Takeaways from Miami's Win over Pittsburgh
PITTSBURGH – For the second time in as many weeks, the Hurricanes faced a top-20 team.
And for the second time in as many weeks, Miami found a way to win.
On Saturday afternoon, the Hurricanes arrived at Heinz Field knowing they faced the dual challenges of trying to pick up a critical conference road win while finding a way to contain Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, one of the nation’s top quarterbacks.
Pickett may have added his name to the Panthers’ record book with his performance Saturday, but the Hurricanes did enough to force him into a pair of critical turnovers and Miami’s offense turned in one of its best showings of the season to help Miami upset the 17th-ranked Panthers 38-34.
The win came a week after the Hurricanes knocked off then-18th-ranked North Carolina State and was Miami’s fourth straight conference game decided by four points or less.
That the Hurricanes have found ways to be on the right side of two of those games now, head coach Manny Diaz said, is a testament to Miami’s grit and perseverance.
“To go back-to-back weeks beating top-20 teams…Another road win against a top-20 team, which hasn’t been a thing that’s occurred here in a long time. I’m just so proud of our guys, the way they fight, the way they stay together,” Diaz said. “Now, the inches that maybe went against us a couple weeks ago…There were so many fine-line plays in that game and one more went our way than went Pitt’s way. Just humbled to sit here victorious, part of just a very, very special college football game.”
Here, more of what the Hurricanes said they could take from Saturday’s win at Pittsburgh:
1. Another fast start pays off
Ahead of last week’s win over North Carolina State, the Hurricanes made it clear: starting fast was going to be a priority, especially after their struggles against Virginia and North Carolina.
Against the Wolfpack, the Hurricanes scored on their first possession. They did even better against Pittsburgh.
After the Panthers opened the game by scoring on their first drive, the Hurricanes answered by scoring on their first three possessions and four of their first five.
That helped Miami build a 31-17 halftime lead that proved too much for Pittsburgh to overcome, even with Pickett’s strong second-half effort.
“It was going to be a battle of perseverance,” Diaz said. “I’m proud of the way we started. Offense started the game really well. Defense got some stops in the first quarter. We ended up with the lead after one and then it was a grind to see it through.”
Said quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, “We know Pitt has a great offense. They’ve shown it all year. So we knew we were going to have to score a lot of points, even with our great defense. The defense came clutch with two interceptions, made some great stops. We just came out and scored 31 points in the first half, second half only scored seven, but at the end of the day, we ended up doing what we had to do, scoring more points than them. It was good.”
2. Tyler Van Dyke comes up big – again
After throwing for a career-high 325 yards against NC State, Van Dyke went and had himself another career day and the Hurricanes needed every bit of his efforts.
The second-year freshman completed 32 of 42 passes and threw for a new career-high 426 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. That was the ninth-highest passing total in Miami history and put Van Dyke on a list that includes Gino Torretta, Craig Erickson, Bernie Kosar, Stephen Morris and D’Eriq King.
He was calm in the face of a Pittsburgh defense that had, before Saturday’s game, held opposing quarterbacks to an average of just 209.4 yards per game.
Needless to say, Van Dykes teammates and coaches raved about the quarterback’s performance as he continues growing into his role as Miami’s starter.
“His calm demeanor…it’s just remarkable. The guy comes off the field after throwing a touchdown pass like it’s just a walk in the park. He’s got such a cool demeanor to him,” Diaz said. “That was a rough environment. Pitt, they take pride in making life hard on opposing quarterbacks and to be able to hang 38 points on them and throw for 426, that’s pretty special.”
Added tight end Will Mallory, “Tyler’s taken this moment now and he’s running with it. He’s doing a fantastic job. He’s winning us ball games. He’s being the leader that we know he can be.”
3 . Miami’s tight ends delivered again
Last week, both Mallory and freshman tight end Elijah Arroyo factored into Miami’s offensive game plan. And again, they were part of things for the Hurricanes on Saturday.
Arroyo capped a five-play, 75-yard scoring drive with a 20-yard touchdown grab on Miami’s opening possession. It was his first touchdown as a Hurricane.
Mallory, meanwhile, had three catches for 66 yards and gave Miami its second score of the day when he caught a 57-yard pass from Van Dyke on a double flea flicker play.
For him, the last two games have been a boon, particularly after a tough start to the season.
“Definitely the beginning of the year was not what I wanted. It’s not the way I should be playing. It’s not the way people expect me to be playing,” Mallory said. “That was difficult for me. I mean, just personally, I kind of had to figure out what’s wrong. Figure that out, trust in the process, trust in the coaches, really turned to my family and my friends. Everyone was there for me when things weren’t going the way they should be and yeah, I’m starting to feel more comfortable and feel back to myself. I’ve just got to keep improving each week and most importantly, I want to do whatever I can to help this team.”
4. Rooster keeps on running
Like Van Dyke, running back Jaylan Knighton has found himself pressed into duty in recent weeks after an injury to one of the veterans ahead of him on the depth chart.
And like Van Dyke, Knighton has responded.
Against Pittsburgh, Knighton – affectionately known as “Rooster” by teammates, family and friends – had a game-high 80 rushing yards. One of his biggest carries of the day came on a 40-yard touchdown run that staked Miami to a 21-7 first-quarter lead.
Knighton has also proven to be a pass-catching threat and has accounted for 257 all-purpose yards in the Hurricanes’ last two games.
5. The receiving corps is rallying
In Saturday’s win, Van Dyke found ways to get the ball to eight different pass catchers, including receivers Charleston Rambo (7 catches, 101 yards), Xavier Restrepo (7 catches, 89 yards), Mike Harley (5 catches, 53 yards), Key’Shawn Smith (3 catches, 82 yards) and Brashard Smith (1 catch, 4 yards).
Having that many reliable options has, no doubt, made a difference for both Van Dyke and the Hurricanes over the course of the last two weeks.
“We have a lot of playmakers on offense. You just have to get the ball in their hands. It starts with me, distributing the ball,” Van Dyke said. “You can see what Rooster does what the ball, what Will can do with the ball when he has it, and all the receivers, too. Mike, X, Rambo, Key’Shawn…even the young freshmen. We have a lot of young guys making a lot of plays. That’ll be good in the future.”
6. Williams, Kinchens make an impact
Injuries have taken a toll across the Miami roster and last week, the Hurricanes lost veteran safety Bubba Bolden for the season after it was determined he’d need surgery to fix a shoulder injury suffered earlier this year.
That meant two freshmen safeties – Kam Kinchens and James Williams – would have to step up against one of the best quarterbacks in the country and step up they did.
Kinchens, who had one of the biggest defensive plays of the season in last week’s win over NC State, had four tackles, a tackle for loss, broke up a pass and sniffed out Pitt’s attempt at a trick play, while Williams had a team-high nine tackles and an interception.
Not a bad showing for the two youngsters.
“It really sort of came down to two big stops, forcing a field goal in the red zone with Kam Kinchens sniffing out the Philly special play as a true freshman and then James Williams with the sliding interception,” Diaz said.
Added Williams, “We’re going to give up some stuff. Everybody isn’t perfect. We know we’re not perfect. We’re not going to get the job done every time. But we have to get our cleats in the dirt, play the next play and be smart. And play with confidence every play. We don’t know when that play is going to come; give up some, you’ll get something back, just like we did this game.”
7. McCloud settling in at defensive end
Veteran Zach McCloud arrived at Miami as linebacker and made history at the position when he, Shaq Quarterman and Mike Pinckney became the first trio of true freshman linebackers to start together in 2016.
But after dealing with his share of injuries, McCloud made the decision to not only redshirt a year to get healthy, but to eventually switch positions and move to defensive end ahead of the start of the year.
He turned in one of his best performances at his new spot on Saturday, notching three tackles, 1.5 sacks and a QB hurry. And McCloud said all the experience he is gaining at his new position is making a difference as Miami moves into the final stretch of the season.
“Every week I get to face a different o-line. I get to face a different quarterback. Scheme changes a little bit. That allows me some freedom to do different things and be able to change up my rush,” McCloud said. “As I gained this experience, I could only do so much in spring and in camp. As much as I learned and grew during that period, I was going against the same guys every day…I’m a lot more comfortable learning my adjustments, learning at getting better at applying those adjustments throughout the game, but I feel a lot more comfortable than I did earlier in the season.”
8. Pickett gets his yards – but Miami’s defense does enough
The Hurricanes expected they’d face a significant challenge in Pickett and the quarterback proved to be as good as advertised.
He threw for 519 yards and broke Dan Marino’s Pitt record for touchdowns responsible for (83) on Saturday, but the Hurricanes pressured Pickett throughout the afternoon.
The quarterback had just one interception coming into the game – but Miami’s Williams and Tyrique Stevenson each picked him off once Saturday. And the Hurricanes totaled four sacks and seven QB hurries on the day.
That effort made a difference.
“It was evident in the first quarter it was going to be a game of just finding a way to get a stop, stops and turnovers,” Diaz said. “That’s what it was all going to be about.”
Miami made enough of those plays to win.
9. The Hurricanes showed their ability to strike quickly
Another sign Miami’s offense is clicking?
The ability for the Hurricanes to put together explosive plays and quick-strike scores.
Miami scored on its first three possessions and on each one of those drives needed less than 1:38 to find the end zone.
In all, four of Miami’s six scoring drives came in under two minutes and the Hurricanes had nine plays that went 20 or more yards in Saturday’s win.
“Those calls for explosive plays, if everybody executes, that’s going to happen,” Knighton said. “That’s what they’re designed for.”
10. The Canes are headed home for homecoming
After losses in their first two conference games, things looked bleak for Miami in terms of the Coastal Division race.
But after beating NC State and Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes find themselves still in the hunt for both a division title and potentially, a conference championship.
There’s little room for error though and the Hurricanes know they have to keep winning.
They’ll have their chance to try and keep adding to their win total on Saturday when they host Georgia Tech at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday for homecoming.
None of the four remaining opponents on the schedule – Georgia Tech, Florida State, Virginia Tech or Duke – have a winning record and the Hurricanes need to take advantage of the opportunities they have, while hoping they get a little help in the division race.
Given the topsy-turvy nature of the ACC and the Coastal Division, that’s not out of the realm of possibility. But for now, the Hurricanes will focus on themselves and what they need to do.
“It’s us versus us every week. Not to say we don’t consider our opponent. Obviously, we want to treat everybody with respect and the respect that they deserve when we prepare for them, but it’s us against us,” McCloud said. “If I lose on a pass rush, I’m not thinking ‘Well, maybe this guy [goes] first round, so I don’t feel so bad about it.’ No, I’ve got to win that pass rush and it’s the same thing you apply to the team. It doesn’t matter who we play. We want to win. We’re not going to get too high. You don’t want to get too low over wins and losses. You’ve got to stay in the middle and keep improving.”
Said Van Dyke, “We definitely have to keep building on the confidence level. But at the end of the day, we have to throw this away and focus on Georgia Tech. With that same confidence we have from the past two weeks, we can’t get too high on ourselves. We beat two top-20 teams. We have to go out there, prepare well, practice well and try to get another win.”