game, reporters asked Miami’s all-time leader in passing yards if he had a timetable for his decision.
“I’ll probably make a decision in a couple days,” Kaaya said. “Sometime after the New Year…right around the early January window before the deadline. I have some soul-searching to do. I’ll talk to Coach Richt and my family and some guys on the team that mean a lot to me. Right now, I want to enjoy this win.”
Running Backs = B-plus
While Miami was only able to rush for a total of 81 yards on 34 carries, the running backs – or Mark Walton – was able to get a positive grade due to his ability to do little things that don’t show up in a box score.
Walton earned a plus for blocking downfield on Richards’ touchdown reception. He also earned double plusses for giving extra effort to get first downs while the Canes were trying to grind time off the clock.
Gus Edwards did the same thing – picking up a big first down on the ground during UM’s final offensive drive in the fourth quarter.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends = A-minus
Miami’s pass catchers were definitely the bright spot of the offense Wednesday.
Only getting one true negative on the night – a poor route run by David Njoku, in which he cut his route short of the first down marker – the group did the big and small things needed to win a bowl game.
Richards, Njoku, Braxton Berrios and Malcolm Lewis all caught touchdown passes.
Kaaya gave Richards praise for jumpstarting the offense.
“Ahmmon made a big play for us…it took the young guy to really get the spark going. He galvanized us and from then on we just took and never looked back.”
Stacy Coley, who finished tied for the game-high with five receptions for 51 yards, earned extra plusses for blocking downfield on Richards’ score. Lewis did too, making tough catches in traffic and Njoku showed why he also played in his final college game by giving extra effort after the catch and using his freakish combination of size and speed to make big plays.
Offensive Line = C-minus
Despite Miami’s overall offensive performance, the offensive line still found a way to fall just below the passing line.
Over half a dozen negative runs from scrimmage, multiple pressures given up and a handful of penalties – false starts, holding and an unsportsmanlike penalty on Alex Gall – equaled a performance that left much to be desired.
The O-Line did open up some running lanes during the fourth quarter, but West Virginia had essentially rolled over by then.
Defensive Line = A
Wednesday may have been Miami’s D-Line’s best performance of the season.
Chad Thomas, RJ McIntosh, Courtel Jenkins, and freshman Joe Jackson overwhelmed the West Virginia offensive line for much of the night and consistently won at the point of attack.
Thomas got the ball rolling by forcing a fumble during the first quarter; Jenkins kept it going with a sack and a tackle for loss in the first quarter; McIntosh was in a pair of tackles behind the line – including a fourth down sack.
Jackson continued being the disruptive force he’s been all season – notching a sack and putting pressure on WVU’s Howard.
Linebackers = B-plus
The second level of the defense was more than sold Wednesday.
Each of the three freshman linebackers, Zach McCloud, Shaq Quarterman and Pinckney, notched tackles for loss. Quarterman played physically, coming up with a handful of nice tackles.
McCloud almost got a pick-six and Pinckney was putting together a solid performance before he was called for targeting.
The penalty on Pinckney was justifiable. While you’d rather play with Pinckney than not, Darrion Owens filled in admirably.
Defensive Backs = B
Similar to any good offensive line performance, a solid performance by a defensive backfield means not really hearing much about the secondary.
The Canes’ secondary did an excellent job of not giving up any true big plays downfield – using the strong play of the defensive front to hold down the West Virginia receivers.
Senior Rayshawn Jenkins made a couple of nice open-field tackles and the only demerit-worthy mistake was a pass interference penalty that wiped away a JaQuan Johnson interception.
Special Teams = B
Michael Badgley knocked in a 30-yard field goal that sealed the game for the Canes and Justin Vogel flipped the field with a great punt that pinned West Virginia on its own 5-yard line.
Two first-quarter negatives: poor coverage on a punt – allowing the ball to go in the endzone instead of downing it inside the 10-yard line – and a kick-catch interference penalty that set up the Mountaineers’ first score.