Embracing the Opportunity
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – For veteran offensive lineman Matt Lee, taking the field for the first time as a Miami Hurricane was an experience to remember.
Not only did he and his teammates earn a season-opening win over Miami (OH) last Friday night, but Lee finally had the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and excitement that come with playing on the Hurricanes’ home field at Hard Rock Stadium.
From running through the smoke before kickoff to hearing the crowd’s reaction on every big play, Lee made it a point to try and enjoy as many moments as possible.
“I’d been at Hard Rock a few times, obviously only in really scrimmage settings, but [last] Friday night being the first time there, where we had fans and a real atmosphere, it was awesome,” Lee said. “Great energy, all night. It pushed my adrenaline, got me ready to play and maintain that through the game. The excitement of the fans was great.”
Lee and his teammates are hoping for even more energy and excitement this week as the Hurricanes are set to return to Hard Rock on Saturday for one of the most highly anticipated games on their schedule this year: a nationally televised showdown against No. 23 Texas A&M.
The game will mark just the second time – and first time since Florida came calling in 2013 – that an SEC team will take the field against Miami at Hard Rock.
And with a national broadcast on ABC on deck, the Hurricanes know they have an unmatched opportunity to show the country the kind of progress they’ve worked to achieve over the course of the last nine months.
“They’re very well aware of the opportunity that we have in front of us,” Miami head coach Mario Cristobal said this week. “I think we’re fortunate that they do, they like to work. They’re really taking these processes and they’re elevating standards on a daily basis. So far, they’ve allowed us to push ourselves, which is really, really important.”
Said Lee, “It’s going to be a great challenge, a great opportunity for us to try and impose our will, our style of play on them and they’re going to try and do the same to us. Whoever does better at imposing their style of play is going to come out with the win. It’s a great opportunity. They have a great defense, a great defensive line [with] big, strong experienced dudes…their linebackers are all great players…Their back seven, back four are all good players. It’s a great, awesome opportunity and we wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Though the two teams met a year ago, with A&M edging Miami 17-9 in College Station, there have been changes aplenty on both rosters and both teams enter Saturday’s matchup having notched impressive victories in their openers.
The Hurricanes, led by a balanced offensive attack and an aggressive defense, posted a 38-3 win over Miami (OH), with running backs Henry Parrish, Jr., Donald Chaney, Jr., freshman Mark Fletcher, Jr. and Nebraska transfer Ajay Allen combining to rush for 251 yards and three touchdowns.
Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke – the 2021 ACC Rookie of the Year who was hampered by a shoulder injury for much of the latter part of the 2022 season – completed 17 of 22 passes and threw for 201 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Building on that success has been a focus during Miami’s preparations this week, with offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson also noting one of the most impressive moments from last week’s opener came right after one of the toughest plays of the night: Van Dyke’s interception.
“Honestly, I thought that was the best part of the whole game. I’ve preached to those guys since I got here [about] picking up teammates. It isn’t really about the great plays you make, it’s about the bad plays other people make and what you do to pick those guys up,” Dawson said. “I was very curious when that happened to watch us come off the field and see how the communication was going to be between players. …
“It was awesome. Everybody went over, from o-linemen to receivers to everybody and everybody was saying the right things. Very positive interactions. That told me something about the group. Look, you’re going to mess up. I didn’t call a perfect game. That was obviously a play I’d like to have back and [Van Dyke] would too, but it also revealed something about the group. I thought overall, everybody on the sideline was [like], ‘Hey, move on. Next play.’ I thought that was awesome.”
At Texas A&M, meanwhile, the Aggies totaled 411 offensive yards in their 52-10 win over New Mexico. Sophomore quarterback Conner Weigman, who did not play in last year’s game against Miami, put on a show against the Lobos, completed 18 of 23 passes for 236 yards and five touchdowns. He tied a career high with four of those scoring passes coming in the first half.
Containing him – and a receiving corps that includes Noah Thomas and Evan Stewart, who combined for 189 yards and five touchdown grabs – will be key, the Hurricanes know.
“They’re really good. Not only in this past game that they played, but they’ve shown, even last year, how good they can be,” Cristobal said. “They score a lot of points and make a lot of explosive plays…That’s probably what stuck out the most of their game on Saturday. The game, the score kept changing in a hurry because of the explosive plays that they made. But they’re not a one-dimensional team. They can run the ball really, really well. They protect the quarterback really well, so, again, looking forward to the challenge.”
Added safety Kam Kinchens, “They’re going to be very challenging. Conner Weigman is a great quarterback … He’s mobile, has a good arm. Really good. And [Thomas], he didn’t play too much last year, but he kind of put the world on notice with what he did this past Saturday. And [Stewart] has been a problem since last year. Both of them are very good receivers, and they’ve got more with [Moose Muhammad III and Ainias Smith] and all those guys. It’s going to be a challenge, and we’re ready for it.”
The Hurricanes and Aggies both enter Saturday’s game looking to continue getting better and stacking wins before they both begin conference play in a few weeks.
For both, it will be a chance to showcase the changes and growth made during the offseason.
And for Miami, in particular, it’s an opportunity to give fans another memorable win at home.
The Hurricanes don’t take any of that for granted and they want to make sure they give their fans plenty of reasons to cheer Saturday.
“I think last game was really good. Really good turnout with all the fans [and they] did a great job, especially when our defense was on the field,” Van Dyke said. “It’s extremely tough to play offense when you’re an away team, with the crowd cheering…We definitely need a packed house here for that. It should be a really exciting game. I’m just excited to see what Hard Rock is going to bring us Saturday.”
As to Miami’s mentality going into the game? Van Dyke was succinct.
“Everyone’s dialed in, everyone’s locked in and ready to roll.”