College Miami Hurricanes

No. 3 Miami Avoids Huge Upset, Canes Rally Back To Top Virginia 44-28

Perhaps it was a “hangover” from last week’s monumental win over Notre Dame, maybe it was the early (12 noon) kick off, or it could’ve been the hot start by Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert – whatever it was, Miami was out of sorts Saturday.

Still, the No. 3 Hurricanes overcame all those factors and rallied back from a 14-point third quarter deficit by scoring 30 straight points over the final 27 minutes to come away with a 44-28 win over the visiting Cavaliers Saturday – sending their upperclassmen out with a win on Senior Day and allowing the 63,415 fans at Hard Rock Stadium to breathe a sigh of relief.

Despite the final margin, UM (10-0, 7-0 ACC) was in a vulnerable position being down 28-14 and needed a Lawrence Cager touchdown catch and a Jaquan Johnson 30-yard pick-six to tie the game at 28 with 9:57 left in the third quarter before taking its first lead of the day (31-28) on a 44-yard Michael Badgley field goal with 44 seconds left in the third.

Miami, which is 10-0 for the first time since 2002 and will travel to face Pittsburgh in its regular season finale next Friday, extended its lead to 37-28 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter – on an 8-yard scoring scramble by Malik Rosier after the Canes defense forced a turnover on downs – and completely salted the game away on a 19-yard dash by Travis Homer to extend the margin to 44-28.

Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt didn’t give credence to the notion that his team was suffering from any kind of malaise, he gave credit to Virginia.

“Have to give props to [Virginia head coach] Bronco Mendenhall and his staff, without a doubt they were ready to play…their players were ready to play and they took it to us,” Richt said. “It’s not to say that we weren’t ready – we were ready to play, too. But they took it to us early on…on both sides of the ball.”

“We had some offensive issues today, we had some defensive issues and we had some special teams issues. But the one thing we didn’t have was a heart issue. Everybody played with all their heart and we didn’t have any issue with belief or team unity when things weren’t looking too great. And that’s the thing I appreciate most about this team,” Richt added.

During the week, Richt told reporters that he asked his team if it could “handle prosperity” – referring to Miami’s climb into the top four of the College Football Playoff Rankings (and being ranked No. 2 in both the Coaches and AP polls) following the win over the Fighting Irish.

It didn’t seem as though they could early.

Virginia senior quarterback Kurt Benkert got off to a hot start from the onset. He led the Cavaliers (6-5, 3-4) on a 9-play, 75-yard scoring drive on its first possession and put his team up 14-0 with just over two minutes left in the first quarter on a 75-yard touchdown strike to Joe Reed.

Miami dug itself out of the early 14-point hole with a pair of Rosier touchdown passes, but Benkert was still cooking as he led Virginia on a 6-play, 81-yard scoring drive – which he capped with a 33-yard touchdown pass – right before halftime to give the Cavaliers 21-14 halftime lead.

Through the first half, Benkert completed 17 of his 18 passes – the one incompletion being on an intentional throw away – for 262 yards and three scores. The 6-foot-4 signal caller still had the hot hand at the start of the second half as he threw his fourth touchdown of the day – a 26-yard strike to Daniel Hamm – after Virginia got a short field thanks to a blocked punt and took a 28-14 lead over the Hurricanes.

Benkert cooled off after that. Miami picked off Benkert in the third and sacked him five times in the second half.

He finished 28 for 37 for 384 yards – completing a game-high seven passes from Doni Dowling for 70 yards and six passes to each Olamide Zaccheaus and Jordan Ellis.

Canes senior defensive end Trent Harris, who had two sacks Saturday, and junior defensive tackle RJ McIntosh said the defense just put its foot down and was determined not to let Benkert continue to carve it up.

UM’s offense was inconsistent Saturday. It made critical plays when needed – like a diving catch by senior receiver Braxton Berrios that extended one of Miami’s third-quarter scoring drives – but it was far from efficient.

Rosier ended up 15-of-28 for 210 yards with four total touchdowns (3 passing and 1 rushing), but he threw a pair of interceptions. Homer had just 21 rushing yards through the first three quarters before Miami’s offensive line began to give him any substantial running room and he racked 75 yards in the fourth quarter to end up with a game-high 96 yards.

Miami senior offensive tackle Kc McDermott said the Hurricanes just had to make adjustments up front.

Sophomore receiver Ahmmon Richards lead UM in both receptions (4) and receiving yards (51) Saturday.

Avoiding the letdown Saturday and extending their nation-leading win streak to 15 games, Miami received a “wake up call” with the Cavaliers. Granted, Virginia is a much-improved team from 2016 when it went 2-10, the Hurricanes cannot afford to slip up prior to its December 2nd showdown with No. 2 Clemson in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte, N.C.

Before they get to the regular season’s finish line, the Canes must prepare on a short, holiday week to face Pittsburgh in another noon kickoff game – this time in possibly snowy conditions at Heinz Field.

Richt said he’s stressed the importance of the health maintenance to his players over the past few weeks.

“We’ve been going 11 weeks straight since [Hurricane Irma]…we haven’t had any time off,” Richt said. “I’ve told the guys about doing all the things necessary to take care of their bodies during the week. We’ve done things as coaches to try to keep them going, but I told ‘we’re not around you 24-7, you have to do things – getting rest, getting treatment – on your own to take care of yourself’.”

Sophomore linebacker Shaquille Quarterman said that Saturday’s game will be a lesson learned heading into the regular season finale.

J.T. Wilcox
J.T. Wilcox is an award-winning sports journalist who has worked in South Florida for more than a decade. He authors "The Bald Predictions" blog and "The Baldcast" podcast.

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