Canes Head to Carolina for First ACC Road Test

Canes Head to Carolina for First ACC Road Test

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Through the first five games of the season, they’ve faced challenges.

Against Texas A&M, they rallied from a 10-point deficit. At Temple, they played in adverse conditions that tested their ability to move the ball. And twice, they had to take the field without one of their veteran leaders, the player teammates often call Miami’s “heart and soul.”

Each time, the Hurricanes responded.

But now, as 25th-ranked Miami prepares for its ACC road opener against a powerful North Carolina team that hasn’t lost a game yet and is led by one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, the Hurricanes face the biggest test of their resiliency so far this season.

Last week, despite a sluggish offensive showing, Miami found itself in position to win its conference opener late against a struggling Georgia Tech team that came to Hard Rock Stadium trying to gain its bearings after a tough loss to Bowling Green.

But in the game’s final seconds, with the Hurricanes up by three, disaster struck as Georgia Tech recovered a fumble.

Four plays later, it was the Yellow Jackets celebrating an improbable win, while the Hurricanes (4-1, 0-1 ACC) were left trying to make sense of what had just happened.

In the days since, Miami’s coaches and players have faced countless questions about whether the team can rebound after a gut-wrenching loss.

They insist they can and that they’re headed to Chapel Hill determined to get back on track.

“We’re lucky to play football, a game where every single new week, you get a new opponent and you’ve got to move on fast or else, you’re going to be left behind, no matter if you win, you lost or whatever,” said Hurricanes center Matt Lee. “So, for me personally, I woke up the next day, Sunday, and it is what it is. This is my fifth year of football. I’ve won a lot of games, lost a lot of games and you get up and move on. … We’ve got to play UNC on Saturday at 7:30. … You can’t dwell on it at all, and that goes for the whole team. That goes for the coaching staff. You can be disappointed. You can be upset. But no matter what … you’ve got to get up and be like ‘Alright, let’s game plan. Let’s get ready to play North Carolina’ and that’s what we’ve done. I think we’ve done a great job at that this week.”

Added Miami head coach Mario Cristobal, “You do it with honesty and transparency; go and fix all the things that we can do better. Realize the opportunity in front of us; understand that football is very much like life. … We owe it to ourselves and our players, to our entire organization – like we do our very own families – to look each other right in the eye and demand the best, the absolute truth from each other so you can always go forward. That’s what we do … The guys are very eager to get back to work and prepare for this weekend’s opportunity.”

That opportunity, for Miami, is finally here and with it comes the chance to not only move past the frustration of last week, but to snap a four-game losing streak to the 12th-ranked Tar Heels (5-0, 2-0) who have proven a tough out for the Hurricanes of late, particularly in Chapel Hill.

The Hurricanes haven’t won at Kenan Memorial Stadium since 2017 and know it will be a challenge to snap that streak, especially with the reigning ACC Player of the Year – quarterback Drake Maye – leading the Tar Heels’ offense.

Maye, a sophomore, has completed 72 percent of his passes this season and thrown for 1,629 yards and eight touchdowns through North Carolina’s first five games. He’s also rushed for another four scores and 174 yards.

The signal caller – who was named the ACC Quarterback of the Week on Monday after his 442-yard, three-touchdown performance against Syracuse last week – is currently ranked fourth among all FBS quarterbacks with his average of 325.8 passing yards per game.

Needless to say, his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed in Coral Gables.

“Drake’s a great, great player, one of the best players in the country,” said Miami defensive lineman Branson Deen. “We’ve got to do the same thing we did a few weeks ago, man. We’ve got to hit him. We’ve got to hit him. We’ve got to make him uncomfortable. We’ve got to move him around and if he makes some plays, we can’t think about it. We’ve got to go to the next one and play ball. It’ll be a great challenge.”

The Hurricanes will try to counter Maye’s effectiveness with a defensive unit that has been stalwart all season.

Miami enters the game with a top-10 defense that allows an average of just 268.4 yards per game. That ranks ninth among FBS programs. They’re the top FBS unit in rushing defense (58.2 yards allowed per game) and 12th in the nation in scoring defense (14.6 points per game).

The Hurricanes will also bring with them to Chapel Hill a potent offense and standout quarterback of their own.

Signal caller Tyler Van Dyke enters Saturday’s game having already surpassed his touchdown total from an injury-marred season a year ago. He ranks No. 1 in the ACC in completion percentage (72.6), No. 1 in the ACC in passing efficiency (178.8) and No. 2 in the ACC in passing TDs (11).

And a standout trio of receivers – Xavier Restrepo, Jacolby George and Colbie Young – have proven reliable throughout Miami’s first five games, with all three averaging more than 13 yards per catch.

All of those things, the Hurricanes hope, will help make a difference against North Carolina and give them their first conference win of the season.

“We know who we are as a team. We’ve got to get the young guys going, as leaders and get the whole team going,” Van Dyke said. “We’re putting that [game] behind us.”

Said Deen, “We have a head coach who’s a great leader and sets the tone for us every week, lets us know every week we have to bring the intensity. We have to bring the intensity every week because we’re being hunted, and we accept that. We look at it as a new challenge every week.”