On a day when Miami was honoring all of its senior players, it was junior quarterback Brad Kaaya who made the biggest impact as the Hurricanes used a 17-point third quarter burst to pull away from visiting Duke and earn a 40-21 win Saturday in front of 57,396 fans at Hard Rock Stadium.
After taking full control with the third quarter run, Miami put an exclamation point on the performance with a 58-yard touchdown connection between Kaaya and junior tight end David Njoku to give UM its largest lead of the day – a 40-14 margin with 6:54 left in the game.
Duke scored an inconsequential touchdown with just under three minutes left in the game – a 12-yard Quay Chambers reception – to make the final margin 40-21.
UM (8-4, 5-3 ACC) ends its season on a four-game winning streak and will await an invite to a bowl game. Some early projections have the Canes, who also began the season with four straight victories before losing four consecutive games in October, possibly being invited to the TaxSlayer Bowl – played in Jacksonville on December 31st.
Kaaya, who has been projected as a first round quarterback prospect and could elect to forgo his senior season and enter the 2017 NFL Draft, finished the game – and possibly his Hurricanes career – with 396 yards and four touchdowns while completing 22 of his 35 passes.
With UM still holding clinging to the 16-14 lead it built by halftime, Kaaya got things cooking midway through the third quarter when he connected with Njoku on a 76-yard scoring strike. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Njoku got behind his defender and Kaaya dropped the pass right into his hands in stride as he scurried into the endzone.
Duke (4-8, 1-7) responded with a missed field goal on its ensuing possession, which Miami then turned into seven more points when Kaaya capped a 5-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Stacy Coley.
At one point in the third quarter, Kaaya completed five straight passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. After the game, he said getting hot like that is what demoralizes an opponent.
“It feels great to be clicking like that,” Kaaya said. “It’s heartbreaking for the other team and it sucks the life out of that team that you’re playing against. You saw when we had some success on deep balls, [Duke] couldn’t really play man coverage anymore – they had to go two-high [safeties]. It really is heartbreaking for the other side.”
Miami tacked on three more points right before the third quarter ended – putting Michael Badgley in position to knock in a 43-yard field goal – his third of the game.
It was also on that final third quarter drive that Kaaya etched his name into the storied Miami records books by surpassing Ken Dorsey as the school’s all-time leader in career passing yards. Having played since his freshman season, Kaaya racked up 9,628 yards while also throwing 65 touchdown passes – good for third all-time in school history.
Njoku only had two catches Saturday, but they were both for touchdowns and they totaled a game-high 134 receiving yards. Coley finished with a game-high nine catches for 118 yards and a touchdown while sophomore running back Mark Walton added four catches for 46 yards and a first quarter 30-yard touchdown pass which put Miami up 10-7.
“Overall I felt like we played pretty good,” Njoku said. “It’s a great feeling to send the seniors out with a win. We started slow and we weren’t happy with the way we were playing early. At halftime, we refocused and came out with more purpose in the second half. Brad and all the receivers got on the same page and we started clicking…it was great.”
Quarterback Daniel Jones was Duke’s lone offensive bright spot. The redshirt freshman completed 34 of 50 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns – including a 13-yard strike to Aaron Young just six seconds into the second quarter to give the Blue Devils a 14-10 lead.
Jones’ passing is what kept the Blue Devils in the game early, given Duke struggled to run the ball against the Miami defense. Duke totaled just 79 yards on 26 carries – compared to Miami’s 172 rushing yards. UM seniors Jamal Carter and Rayshawn Jenkins led the team in total tackles Saturday, with 13 and 10 stops respectively. Also, freshman defensive end Joe Jackson added a pair of sacks, taking his team-leading total to 7.5 on the season.
Though Miami will be invited to a bowl game, it still fell short of its goal to capture its first ACC Coastal title and play in the ACC championship game for the first time since joining the conference in 2004.
Head coach Mark Richt said winning the Coastal division is of the utmost importance.
“I felt like we could win the [ACC] Coastal when the whole thing started,” Richt said. “No disrespect to the Coastal at all – Virginia Tech in their first year, they took care of business and got it done. They took care of business with us…they whipped us. But there’s no reason to believe that we can’t become one of the teams that every year is going to be fighting to get in that [conference] championship game and hopefully we just keep getting better.”
Like all college teams do, Miami honored its graduating seniors prior to the start of its final home game of the season.
18 players – including defensive backs Jamal Carter, Rayshawn Jenkins and Corn Elder, had their names called before the start of the game and were recognized along with their family members for their time in the Hurricanes program.
Coach Richt said he’s was grateful for the seniors and the way they carried themselves throughout his first year leading the team.
“I want to say thank you to our seniors…for the entire season, really beginning in January,” Richt said. “They bought into what we were trying to get accomplished and led the best they could. Without their buy-in, it would’ve been tough to make through the tough time we had midseason. I’m really thankful for them for how they kept it together because whether those guys know it or not, the younger guys look up to them and they respect them and they usually do what they do – and they persevered through the tough times.”
- Some bowl predictions have the Hurricanes potentially meeting with University of Florida in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville or possibly being invited to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl (played at Yankee Stadium in New York) on December 28th. David Njoku said he’s happy that the Canes probably played themselves into a “better” bowl game because: “It’ll be fun to not be in Shreveport freezing”, referring to Miami’s 2014 trip to the Duck Commander Independence Bowl.
- Stacy Coley caught Brad Kaaya’s record-breaking pass – a 42-yard reception – during the third quarter. The play was reviewed by officials because Duke was called for a targeting penalty via roughing the passer. The review showed no targeting, but Coley was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
- Mark Richt said that during the time that the team is waiting to find out which bowl game it will attend, that he and the coaching staff will “be out recruiting like mad” until the next NCAA-mandated “dead period”.
- Running back Mark Walton drew loud applause from the crowd when he made a thunderous tackle in kick coverage. When asked about the big hit, Walton quipped: “it was probably my only tackle on special teams,”.
- Michael Badgley improved to a perfect 20-for-20 on field goals from 40-49 yards out with his 47-yard kick in the first quarter.
- With the attendance of 57,396 fans Saturday, UM attained an average home game attendance of 50,000 fans for only the second time in school history. The Canes also reached that feat during the 2002 season.