Miami couldn’t avoid the one thing that has plagued it seemingly for the past five years – not being able to bounce back following a tough loss.
UM followed up last week’s heartbreaking one-point loss to Florida State with a lethargic performance Saturday, losing 20-13 to visiting ACC Coastal foe North Carolina in front of an announced crowd of 58,731 fans at Hard Rock Stadium.
On a day when Miami honored the 15-year anniversary of the greatest team in the school’s – and perhaps college football’s – history, the 2001 National Championship team – the 2016 Hurricanes looked anything but great as they trailed by 17 points at halftime.
The Hurricanes (4-2, 1-2 ACC), who have no time for a pity party as they will travel to play Virginia Tech this coming Thursday, played well enough defensively to possibly rally to victory – holding the Tar Heels scoreless for the entire second half – but the UM offense was unable to come up with the big plays needed to generate the points needed for a potential comeback.
Head coach Mark Richt called Saturday’s game a “heartbreaking” loss.
“Another heartbreaking loss for us here at home,” Richt said. “I’ve learned over the years not to say too much at a time like this…If you could be in the locker room with the team and just see how much they do care about this team and this university and wanted so badly to come out of here with a victory tonight – I think everybody would’ve respected that.”
“I’m proud of the team and their effort. But we just gotta get better…just gotta get better,” Richt said.
Miami cut its deficit to 10 early in the third when Joe Yearby capped a four-play, 61-yard drive with a 2-yard scoring run. And UM would get as close as 20-13 midway through the fourth quarter when Michael Badgley knocked in a 22-yard field goal.
The stage was set for UM to rally back as the Canes defense came up with one of their multiple second-half defensive stops and forced UNC (5-2, 2-1) to punt with just under two minutes to play.
Trailing by seven, Miami’s offense needed to drive 80 yards for a score things never got going as North Carolina’s Malik Carney busted through the left side of UM’s offensive line and strip-sacked Brad Kaaya – giving the Tar Heels back the ball and allowing them to run out the clock.
“He was trying to get up in the pocket,” Richt said of what he saw from Kaaya on the final offensive play. “Guy came around the edge and swiped the ball out. That play was kind of a first-read type of progression – he didn’t have to hold the ball all that long but we couldn’t keep that guy from coming around the edge and tomahawking the ball from behind.”
“It’s tough to be focusing downfield on your job and you get hit from behind it’s tough to hang onto that thing – especially when it was as wet as it was,” Richt added, referring to the downpour that came over the stadium with 10:28 left in the fourth quarter.
Kaaya, who was limited in practice during the week leading up to the game with an injury to his throwing shoulder sustained against Florida State, did not look sharp Saturday.
The junior finished 16 of 31 for 224 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. The lone bright spot of the day for Kaaya was his moving into fourth place all-time in UM history for career passing yards – surpassing Gino Torretta – and into third all-time in completions.
Miami’s offense as a whole gained 363 yards, but had long bouts of ineffectiveness. At one point, the Canes surrendered the ball on four consecutive drives from the second quarter to the third – either punting or turning the ball over on downs.
Tight end David Njoku caught four passes for 82 yards – both team-highs. Mark Walton rushed for 82 yards and had another 23 yards in the passing game while Yearby ran for the team’s lone touchdown while also totaling 74 yards on the ground.
UM’s point production has trended downward since its 35-21 win over Georgia Tech two weeks ago. Miami’s offense scored three touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets, just two touchdowns against Florida and they only found the endzone once Saturday.
Kaaya said that the offense needs to get on the same page.
“A point of emphasis this offseason was just getting all 11 guys doing the right thing,” Kaaya said. “We have to do the right thing when it matters – on third, that matters; on fourth down, that matters – and it starts with me. As an offense, everyone has to be on the same page…that’s the only way offensive football works – everyone has to be on the same page.”
North Carolina became the first team to score on Miami in the first quarter this season, building a 10-0 lead in the opening 15 minutes. UM got on the board early in the second quarter on a Badgley field goal, but the Tar Heels tacked on another 10 points in the second quarter to take a 20-3 lead into halftime.
UNC’s late scoring drive in the second quarter was sparked by one of Miami’s many special teams errs Saturday. After being forced to punt, Miami gave UNC free yardage when senior cornerback Corn Elder tackled North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer after Switzer had given a fair catch signal. That 15-yard penalty jumped started a 6-play, 59-yard drive that UNC capped with a 1-yard touchdown grab by Switzer.
Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky finished the game 33-for-46 for 299 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 47 rushing yards. Switzer had nine catches, Austin Proehl added a touchdown grab while Bug Howard finished with a game-high 156 yards on 10 catches.
One thing that Miami has working in its favor, despite falling to the Tar Heels, is that its next opponent – Virginia Tech – also took a loss Saturday.
The Hokies, who were ranked No. 17 in the last AP poll, lost 31-17 to unranked Syracuse.
UM fell to fifth place in the ACC Coastal division with its 1-2 conference record. However, all four teams ahead of the Canes all have one conference loss, which leaves the door open for Miami to still make a move for that elusive Coastal title – but essentially puts their backs against the wall this coming Thursday in Blacksburg.
A rebound win against Virginia Tech could be the thing needed to get Miami back on track as it will play against ACC opponents in four of its final five games.
Senior Corn Elder said that the seniors are taking on the responsibility to not allow the team to let the back to back losses deter the team away from its long-range goal.
“The seniors brought everybody and just let them know that we have to move on from this,” Elder said. “Anytime you lose, the next day you have to get over. Because if you don’t, it will affect your play. We lost two in a row, but there’s still things we can do, goals we can reach as a team.”