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No. 3 Canes Rally Past Virginia, 44-28

No. 3 Canes Rally Past Virginia, 44-28

By David Villavicencio

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The Miami Hurricanes survived an early scare to remain undefeated, beating Virginia, 44-28.
An appreciative crowd of 63,415 fans packed Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday to support the No. 3 Hurricanes (10-0, 7-0 ACC) and honor Miami’s 14 seniors in their final game on their home field. But a strong start by the Cavaliers (6-5, 3-4 ACC) had the orange and green faithful on edge for most of the day.
“First off want to give props to Coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff,” Miami head coach Mark Richt said. “Without a doubt, they were ready to play. Give credit to their players. They were ready to play. Not that we weren’t. We were ready to play, too. They took it to us early on, especially their offensive side of the ball, both sides of the ball really. Not used to having guys move the ball like that on our defense. They did a great job. Offensively, we were hot and cold. Pretty typical day for us. Made some nice plays and kept banging away. That’s what the whole team did. We had some special teams issues, some defensive issues, some offensive issues, but the thing we didn’t have was a heart issue. We didn’t’ have an issue with belief and team unity when things weren’t looking too great. That’s the thing I appreciate most about this team of coaches and players.”
Virginia wasted little time showing it came to play on Saturday, as quarterback Kurt Benkert hit Olamide Zaccheaus for a 33-yard touchdown that gave the Cavaliers a 7-0 lead a little over five minutes into the game. Benkert was 5-for-5 for 70 yards and a score on the nine-play scoring drive that covered 75 yards.
The Cavaliers picked up momentum when senior safety Quin Blanding intercepted a Malik Rosier pass on third-and-9 from the Miami 43 that was deflected by cornerback Juan Thornhill. The pick, which was Blanding’s fourth of the season, meant Virginia’s second possession began on its own 38.
But Miami’s defense forced a turnover three plays later, as sophomore linebacker Zach McCloud forced Zaccheaus to fumble and defensive back Michael Jackson recovered the loose football at the Miami 45. The junior corner donned Miami’s turnover chain for the fifth time this season.
The Cavaliers forced the Hurricanes to punt and Benkert got to work again. The senior quarterback was leveled by linebacker Shaquille Quarterman on third-and-4 from the UVA 14, but Benkert completed the throw to Lamont Atkins for 11 yards and a first down. One play later, Benkert found Joe Reed deep downfield on a broken play for a 75-yard touchdown that gave the Cavaliers a 14-0 lead with 2:12 remaining in the first quarter.
“Miscommunication on the back end,” junior defensive back Jaquan Johnson said. “As a secondary, we took our eyes off our key and the quarterback again being able to scramble and get out of the pocket and being able to deliver a perfect ball on the run. We don’t give up big touchdowns like that, we don’t give up big passes, so that was uncharacteristic of us.”
Looking to build off the momentum of the two-touchdown lead, Virginia attempted an onside kick but the Canes recovered and opened their third possession on the UVA 40.
“There was a look we felt certain about getting the ball because of how practice looked,” Mendenhall said. “Any time you don’t get it, it works against you. We didn’t execute well enough to get it. In hindsight, it wasn’t a risk worth it. Prior to the play, I thought it was.”
On second and 15 from the 45, Rosier found freshman wideout Jeff Thomas deep down the Virginia sideline for a 33-yard gain to the UVA 12. Three plays later, Rosier hit Ahmmon Richards for a 10-yard touchdown that cut the Cavaliers lead in half, 14-7.
“When the ball was in the air, I was just like, ‘Go get it. It’s one-on-one coverage,'” Richards said. “I have to go make the play. That’s all I was thinking about.”
Benkert opened the game 12-for-12 for 188 yards before throwing his first incomplete pass with Miami defensive lineman Chad Thomas bearing down on him on second and 13 from the Virginia 43. Two plays later, the Canes forced Virginia’s first punt of the game and Miami began its next possession on its own 12.
Miami’s offense got a little momentum before the Cavaliers forced a Hurricane punt. But the Canes had some good fortune, recovering a Virginia fumble that gave Miami the ball in UVA territory. Daniel Hamm fumbled a Zach Feagles punt and Travis Homer recovered the fumble to give the Canes the ball at the Virginia 36. One play later, Rosier connected with receiver Dayall Harris for a 36-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14 with 9:14 to go before the half.
“Dayall has really come on,” Richt said. “He’s a very good route runner, a guy that knows what to do. When you have a guy like [Braxton] Berrios, who is playing offense, special teams as a punt returner and covering kicks still, you need to have somebody to spell Brax and Dayall, to his credit, he knows the flanker, the Z and the Y and the X. He knows them all. He can really plug in anywhere across the board.”
Benkert put Virginia back on top with 30 seconds to go before halftime, as the senior dropped a perfectly-placed pass in the hands of Andre Levrone for a 33-yard touchdown that gave the Cavaliers a 21-14 halftime lead. The senior quarterback finished the opening half completing 17-of-18 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Benkert’s final line of the day was also impressive, completing 28-of-37 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception.
“We weren’t playing the way we played all year on the first half,” defensive lineman RJ McIntosh said. “We came in and we talked. We got everybody together. We understood that we had to come out and bring it. They came to play. They wanted to win this game. It’s a matter of fact that we came together, and we told each other that we got each other’s back.”
After announcing its presence early in the game, Virginia got off to a fast start in the second half, too. Charles Snowden blocked a Miami punt to give the Cavaliers the ball on the Miami 21. Virginia’s first drive of the second half resulted in a touchdown after two plays, when Benkert connected with Hamm for a 26-yard score that put UVA ahead, 28-14.
Miami would not give up, marching downfield on its next possession to cut the Virginia lead to seven, 28-21. The Hurricanes needed seven plays and just 2:17 before Rosier found receiver Lawrence Cager in the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown. One snap prior to the scoring play, Homer chipped a UVA pass rusher just enough to allow Rosier to find Braxton Berrios for a 24-yard gain and a first down that set Miami up to score.
Benkert, who had been largely flawless for most of the first three quarters, finally made a crucial mistake and it cost Virginia the lead. On the opening play of Virginia’s possession, the senior quarterback was intercepted by Miami’s Jaquan Johnson and the junior safety sprinted 30 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 28.
“I know there was a pick-six somewhere in there,” Richt said. “That sparks everybody. I love those.  As soon as he caught it, the only guy who could have tackled him stumbled and you knew it was gonna be a house call. It was beautiful. Anytime you get an interception for a touchdown or a turnover, that ignites everybody. I’ll say this. The fact that our stands were full and our fans went nuts when that happened, that accentuates the point of momentum changing. It’s hard to handle it as an opposing team and a visiting team to handle that kind of noise and excitement by the fanbase. They were amazing. I’m very thankful for that.”
Following the momentum changing interception return for a touchdown, Johnson sprinted to the Miami sideline and donned the turnover chain for the fifth time this season. The junior led all Hurricanes and tied for the game high with nine total tackles Saturday. He added one sack.
“We were just talking about it on the sideline that we needed a turnover, we needed a stop, we needed to get some momentum going and I was the one to end up with the turnover and that was big for our team,” Johnson said.
The Hurricanes stopped Virginia on fourth-and-6 from the UM 34 to take over on downs. Miami drove to the UVA 35 before Rosier floated a pass intended for Thomas and was intercepted by Thornhill to give the Cavaliers the ball on their own 11.Rosier finished 15-for-28 for 210 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of his 11 career starts and multiple touchdown passes in nine of his 11 starts.
Miami’s defense was unfazed by the sudden change, as Benkert was sacked by McIntosh and Joe Jackson on first down and the Canes tackled running back Jordan Ellis for loss on second and third down to force a punt by Lester Coleman that carried just 30 yards to give Miami the ball on the UVA 35.
Michael Badgley hit a 44-yard field goal to give the Hurricanes their first lead of the game, 31-28, with 21 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
“I told the offense, ‘Let’s execute. Let’s do our job,'” Rosier said. “We have a great defense. They had some shots on us and they did a good job, but I knew Coach (Manny) Diaz is one of the best in the business and he would get our defense right and we would be successful. I told the offense, ‘Don’t panic. We’ll be fine. Let’s do our job. Let’s methodically drive down the field to give us a shot and let’s take it. Let’s come back and win this game.’ The line did a great job and so did the backs and receivers.”
The Cavaliers reached the Miami 40 and went for it on fourth-and-3 with under seven minutes left to play, but senior Trent Harris sacked Benkert for a 13-yard loss to give the Canes the ball at the UVA 47. Harris, who had 6.5 sacks for his career entering this season, had 2.0 sacks Saturday to bring his season total to 8.0. The senior defensive end has three games with 2.0 sacks in 2017.
“Credit to the whole team,” Harris said. “I mean, we were down, but that didn’t faze us at all. You know, going into half time, Virginia was all hyped, but I mean we knew it wasn’t close to being over. We just came out there the second half and dominated.”
Miami padded its lead on the ensuing drive, as Rosier rushed in from eight yards out to score a touchdown and go up 37-28. The Canes moved deep into Cavalier territory when Homer burst for a 36-yard gain to the UVA 3. Three plays later, Rosier scampered into the end zone for six points. In the last three games, Rosier has carried the ball seven times in the red zone for 58 yards and three touchdowns.
“Malik, he thinks he’s a great runner, we’re not ready to give him that yet,” Richt said. “He slithers through there somehow and I’m not really proud of his ball security, to be honest with you. The ball was kind of waving around a little bit, but he’s been lucky nobody has tomahawked it from behind, but he got in there and I was thankful that put us in a position to be a two-score game late in the game and forcing a team to go for it on fourth down backed up that far was because we’re up by two scores. They had to do it. He did well.”
Virginia’s last hope was thwarted on its ensuing drive, as the Cavaliers turned the ball over on downs to give Miami the ball at the UVA 29 with 2:50 left in the game. Three rushes from Homer resulted in 29 yards gained and another Miami touchdown, putting the Canes up, 44-28, and giving Miami 30 unanswered points to close out the afternoon. Homer finished with a game-high 96 rushing yards on 17 carries, including a 19-yard touchdown run.
The Hurricanes achieved a 10-win season for the first time since 2003 and extended their FBS-leading winning streak to 15 games. The Canes are 7-0 in ACC play, well past the program’s previous best start in conference play of 3-0 (2004, 2012, 2013). Miami also forced three turnovers on Saturday, bringing its tally to 19 over the previous five games.
“It’s just unbelievable,” senior offensive lineman Kc McDermott said. “As I said last week, the way this city has reacted to how we are playing is unbelievable. Some tragedies happen and it brings a city together and some good things happen and it brings the city together, and I think we have a really good thing going on right here, especially with what happened with Irma. We gave the city a reason to believe in something, and we’re to believe in ourselves and just move forward and keep going on.
“It was very special for me to go out of that tunnel for the last time, but that’s done and over with, and it’s time to focus on the next one, but I’ll cherish that for the rest of my life,” McDermott said.
Miami closes the regular season next Friday at Pittsburgh. The game is set to kickoff at noon from Heinz Field and will be broadcast on ABC.