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Miami Wins Senior Day Finale Over Pitt

Miami Wins Senior Day Finale Over Pitt

By David Villavicencio

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. –The Miami Hurricanes were all smiles on Saturday after an impressive 24-3 victory over Pitt on Senior Day. 
Miami (7-5, 4-4 ACC) closed out the season with a win over the ACC Coastal division champion Panthers (7-5, 6-2 ACC) thanks to a strong defensive showing and a big game by the running backs. 59,606 Hurricanes fans came out to support the Canes and send off Miami’s 24 seniors with four quarters of loud ovations.
“Great victory,” Miami head coach Mark Richt said. “All victories are great. Very thankful for that. Very thankful for the fans who showed up and supported us. That was very important to us and we appreciate that very much. We want to give credit to Pitt, in that they found a way to win the Coastal [Division] and they’ll represent next week [at the ACC Championship]. We want to wish them the best. A year ago, we were the ones going to the [championship] and got upset at their house. They’re the ones going to the [champion] this year and got upset at our house. I think our guys rose to the occasion. It was very obvious that it was a dominating defensive performance and I thought it was a dominating special teams performance, as well.”
Defensive line play was important on Saturday and Miami’s was strong from the start. Joe Jackson came up with a key sack on third-and-7 from the UM 34, knocking down Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett for a six-yard loss that pushed the Panthers out of field goal range and forced a punt to end the Pitt opening possession. 
On the ensuing possession Travis Homer pushed the Canes deep into Pitt territory, breaking a pair of tackles and sprinting for a 47-yard gain to the Pitt 20. Three plays later, freshman Bubba Baxa converted a 37-yard field goal attempt to put Miami ahead, 3-0, less than five minutes into the game.
Miami’s defense forced a turnover with 2:48 remaining in the opening quarter, as senior Jaquan Johnson stripped Pitt’s Darrin Hall and sophomore defensive back Trajan Bandy fell on the fumble to give the Canes possession on their own 46 and earn the right to wear the Turnover Chain for a team-best fifth time this season.
“Definitely, that’s exactly how I envisioned it,” Johnson said of the game. “We wanted to come out and dominate on all phases of the ball and I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
The Canes scored the first touchdown off the game on a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown by DeeJay Dallas. Homer helped spring his fellow running back loose with a big block near midfield and Dallas outran the Panthers to the end zone to make it 10-0.
“I felt that block when I ran by it, too,” Dallas said. “You know how you can feel wind? I felt it. I was like, ‘Dang!’ I wanted to look, but it was like, touchdown, block, touchdown. So, just watching it, I’m like, ‘Dang, Travis, that’s crazy.’ And I know he’s a physical dude and that’s just what he does.”
The punt return for a score gave Miami consecutive games with punt returns for touchdowns for the first time since 2005. On Oct. 15 at Temple, Devin Hester returned a punt for a touchdown against the Owls, while Quadtrine Hill scored on a blocked punt on Oct. 29 against North Carolina in the Orange Bowl.
Miami’s defense totaled six tackles for loss, three sacks, two pass breakups and one turnover in the first half Saturday. Jackson led the defense with 1.5 sacks, while Gerald Willis III (1.0) and Shaq Quarterman (0.5) both added to Miami’s first-half sack total. The Canes held Pitt to just 115 total yards in the first half and allowed the Panthers to convert just one of eight third down attempts.
“Hard to be more proud of a defensive unit, than what these guys did,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “And we talked about, just last home game and just going out there and putting on a show. And I have been saying it, we got a lot of guys that are fun to watch, you know. We got a lot of guys that are fun to coach. I love to come here and watch these guys play, and that’s how we felt. Like, we felt like we had to repay every fan that was in the stands, as if they had come to watch you play. You personally, and then us collectively as a defense and us collectively as a team. And, man, it’s like you run out of… the situations that we get put in and the way that they play and the way they respond, they just go out there and go about their business and have fun doing it. 1-of-15 on third down is just awesome, man. It’s just… all of us as a coaching staff, we are just so thankful to be able to coach these guys. This is a special unit, this is something that does not come around very often. This is a unit that should be appreciated for years to come. And at this school, that’s hard. Because there have been some amazing defenses that have come and gone through here, but these guys deserve, they deserve to be looked at as some of the peers. We have our part and our record not being what it should be, but these guys have put something on tape over a 12 game season that they can be proud of for the rest of their lives.”
It took Pitt 11 drives, but the Panthers finally got on the scoreboard with 3:27 remaining in the third quarter when kicker Alex Kessman split the uprights on a 40-yard field goal to bring the Panthers within seven, 10-3. Those points would be the only ones Miami would surrender all game and senior Michael Jackson believed that was just one way the Hurricanes showed the caliber of defense they are as a unit.
“Just the simple fact that we’re 7-5, but we are not a 7-5 defense,” Jackson said. “That’s really how we just looked at it. They really should not have even got those three points. We pretty much handed that to them. So, we just came out and played good ball.”
Miami answered right back two plays into its next possession, as Homer exploded for a 64-yard rushing touchdown that put the Canes ahead by 14, 17-3. The junior’s explosive runs helped him get over 100 rushing yards on just five carries. Homer recorded a season-best 168 rushing yards on just eight carries – good for his sixth career 100-yard rushing game and third this season. Homer had a 64-yard touchdown run and also had rushes of 47 and 37 yards in the victory. His 168 rushing yards were the second most of his career and moved him past Frank Gore for No. 12 all-time in Miami history
“I’ve worked hard every day,” Homer said. “On the practice field, I had good competition in the running back room to keep pushing us and to keep going further. So, I know every running back in that room, and me as well, is getting better every day.” 
Dallas found the end zone for the second time on Saturday, running in from three yards out while serving as Miami’s wildcat quarterback on fourth-and-goal. The touchdown put the Canes up, 24-3, with 10:58 left in the game.
The Hurricanes finished the game with 14 tackles for loss and six sacks, while holding Pitt to 200 total yards of offense – including a paltry 69 rushing yards.
“The emotions that the defense had tonight was stopping the run,” Willis III. “That was our main focus, stopping the run, because Pitt likes to run the ball a lot. That’s what coach Diaz preached to the defense. We have to stop the run; if we stop the run, it’s ball game.”
Senior Jaquan Johnson led Miami with 10 tackles and a forced fumble, while junior Joe Jackson led the Canes with a career-best 2.5 sacks and senior Michael Jackson added a pair of sacks.
“It was awesome,” Richt said. “They played their tails off. I think the field goal was probably off a turnover, with the bad field position. We mostly gave the defense great field position, at least early on, and then the turnover bug got us and put them in some midfield situations. I think even the field, I think we had a couple defensive penalties that helped them along the way to get them into position to kick. Other than that, lights out. They played great.”