Ten Takeaways from Miami's 31-19 Win over Pittsburgh

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – For days, players and coaches tried to drive home a singular message.

This game was an opportunity to get back on track after a disappointing performance; a chance to prove they had the strength and focus to make sure one loss didn’t turn into two.

By the time the Hurricanes left Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday afternoon, they’d done exactly what they set out to do: they’d picked up a much-needed 31-19 win over Pittsburgh and improved to 4-1 in a season in which nothing can be taken for granted.

“The whole thing this week and [Saturday] in our pregame talk was about ‘Trust your teammates. Just devote energy into the team effort and just be a cog on the wheel and watch what happens,’” Miami head coach Manny Diaz said after the victory. “That’s why I say I was really proud of the way that we played good team ball today. Everybody just did their job and trusted their teammates.”

Diaz acknowledged Saturday’s game may have lacked some of the atmosphere, attention and energy that surrounded Miami’s top-10 matchup against Clemson last week.

But, more than once after Miami recorded its third straight win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, the coach noted his team was able to push through some of the mental challenges they faced.

Miami, FL - OCTOBER 17: The University of Miami Hurricanes against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Hard Rock Stadium on October 17, 2020 in Miami, FL.

(Photo by JC Ridley/University of Miami Athletics)

That the Hurricanes managed that against a Panthers team that features one of the best defenses in the nation only made the victory that much more significant.

“I think we had mentioned that we feel like we’ve got good leadership on our football team and we were disappointed and a little bit angry coming off of last week. But you’ve got to put it behind you. That’s the difficult situation,” Diaz said. “You’ve got the noon kickoff, not a super juicy environment because of the [Covid] restrictions that we have, against a team that’s hurt [coming off of two losses] and going to play with a sense of desperation, which I thought Pitt did. So, for those guys to just go out there and just know that it’s not going to be an easy game, regardless of your mental mindset, says a lot about the leadership of our football team.”

With their game against Pittsburgh now behind them, the Hurricanes turn their focus to the next ACC opponent on their schedule: Virginia. Before that, though, here’s a look at what Miami can take away from its win over Pittsburgh.

1. Miami needed – and got – bounce-back performances in every phase of the game

More than once in recent years, the Hurricanes have at times struggled to bounce back after tough losses. And whether those struggles would resurface after a disappointing performance at Clemson was definitely a storyline Miami’s players and coaches had to deal with leading up to Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh.

But once they got on the field, the Hurricanes found ways to push through that narrative against a Pittsburgh team that was looking to bounce back and prove itself, too.

Though the Panthers’ defense – which entered the game ranked No. 4 in the nation – was able to sometimes frustrate the Miami offense, the Hurricanes put together enough big plays to score 31 points against a team that had previously allowed an average of just 18.2 points per game. Miami’s defense held Pittsburgh to just 22 rushing yards. And the Hurricanes’ special teams unit delivered, too with Miami sniffing out and stopping Pittsburgh’s fake punt attempt, punter Lou Hedley continuously flipping the field and kicker Jose Borregales remaining perfect in field-goal attempts on the season.

No wonder Diaz and his players described the win as a complete team effort.

“Really proud of our football team. That was a very difficult game, which we suspected it would be going in. Pitt, they make everything hard,” Diaz said. “They’re really, really good on defense, which we knew. We knew we’d have to hit some explosive plays against them, which we did. But to me, the highlight of the game was the way that we played great team ball.”

Added quarterback D’Eriq King, “I think we knew what we had. I knew we didn’t play our best [against Clemson], but as far as today, I’m super proud of those guys. I think we came out here, we put last week behind us, we tried to get a ‘W’ any way we could. And honestly, Pitt has one of the best defenses in the country. We knew we had a tough challenge back-to-back weeks and I think we did enough to win today. [There’s] always room from improvement, though.”

2. Defense bends but doesn’t break

Before their team took the field against Pittsburgh, Diaz and defensive coordinator Blake Baker challenged the Hurricanes defense to, in essence, out-Pittsburgh the Panthers, who entered the game as statistical leaders in several defensive categories.

Miami’s defense responded.

The Hurricanes – who did not allow a touchdown in their wins against Pittsburgh in both 2018 and 2019 – extended that streak right through halftime. The one touchdown Miami did eventually allow? It came only after the Panthers took over on the Hurricanes’ 1-yard-line after a turnover.

In all, the Hurricanes held Pittsburgh to 22 yards on 26 carries, 3-of-17 on third-down conversion attempts, 0-of-2 on fourth-down conversion attempts and totaled nine tackles for loss and three sacks, while breaking up seven passes and notching six QB hurries.

“Everybody’s attitude. Everybody is buying in. Everyone came in with this goal of not wanting to give up a touchdown at all so that was our mindset coming into this game,” cornerback Te’Cory Couch said.

3. Will Mallory steps up

The Hurricanes knew – given how stout Pittsburgh’s defense is – that moving the ball would be a challenge Saturday. That challenge only got tougher when Miami took the field without one of its top offensive weapons, tight end Brevin Jordan.

Jordan, who leads the Hurricanes with 18 catches for 243 yards, was hurt against Clemson. That meant more playing time for fellow tight end Will Mallory and Mallory delivered.

Though he had just two catches, both went for touchdowns: one for six yards, the other for 45 yards.

And both times, Mallory got himself as open as possible.

“When you’ve got a player like Brevin who’s out for the week, someone’s got to fill those big shoes because he’s a heck of a player,” Mallory said. “Coming in, I know I haven’t gotten as many passes or stuff this year, but I know I had to step up. It was a good team win. It’s really easy to score on those wide-open things when the scheme’s that good. So it was a good win and I felt good coming in.”

4. Hello, Te’Cory Couch

As the season has progressed, cornerback Te’Cory Couch has earned himself more playing time and on Saturday, he put together one of his best performances to date.

Of the seven passes broken up by the Hurricanes’ defense, Couch had three, including one that helped end Pittsburgh’s final drive of the afternoon and got the Panthers off the field with less than four minutes left in the game.

He’s most definitely taken steps in the right direction in recent weeks, but Couch isn’t satisfied yet.

Miami, FL - OCTOBER 17: The University of Miami Hurricanes against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Hard Rock Stadium on October 17, 2020 in Miami, FL.

(Photo by JC Ridley/University of Miami Athletics)

“It was pretty good, but I still have to get better. I gave up two plays for first downs, so I still could work on a lot,” Couch said. “I just have to give it to my coaches. They believe in me, the players, Al [Blades], DJ [Ivey], everybody in the cornerback room, coach Rumph. Everybody believes in me so I just stay confident.”

5. Lou Hedley remains an effective weapon

It’s not often a punter is the first player mentioned by name in a coach’s post-game press conference, but not many punters can do what Lou Hedley has been doing all season for the Hurricanes.

Hedley’s ability to flip the field was one of the keys in Saturday’s win over Pittsburgh, a face Diaz recognized not long after he and his team left the field.

“I thought the special teams…we knew going in would be massive today,” Diaz said. “I thought it was. Louie Hedley’s punting – 51.7 [yards] average, I mean, that’s just crazy.”

Crazy – and very, very effective.

Hedley, who has been a viral sensation since signing with Miami, punted six times yesterday and notched a new-season long with his 60-yarder in the first quarter. He’d later come very close to matching that, hitting a 58-yarder in the fourth quarter.

6. Through ups and downs, D’Eriq King does enough to help Miami get the W

King put up impressive numbers through Miami’s first three games, but has been challenged by tough defenses in back-to-back weeks against Clemson and Pittsburgh.

Still, while he endured a share of ups and downs against the Panthers’ defense, King had four scoring passes and led the Hurricanes with 32 rushing yards.

He finished the day 16-of-31 for 222 yards with the four touchdowns and two interceptions.

“His relentless nature inspires everybody on the offense and, in turn, inspires everybody on the football team,” Diaz said of King. “Pitt’s not going to give any easy throws and contests everything, but the downside of that is there are some of those plays you saw go for touchdowns today.”

Miami, FL - OCTOBER 17: The University of Miami Hurricanes against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Hard Rock Stadium on October 17, 2020 in Miami, FL.

(Photo by Eric Espada/University of Miami Athletics)

Said King, “Pitt’s defense is good. They’re good every single year. I think they came into this game only giving up 52 yards rushing a game and that’s insane. So, from the front four, the d-line, the linebackers, safeties, they have a lot of good guys on their team and we knew that. So, all week, coach [Rhett] Lashlee just instilled in our head that it’s going to be a four-quarter game. They make you earn every single thing and they do a good job at it. So, just getting a win today was big.”

7. A cleaner game helped make a difference

In their loss against Clemson last week, the Hurricanes were penalized 15 times for 135 yards. And several of those whistles proved costly, either extending Tiger drives or costing Miami a defender.

The Hurricanes played a much cleaner game against Pittsburgh, notching just five penalties for 55 yards, a dramatic drop that earned praise from Diaz after the game.

“We had an issue last week with discipline. We had an issue with guys trying to do more than the game required, which is something that can happen in that environment,” Diaz said. “So, to come back and you look at penalties and we had five and [Pittsburgh] had 10, that was a big point of emphasis this week, just to not help the other team. I saw less guys [doing that]. And again, it was always out of good intentions, but last week there was a lot of guys that had good intentions trying to do maybe more than the offense [or the] defense required and everybody today [did not do that].”

8. Quincy Roche delivers his best performance as a Hurricane

Defensive end Quincy Roche arrived with much fanfare as a graduate transfer in January and while he has been a solid leader for the Hurricanes all season, both Diaz and Roche agreed his performance against Pittsburgh was on another level.

Roche finished as the Hurricanes’ second-leading tackler with seven stops, including a team-high four tackles for loss. And with Miami holding a 21-16 lead in the third quarter, he and fellow defensive end Jaelan Phillips combined on a strip-sack of Pittsburgh quarterback Joey Yellen.

Roche recovered the loose ball and two plays later, the Hurricanes turned the turnover into points when King connected with Mallory on a 45-yard touchdown.

Miami, FL - OCTOBER 17: The University of Miami Hurricanes against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Hard Rock Stadium on October 17, 2020 in Miami, FL.

(Photo by Eric Espada/University of Miami Athletics)

Still, like his teammates, Roche feels he can continue improving.

“I think it was my best game [at Miami]. It was my best game as far as the run is concerned, but I still got to clean it up pass rushing. I got to pass rush better, win some of those on-on-one matchups,” Roche said. “And I think that’s where I can improve coming out of this game.”

9. Explosive plays lead to points

The Hurricanes have had their fair share of explosive plays this season in new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s scheme and that trend continued Saturday against Pittsburgh.

The Hurricanes knew they’d need a few more against the Panthers and they got them, with Miami scoring on touchdowns of 35 yards, 38 yards and 45 yards Saturday.

“Yeah, Rhett [Lashlee] and his staff do a great job, obviously. They’re very creative. And what they do a nice job of is they just see potential explosive plays that you don’t have to manufacture by just beating a guy because Pitt’s hard to beat in their coverage down the field,” Diaz said. “I thought D’Eriq threw some great deep balls today that there were some bang-bang plays down the field that we want to finish. I thought his accuracy was amazing. But the ability to have some ones that you can kind of scheme up and it’s like, ‘Hey, if they play this thing.’ It puts a lot of stress on the defense and we see it every day in practice. It makes our defense better. And it’s hard to get 31 on Pitt and you’ve got to have some plays like that. So, full credit to those guys.”

Miami, FL - OCTOBER 17: The University of Miami Hurricanes against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Hard Rock Stadium on October 17, 2020 in Miami, FL.

(Photo by JC Ridley/University of Miami Athletics)

Said Mallory, “We got a lot of trust in what our coaches put in and install and what each player on the team can do. So, you come in and you do what you’re coached to do. You do what you’ve been practicing all year. And you’ll hit big plays like that if you do it exactly how you’re taught. And so that’s a credit to our coaches and it’s a credit to the players for executing it like that.”

10. Time to close out the homestand against Virginia

When the Hurricanes return to Hard Rock Stadium next week to face the Cavaliers, they’re going to want to make sure they continue to defend home turf against last year’s Coastal Division champions.

After next week’s game – another prime-time ACC Network showdown – Miami will be off the week of Oct. 31 before back-to-back road trips to North Carolina State on Nov. 6 and to Virginia Tech on Nov. 14.

That will mark nearly month away from home so leaving there Saturday with a win will be key.