On the surface, the logic can’t be argued; a win is most-certainly a win. Whether rolling by four touchdowns or kicking a last-minute field goal to survive—both show up as a “W” on the ledger and living to fight another day as undefeated is always a good thing.

Furthermore, when one’s arch-rivals are unraveling—Florida State sitting at 2-5, while Florida just fired it’s second head coach in less than three years, reeling after getting wrecked by Georgia and falling to 3-4—the fact the Canes are on the rise while the Seminoles and Gators crumble; in itself the season’s biggest victory. Tables are finally turning. Celebrate it.

All that said, the recent 7-0 start and 12-game winning streak feel a little bit hollow these past three weeks.

Ending a seven-game losing streak to Florida State and prevailing in Tallahassee, 24-20—nothing to apologize for there. The Noles played their toughest game of the year, both sides were severely banged up and the Canes closed strong with a comeback dagger in the game’s final seconds. It was an Instant Classic in the truest sense of the phrase and one of those thrilling wins many hoped would jump start a run as demons were exorcised and Miami was experiencing life with a win over Florida State for the first time since 2009.

Instead, three nail-biters in a row followed; a comeback against Georgia Tech when trailing by 11 late in the third quarter, followed by two hang-on-for-a-wild-ride finishes against Syracuse and North Carolina—both of which at one point had the ball late either looking to tie, or go ahead with minutes remaining.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY AGAINST REELING, DEPLETED TAR HEELS

A five-point win in Chapel Hill sounds good enough on paper. Since joining the ACC in 2004, Miami had only won twice at Kenan Memorial Stadium—0-3 before a 30-24 road win in 2011 and 6-7 overall in the series.

Of course that’s while ignoring the subplot that this year’s Tar Heels entered the game 1-6—Old Dominion, their lone win—and down 16 starters due to injury. That also doesn’t take into account losing a handful of bonafide stars to the NFL last April; quarterback Mitch Trubisky, defensive tackle Nazair Jones, receiver Mack Hollins and running backs TJ Logan and Elijah Hood.

This year’s broken-down North Carolina squad was coming off a 59-7 road loss at Virginia Tech last weekend and riding a five-game losing streak that had them getting worked by Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, while outlasted by Virginia and Duke.

It was a tailor-made opportunity for the Canes to put together a complete game with the Hokies and Fighting Irish on deck; the closest thing to a “scrimmage” going into the teeth of the schedule. So many slow starts, missed opportunities and inconsistent play over the past month—this was a chance for a necessary hard reset. Instead, it proved to be another down-to-the-wire battle—leaving a fan base exhausted, opposed to jubilant.

Miami’s first sign of trouble; an immediate three-and-out despite starting midfield after a 15-yard return from Braxton Berrios. North Carolina has been backs-to-the-wall all season. Ample time for the Canes to take a shot and make a statement—which wound up proving successful on he opening play from scrimmage second half. (More on that in a minute.)

Back-to-back, go-nowhere runs from Travis Homer—behind a consistently-inconsistent offensive line—had the Canes facing a 3rd-and-10 situation, with Malik Rosier throwing incomplete to Berrios, sending on the punt unit. Miami’s defense buckled in on the ensuing drive, after giving up a 56-yard run and 23-yard pass—Shaq Quarterman burying Chazz Surratt for a 10-yard loss on 4th-and-Goal from the one-yard line.

With momentum swinging back the Canes’ way, an ample opportunity for Miami to wake up immediately. Homer took a Rosier pass 35 yards and a quarterback run set up 2nd-and-3—which became a first down after a North Carolina offsides penalty. From there, ice cold, again and no seizing of momentum.

Rosier incomplete to Jeff Thomas and Homer before a one-yard run on 3rd-and-10. From there, Michael Badgley whiffed on a 53-yard field goal attempt.

Zach McCloud nailed Surratt with a late hit, giving the Tar Heels 15 yards and an added boost, though the Canes’ defense locked down after a trick play to third string quarterback—and new starter—Nathan Elliott netted 33 yards. Facing 1st-and-Goal from the Miami four, North Carolina went backwards three yards and settled for a a 24-yard Freeman Jones‘ field goal to take the lead.

The Canes’ defense tightened up again after a hold on 3rd-and-2 extended the drive and Elliott completed passes of 26 and 11 yards—pushing the Heels back three yards over three plays after a new set of down. This time a field goal from 45 yards out pushed the lead to 6-0.

Rosier—off up until this point—tossed incomplete to Chris Herndon on 2nd-and-8, but found Jeff Thomas a play later for a 17-yard gain and first down. Facing a 3rd-and-5 moments later, hooked up with a streaking Herndon midfield, who caught the pass in stride, shook a defender and rumbled 51 yards for the score.

Thomas—Miami’s truest speedster—was back in action again to start the second half, out-streaking the coverage and catching a Rosier pass in stride for the 78-yard score and a 14-6 lead. Over the next two possessions, the Canes defense held the Heels to six plays and -11 yards—but they were bookended by offensive incompetence from Miami.

CONSERVATIVE & INCONSISTENT; CANES’ OFFENSE STYMIED

Runs on first and second down put the Canes in position to throw on 3rd-and-7, which fell incomplete and became 4th-and-12 with the false start tacked on. On the ensuing offensive possession, Miami started on the UNC 13-yard line after blocking a Jonathan Garvin punt, but only moved the ball nine yards on a Rosier run and seven-yard dump-off to Homer. Facing a 4th-and-1 from the four-yard line, the Canes opened for a 21-yard Badgley field goal.

Avoiding disaster, the Tar Heels considered the three point give-up a victory and came out firing after Anthony Ratliff-Williams returned the kickoff to midfield. Three plays later, Ratliff-Williams found Beau Corrales for the 18-yard touchdowns and narrowed the Canes’ lead to 17-13.

The final quarter and a half saw Miami adding another touchdown—Rosier to Berrios for 5-yards—while putting three times, turning the ball over on downs, Rosier tossing a pick and Homer putting it on the ground at the UNC 44-yard line with 2:56 remaining and only leading by five.

Defensively, the Canes’ picked off Elliott three times down the stretch—Michael Jackson, Charles Perry and Sheldrick Redwine all laying claim to some down time with the Turnover Chain—while Joe Jackson knocked the ball out of Jordan Brown‘s mitts one play after Homer’s gaffe.

Those final 23 minutes of play in Chapel Hill on Saturday afternoon; it’s the reason some are hitting the panic button with Virginia Tech and Notre Dame on deck—no longer comfortably leaning on the, a-win-is-a-win mantra anymore.

Despite reeling in four turnovers over that span, the Canes only outscored the Tar Heels, 7-6 in the final quarter-and-a-half—again, hanging on for a win—but in this case a beaten, broken, depleted team that should’ve felt some wrath from Miami; especially considering the 59-21 beating the Heels delivered two years ago on their turf.

The Canes’ defense continues getting gashed for big plays, but ultimately delivers by creating turnovers and bringing the offense back on the field—yet once back in business and looking to score, Miami’s struggles to effectively run the ball, putting the onus of moving the ball squarely on Rosier’s inexperienced shoulders.

Not the position one wants to be in with the No. 13 and No. 5 teams headed to town over the next two weeks.

RECENT CLOSE GAMES FOR CANES; FUELING OPPONENTS’ FIRES

When looking at what UNC defense coordinator John Papuchis brought at Rosier and Miami’s offense this past week—it’s not out of line to be concerned with Bud Foster and the Hokies or Mike Elko and the Irish are working on with the Canes on the horizon.

Despite the overthinking here, none of that is said in conceding manner. Miami is finding ways to win games and as head Mark Richt mentioned last weekend—teams that win close games have the chance to be champions, and the Canes remain in the running.

Finding a way and refocusing in those non-marquee games; it can be a challenge—especially in Miami, where the city isn’t going to truly rally around the program for the likes of Georgia Tech or Syracuse. The Magic City finds way to stay busy outside of any one sport, or event. Lose—or merely endure—and it’s not going to generate much hype.

That said, South Florida will rise up when given a bonafide reason to—and HardRock Stadium will be packed to the brim, rooting for a would-be winner these next two Saturdays. Miami and Virginia Tech drew the primetime slot on ABC for November 4th—and when talking about the 3-0-5, the freaks always tend to come out at night for the big ones, Whodini-style.

Translation; an electric atmosphere and playoff-like energy—it could very easily wake the Canes from this recent, lackluster slumber. Mid-season survival isn’t necessary proprietary to Miami. A handful of teams have hung in there or snatched victory from the jaws of defeat these past few weeks; but they’re not going to go under the microscope in the same fashion the are-they-back Canes will. Nature of the beast.

So yes, for a third week in a row, a win can be chalked up as a win and a 7-0 start, 12-game win-streak and Top 10 ranking can all be celebrated—especially while hated rivals continue downward spirals.

Come next Saturday, quoting the legendary safety (and the ultimate player-coach) Ed Reed—”Jokes are over. Jokes. Are. Over.”

The title of contended or pretender is squarely on the line and if Miami wants to knock off the critique and over-analyzation, the Canes must come to play.

Period.

Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties and launched allCanesBlog.com soon thereafter. After being poached away by BleacherReport as a featured columnist, Bello launched ItsAUThing.com to scratch that orange and green itch. In his day-to-day Bello works with icon Bill Murray and humor website theCHIVE on the William Murray golf apparel line—but all free time is spent reminding the masses that it’s a Canes thing and they wouldn’t understand.

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