It really was a back-breaker in every sense of the word. Arguably the most important game of the season, yet Miami lacked the urgency or game plan to take a win from North Carolina on Saturday at Sun Life Stadium.
Coming off the loss in Chicago, the mantra from players and coaches was one that focused on conference records and season goals.
The two lopsided losses hurt, but neither Kansas State or Notre Dame were in conference. They were top ten foes faced in hostile road venues and in a season or rebuilding, it was all about the ACC. Sitting at 3-0 in conference, the goal was 4-0 and a step closer to a Coastal title.
Instead, the most frustrating loss of the year – for a litany of reasons.
As this game was played and progressed, that true sense of urgency never kicked in. The Hurricanes never played like a passionate team – one that truly wanted to achieve its goal of winning the Coastal.
Opening drive, a steady dose of Mike James, who carried three times and helped get Miami midfield. Stephen Morris used his wheels on a 3rd-and-8, picking up nineteen, as well.
Facing a 4th-and-1 from the UNC forty-six, UM was in go-for-it mode, when Malcolm Bunche pulled up and the Canes were hit with a false start. Seven plays in and Miami already shot itself in the foot, surrendering some momentum.
North Carolina took over on its own thirty-nine after Giovani Bernard returned the punt twenty-six yards. First play from scrimmage, quarterback Bryn Renner went straight to Bernard. Twelve-yard pick-up. 1st-and-10, Bernard carried for four.
Three plays, forty-four yards, all courtesy of Bernard, who proved to be the thorn in Miami’s side that everyone predicted.
Renner went to receiver Tyler Alberts for ten on 2nd-and-6 and then right back to Bernard, who carried for eight. Erik Highsmith had a six-yard pick-up on 2nd-and-2 and then back-to-back runs with Bernard, for eleven and then the ten-yard touchdowns.
Seven plays, sixty-one yards and 2:30 off the clock. Just like that, Miami was down 7-0 under six minutes into the game.
The Canes offense went back to work. 1st-and-10, false start Seantrel Henderson. Make it 1st-and-20 from the twelve. Another setback.
Morris went to Davon Johnson for fourteen and then Miami seemed to find something that worked; handing off to James in the i-formation and pounding the rock. After weeks of video game-style play calling and miracle deep balls being hauled in, this was setting up to be a physical pound-the-ball kind of game and the Canes were playing tough.
James for eight. James for five. James for sixteen. Then a quick run with the banged-up Duke Johnson to set up a 3rd-and-3.
Facemask penalty on North Carolina when Travis Hughes hurled Morris to the ground – in a manner that should’ve gotten him tosses, but at minimum put the Canes at the Tar Heels twenty-eight.
Morris incomplete to Phillip Dorsett on 1st-and-10. North Carolina offsides. 2nd-and-5 from the twenty-three, instead of more i-formation pound-the-ball, Morris’ pass was intercepted by Shakeel Rashad.
Eddie Johnson wound up getting it back for Miami, picking off Renner nine plays and seventy-two yards later, but the Morris turnover was another situation where this Hurricanes team left all-but-guaranteed points on the field.
Miami went back to James on then ensuing drive. Thirteen-yard gain, two-yard loss and a no-gain run, with two Allen Hurns receptions mixed in – one for fourteen, another for fifteen. In a matter of moments, UM was at the UNC thirty-five and seemingly moving, until four plays did the drive in.
1st-and-10, another sweep with a hobbled Johnson. No gain. Next play, Morris to tight end Clive Walford for an incomplete pass. 3rd-and-10, Morris scrambled for seven.
4th-and-3, after the end of the quarter and Miami getting the wind, an incomplete pass to Hurns instead of a forty-five yard field goal attempt with the recently-shaky Jake Wieclaw.
Again, points left on the field in what turned out to be a low-scoring affair and more momentum lost.
Miami got a break on North Carolina’s next possession as the usually-reliable Casey Barth sent a thirty-three yarder wide. The score remained 7-0 but twelve plays later the Canes got on the board when James punched it in from one-yard out.
The drive features five runs by James and four from Johnson, while Morris found the other Johnson, Hurns and Rashawn Scott for a few big gains.
At 7-7 it was again a ball game but as the second quarter wound down, a one-minute span dealt Miami a blow that it wouldn’t recover from – three plays that defined the game, showed who the smarter coaching staff was and underlined which team was there to play.
After Wieclaw’s kickoff was returned to the North Carolina twenty-two, Renner went to work, with three completions going for forty-two yards. A 3rd-and-6 pass was broken up by Tyrone Cornelius and facing fourth down fro the Miami thirty-three, the Tar Heels lined up to go, instead of opting for the long field goal attempt.
Renner dropped back, two Miami defenders blitzed, but no one bumped Bernard, who slithered out of the backfield untouched, allowing him to make a shoestring grab of Renner’s pass. The sixteen-yard pick-up set up a 1st-and-10 from the UM seventeen and from there, back to Bernard, who ran it in a play later.
When the teams lined up in what appeared to be a quirky extra point attempt, the Tar Heels rolled out a two-point play where the Canes were outnumbered and in an instant, a 15-7 ball game.
Those three plays took under a minute to run and as a result, Miami went from stealing momentum with a fourth down stop, to finding itself in an eight-point hole. Just like that.
The Canes got the ball back at the twenty-nine with just under three minutes remaining, but two plays later, another Morris deep ball, again into double coverage, was picked up. North Carolina made it clear it wasn’t North Carolina State and wouldn’t give up the deep ball, yet Morris went for the home run (instead of dumping off to Johnson, who was frantically waving his arms and could’ve gained a big chunk of yards, keeping the chains moving) and paid the price.
To the Canes credit, the defense got two big stops early in the third quarter and after a three-and-out on the first possession, drove ninety-four yards on twelve plays midway through the third, behind the legs of Duke and a few key passes from Morris, who would up running it in from five yards out on a 1st-and-Goal, one play after a fifteen-yard gain to Hurns on 3rd-and-6.
Prosperity would be short-lived, though as any two-point conversion attempt would be thwarted when Miami was hit with a five-yard delay of game penalty and was forced to kick, making it a 15-14 ball game.
North Carolina would up with fifteen penalties for 140 yards while Miami was dinged seven times for 54 yards, yet it seemed all of the Hurricanes’ penalties came at the most inopportune times and UM was made to pay big for each and every blunder.
The one-point deficit also evaporated immediately when the Tar Heels went forty-five yards on ten play, punctuated with a forty-five yard Barth field goal – which would prove to be the game’s final points, with neither Miami or North Carolina scoring in the fourth.
Morris knocked himself out of the game mid-way through the fourth when he rolled his ankle, which gave back-up Ryan Williams a shot at playing hero, but he couldn’t pull it off. James got a heavy does of carries and Williams made some plays, but again it was the ones left on the field where Miami paid.
Facing a 4th-and-6 from the UNC twenty-six, Williams’ pass to Dorsett was incomplete. The play before, Miami chose to run with James on a 3rd-and-7 and only picked up one.
On the Canes’ final offensive possession, Williams had a few big connections with Scott, but a six-yard sack on a 2nd-and-10 proved detrimental. A 3rd-and-16 attempt to James fell incomplete and on fourth down, Williams hit Walford short of the marker and the eleven yard gain wasn’t enough to covert. Turnover on downs and ball game.||
Had any Miami fan been told that North Carolina would only score eighteen points on the afternoon, who wouldn’t have taken the bet that the Hurricanes would’ve won? Yet somehow fourteen points were scored and a slew of opportunities squandered.
Against North Carolina State weeks back, Miami left points on the field. The Morris interception from the two-yard line. The Asante Cleveland end zone drop on the next drive. The Wieclaw misses, dating back to the Georgia Tech game. The Dorsett drops against Notre Dame that changed the course of the game immediately.
In a season where Miami remains in rebuild mode and is undermanned, lost opportunities and giving away points is unacceptable. Fundamental football and smart play would have Miami at 5-2 right now, at absolute worst.
North Carolina was more than a winnable game. In some ways, it was a gimmie. Miami knew what Bernard would bring and saw early that offensively the deep ball wasn’t there. This was going to be a physical football game and running between the tackles was the answer.
This was a tough team assembled by Butch Davis and breaking the will of the Tar Heels’ defense with long, sustained drives – that was the blueprint and this staff missed it.
Where this now becomes the biggest loss off the year – the fact Miami is now 4-3 with Florida State and Virginia Tech on deck. Bouncing back from that Notre Dame loss was crucial and in a matter of eight days, the Canes went from 4-1 and optimistic to 4-3 and reeling.
In a flash that could easily become 4-5 and four straight losses if coaches can’t find a way to stop the bleeding, or at minimum, a way to get this team game ready for one of the next two games.
There truly is no more breathing room after this loss and the old goal of winning the Coastal needs to be shelved. Right now it has to be about beating Florida State. Then it has to shift to Virginia Tech. Then Virginia, South Florida and Duke. One-game seasons.
Every remaining game is winnable, but losable, as well.
Florida State proved mortal when letting a 16-0 halftime lead at North Carolina State turn into a 17-16 loss. Virginia Tech has been embarrassed by Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and North Carolina. Virginia is riding a five-game losing streak and looks to be a horrible team. South Florida? A four-game losing streak. Duke? Brought back down to earth when Virginia Tech beat them by three touchdowns this past weekend.
Right now it’s time for Miami to find a way to rally. Defensive issues aren’t going to get fixed seven games into the season. What is, is. Frustrating as that may be. There could be slight improvement here or there – as shown by holding North Carolina to eighteen – but these are the players and this is the scheme. If anything, things will get worse should injuries pile up – but nothing will get drastically better this season.
Offensively, there have been glimmers of greatness, but consistency remains the issue. Find a way to get playmakers the ball, eliminate mistakes and play loose, confident football. Mistakes are a result of tightness and nerves. Dropped balls. Errant throws. False starts. Seven games in, Miami has proven what it can do offensively, so game plan accordingly and execute.
This marks the first time in the Al Golden era that Miami has lost two games in a row and with Florida State on deck, a three-game losing streak is a huge reality, barring a few miracles this weekend.
Time to see what these Hurricanes have up their sleeve in yet another bounce back game.
Christian Bello has been covering Miami Hurricanes athletics since the mid-1990s. After spending almost a decade as a columnist for CanesTime, he launched allCanesBlog.com. – the official blog for allCanes.com : The #1 Canes Shop Since 1959. Bello has joined up with XOFan.com and will be a guest columnist at CaneInsider.com this fall. Follow him on Twitter @ChristianRBello.