The Canes needed to put a foot in the ground and say “enough”.
Enough coming up short, enough losing.
Miami’s offense put its foot down and did more than enough Saturday, racking up 534 yards of offense to spark a 55-28 win over visiting Pittsburgh in front of an announced crowd of 51,796 rain-soaked fans – snapping the Canes’ four-game losing streak and preventing an even further fall into the ACC Coastal cellar.
After taking a 27-21 lead into halftime, UM opened a 41-21 lead early in the fourth quarter before Pittsburgh (5-4, 2-3) quickly responded and tacked on a 75-yard touchdown pass to cut Miami’s lead to 41-28 with 13:27 left in the game.
Miami’s defense did enough to keep the Panthers out of the endzone the rest of the way – only giving up that long fourth quarter touchdown pass – and UM extended its lead to 44-28 on Michael Badgley’s third field goal of the day with 3:21 left in the fourth quarter and put the final exclamation point on the game when sophomore Mark Walton broke for a 55-yard scoring run with just over two minutes to play – pushing the Canes’ lead to 51-28.
Head coach Mark Richt said he was proud of the way his team played Saturday.
“It’s tough to lose four in a row and still keep your heart and soul and your effort going, Richt said. “They showed a lot of fight and a lot of resiliency. If you would’ve asked me every day leading up to the game ‘are these guys still fighting? Are they still working hard?’ I’d say 100 percent yes.”
“I’m very proud of our players today and really all season long. The bottom line is that we got a victory in front of our home crowd,” Richt said.
UM (5-4, 2-3 ACC) got a season-best performance from junior quarterback Brad Kaaya. Despite the off-and-on showers that rolled through Hard Rock Stadium, Kaaya threw four touchdown passes and ran for another while totaling 356 passing yards.
Kaaya looked the best he’s looked all season during the first half. Having been the recipient of some vitriol from fans for his performance during the Canes’ losing snide, Kaaya opened the game completing his first 13 passes – including throwing two touchdowns to put Miami up 14-7 during the first quarter – and ended up completing a career-high 32 of 47 passes with zero turnovers.
One of the knocks on Kaaya has been his inability or hesitance to escape the pocket, but he showed his athleticism in the first half, getting out of the pocket on a second-quarter play to scramble for 12 yards – the longest rush of his career.
Kaaya also carried the ball for a 1-yard touchdown late in the second quarter to give Miami a 27-21 lead, which it never relinquished.
Kaaya’s running seemed to draw chuckles from his teammates.
“We were going crazy on the sideline after his [12-yard] run. We’ve never seen that from Brad…just knowing he had the courage to run and seeing him get up smiling – it was great,” defensive end Chad Thomas, who recovered a fumbled Saturday, said.
Pittsburgh was able to cut into Miami’s early lead with a 14-point second quarter. James Conner brought his team to within six points with a 12-yard scamper early in the second quarter and the Panthers took a 21-20 lead with 8:45 to play in the first half after capping a 6-play, 75-yard drive with a George Aston 23-yard touchdown reception.
Pitt would only end up finding the endzone once more after its first half run. The Canes held Conner to just 40 yards on 12 carries.
Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman finished 17 for 35 for 287 yards with two touchdown passes and a crucial third quarter interception, in which Miami’s Rayshawn Jenkins stepped in front a pass in the endzone to prevent the Panthers from the Canes’ 41-28 lead to single digits.
Miami’s offense ran almost a peak performance Saturday. And that offensive efficiency can be directly correlated to the solid performance put on by UM’s much maligned offensive line.
“I know the [offensive] line has been taking a lot of grief, but they played their tails off today. Brad didn’t get hit much at all.”
“And Brad did a good job of placing the ball in spots where our guys were able to make plays. Brad did a good job of scrambling too…I think he had positive yards rushing probably for the first time in his life,” Richt joked.
Miami was able to generate 17 first quarter points – which could’ve easily been 21 had the Canes not had a touchdown pass nullified by an offensive pass interference penalty – thanks to a tweak Richt made to the team’s practice schedule this week in an effort to get off to a faster start offensively.
“We did a couple things in practice this week just to change the tempo of the beginning of the day,” Richt admitted. “We got right after each other – offense versus defense – right at the beginning, just to get a faster start in practice because we weren’t getting fast starts in our games the past couple of outings. And then we finished practice doing the same thing.”
“I’m not claiming that that’s the reason we started faster today, but we did emphasize this week in practice to create energy,” Richt said.
Tight end David Njoku played with plenty of energy, hauling in a pair of touchdowns – the first of which a first quarter 12-yard reception in which he leaped and flipped over a Panthers defender for the score. He finished the game with 86 yards on six catches.
“When I caught the ball I didn’t think ‘I’m going to jump over this guy into the endzone’, but when I saw I didn’t have anywhere to go – I just went up,” Njoku said with a smile.
Freshman Ahmmon Richards finished with a game-high and career-best 144 receiving yards on eight receptions while senior Stacy Coley, who battled through knee soreness, also caught a pair of touchdown passes and ended with a team-high nine catches – moving past him Canes greats Santana Moss and Michael Irvin into third place all-time in career receptions.
When asked about his current place among a who’s who list of wide receivers to play at UM and potentially ending his career as the school’s receptions leader, Coley was quite deflective.
“I don’t think about it. I’m just putting all my effort into it and I’m thankful for the talent that God blessed me with,” Coley said.
Walton finished with 125 rushing yards on 14 carries and Joe Yearby added 28 yards.
Now sitting one game away from bowl eligibility, Miami’s next two games are on the road. The Canes have road trips to Virginia and North Carolina State before returning home to play the regular season finale against Duke on November 26th.
Richt, who confirmed that former Miami All-American and Saturday’s honorary team captain Russell Maryland gave an impassioned speech to the team Friday night, said that he knows his team will continue to fight through the final three games of the season.
“You never know about your team until you really hit some football adversity,” Richt said. “Certainly, we’ve got some seniors that probably wish for a better record at this point and they could’ve said ‘forget it’ with their spirit and their actions – just let up a little bit, but they didn’t do that. I just saw a bunch of coaches and players that kept fighting together and we had a wonderful performance.
“[This win] was good medicine.”