Canes Look to Rebound vs. Panthers

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The Miami Hurricanes have been here before.

The Canes have suffered tough losses and let them spill over into subsequent weeks. Just a year ago, Miami had multiple instances where just that occurred.

But the 2020 Hurricanes are a different team than those of recent memory. The Canes are eager to prove that last week’s loss at No. 1 Clemson will not affect them this Saturday, as No. 12/13 Miami (3-1, 2-1 ACC) welcomes Pittsburgh (3-2, 2-2 ACC) to Hard Rock Stadium for an ACC battle set to kickoff at noon.

“We’re not going to let one week define this team,” redshirt junior Corey Gaynor said. “We’re just getting back to work. … The attitude is great. We’ve got Pitt coming up Saturday at noon and that’s where all our focus is at.”

A team captain, Gaynor is one of many players who have noticed a stark difference in the attitude and focus the Canes have shown after a difficult loss. Head coach Manny Diaz credits the change in mentality to the leadership players like Gaynor, quarterback D’Eriq King, safety Bubba Bolden and others have brought every day in practice.

“I do think we have great leadership,” Diaz said. “The guys are helping push through. We just did some discipline running in which we are still paying for our penalties this past weekend. We had to repeat a couple. It is a situation where normally guys are discouraged because it is hot outside, but it was quite the opposite. Guys were excited to put their hand on the line and run again. It doesn’t guarantee that we are going to play any type of way on Saturday, but it is encouraging that we have a good bit of leadership on this team.”

Bolden, who earned his second ACC Defensive Back of the Week honor after posting a game-high 10 tackles and blocking two field goals in Miami’s loss to the top-ranked Tigers, served as an excellent example of the shift in the Hurricanes’ mentality after a hard loss.

“Our focus is on Pitt. There are a lot of emotions, no one likes to lose. Especially not me, I am not a loser,” Bolden said after the Clemson game. “So, we just have got to move on, move forward, get back to work.”

Bolden believes the Hurricanes are determined to clean up their mistakes and improve after suffering the setback at Clemson.

“There is a lot of player accountability,” Bolden said. “It started on Sunday with the lift we had and in the meetings we had. It is accountability for yourself and then your teammates. Then in practice if a player messes up something, another player will call it out. We even went to the coaches and told them to not blow the whistle so fast because we want to run to the ball. This Clemson game was an eye-opening experience for us, but it will help us grow.”

Saturday’s game versus the Panthers is the 40th all-time matchup in the series, which Miami leads, 27-11-1, including a 14-5-1 lead in games in home games. The Coastal foes have met every year since 2013 (Pitt’s first season in the ACC) and Miami has a 5-2 advantage in those games, with two straight wins.

The Hurricanes have kept Pitt out of the end zone for the last eight quarters, holding the Panthers to five field goals over the past two games. In last year’s meeting in Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes pulled off a 16-12 victory at Heinz Field, overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit to win on the road. Despite Miami’s recent success against the Panthers, they are not taking them lightly heading into this week’s contest.

“You have to go out and respect every team that you play,” King said. “We have to respect Pitt. They have one of the best defenses in the country. We are expecting a four-quarter game and we will have to work for everything.

“For me, it was important to get a jump start on this week so we can face another opponent and get this nasty taste out of our mouths.”

The Panthers currently rank third in the nation in sacks per game at 4.8 on the season. Pitt is fourth in the country in tackles for loss at 10.4 per game.

Defensive end Patrick Jones II leads the country in sacks with seven on the year, while fellow end Rashad Weaver has 4.5 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss on the season.

“Pitt has a great defense. They’ve done a lot of great stuff over the years and they still do great stuff,” Gaynor said. “They have two good defensive ends, probably two of the best defensive ends in our league.

“I played Cooper City my junior year when Weaver was there,” Gaynor added. “He’s big, he’s long, he reminds me of Jaelan Phillips, to be honest. He’s long, he’s got great moves and we’ve got to have a great week of practice to get ready for these guys.”

On the back end of the defense, Pittsburgh is led by one of the most dynamic safeties in the ACC in Paris Ford. The 6-foot, 190-pound Ford is a do-it-all safety who is very physical and also has impressive range in coverage. Through five games, Ford has totaled 27 tackles and two interceptions.

“Pitt is a very good team and defensively, they got a lot of guys on their defense that would start for Clemson,” Diaz said. “Their front seven is very experienced and their safety is as good of a safety that there is in their conference. Pitt can play. They have an older team with a quarterback that is a senior.”

That senior quarterback is Kenny Pickett, who is off to a strong start to his fourth year under center. Pickett has thrown for 1,389 yards and eight touchdowns while completing 60 percent of his attempts this year. While Pickett beat the Canes in 2017, ending Miami’s undefeated season in his first collegiate start, he and his teammates have dropped two straight games against the Hurricanes and that means they are hungry to end that skid.

“Pat Narduzzi’s team this year is filled with fourth- and fifth-year juniors and seniors,” Diaz said. “Their defensive front is outstanding and they are going to challenge you with man coverage with everything that you do on the back end. Then, obviously, this will be our fourth year going against starting quarterback Kenny Pickett. They’re coming off back-to-back heartbreaking one-point losses, almost fluky in nature of how they went down and that’s just life in the ACC; games are going to be very competitive. We expect a highly competitive game on Saturday. We’re happy to be back at home and to actually have a noon kickoff and get to play under the sun a little bit.”

"It was important to get a jump start on this week so we can face another opponent and get this nasty taste out of our mouths.”

Quarterback D'Eriq King

While Pitt will come into Hard Rock Stadium looking for its first road win at Miami since 2014, striker Gilbert Frierson knows his team’s success hinges on their ability to play like Hurricanes.

“We’ve just got to just play our ball. No matter what opponent is in front of us, it’s all about us,” Frierson said. “We’ve got to play assignment ball, we’ve got to tackle, we’ve got to just play lights out against anyone we play against. Pitt is a good team. It’s going to be a tough one. We’ve just got to prepare for them.”

Frierson is confident that the Hurricanes will bounce back on Saturday because of the belief Miami has in itself and the mantra the Canes are living by this year.

“We trust each other. Even in the Clemson game, things weren’t going so good, but we always stayed positive trying to just play the next play,” Frierson said. “That’s our motto this year, play the next play, always. Whatever happened the last play, that’s the last play, you can’t go back and fix that. You only can advance. You only can control your situation, always be in control your environment. Things are always going to go upside-down in life. You just got to get in that moment, be where your feet are. So that’s our goal this year, always moving forward. Things are going to happen, it’s going to go good, it’s going to go bad, but our goal is always move forward and get better.”

Defensive end Jaelan Phillips believes the Canes have moved on from the Clemson loss and have the right mindset to get back to Miami’s winning ways.

“It was definitely a tough loss, but you just kind of have to look at the bright side of things and look at yourself critically and look at look at it as a team and see what are the things you need to improve on,” Phillips said. “We just have a ‘play the next play’ mentality and a forward-looking mentality. So, we’re going to have the chance to play them again, hopefully, at the end of the season. We’ve just got to focus on Pitt right now. That’s obviously what’s prevalent to us and what’s coming up next. The attitude is good.”

While Miami has said and done all the right things this week in practice, Diaz knows it will be up the Hurricanes to prove that they have truly grown as a team and Saturday will be an excellent opportunity to do so.

“We feel like we are more mature, but ultimately we have to go prove it,” Diaz said. “We have to get over this Miami arrogance that we should always beat these teams because these are things that have not happened over the last 10 years. The next two weeks we play the two teams that have won our division the last two years. We have to rebuild the process of what it takes to win a football game. It is a new week and our work and preparation will say a lot about how we play on Saturday.”