CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Third-down conversions were a point of emphasis on both sides of the ball for Miami heading into Saturday’s ACC Coastal Division clash at Virginia, and there remains cause for concern after a heartbreaking 41-40 loss.
On the game’s opening drive, the Canes gave up big plays of 26, 19, and 21 yards — two of which were on third-and-long, which set the tone.
The short-handed Hurricanes defense just could not stop the Cavaliers at all on third down in the first half, but began to step up in the third quarter. Still, Virginia converted nine of its 14 third-down plays on the afternoon (64 percent), while Miami was just 4 for 10 (40 percent) on offense on the crucial down, and just 2 for 6 in the second half.
Miami entered the afternoon with a third-down percentage of 38.8 offensively and allowed 43.2 percent.
“It was terrible,” said Miami coach Al Golden of the third-down woes, both offensively and defensively. “I think we were near 50 percent on offense, and I don’t know if we stopped them at all on defense. It all adds up in the end.”
Miami was without three defensive starters who did not travel with the team; outside linebackers Eddie Johnson (who broke an unspecified team rule) and Denzel Perryman, and freshman safety Deon Bush, who were both injured.
As a result, sophomores Gionni Paul and Thurston Armbrister started at linebacker, and junior Kacy Rodgers II got the nod at safety. Paul made the most of his day, leading Miami with 14 .
In addition, redshirt junior Curtis Porter started over Earl Moore at defensive tackle. Porter held his own, but Moore was whistled for a roughing-the-passer penalty in the second quarter which led to a touchdown that gave Virginia a 21-14 lead.
The 21 points Virginia put up in the first 15 minutes were the most given up by the Canes’ defense all season, and the Cavaliers were the first team all year to complete a come-from-behind win in the final period against Miami, which is now 4-1 when leading after three quarters.
Miami senior defensive back Brandon McGee picked off a pass in the second quarter, which led to a Jake Wieclaw 30-yard field goal to put Miami back in front 24-21.
Virginia was a perfect 5 for 5 before the break on third downs, which led to a 28-24 halftime advantage for the Cavaliers, and Golden was admittedly not at all pleased with the effort in the game’s opening 30 minutes.
Offensively, the Canes shot themselves in the foot on third downs on several occasions, including committing back-to-back false starts on the opening drive of the second half.
Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco, who split series with Alabama sophomore transfer Phillip Sims for a second straight week, set a Virginia school record with 18 consecutive completions as he found Darius Jennings with 5:33 left, cutting the Miami lead to 38-35.
Rocco then led the winning 16-play, 87-yard march that completed his fourth career fourth-quarter comeback. Cornerback Thomas Finnie was flagged for an untimely hold on a 4th-and-7 with a minute to go that kept the chains moving.
“[Rocco] did a really nice job,” Golden said. “I thought they threw the ball and caught the ball really well. We didn’t get off the field on third down like we needed to, and we needed to keep applying pressure.”
On the day, Rocco and Sims combined for 388 yards and four touchdowns, with just one giveaway.
“We didn’t get enough sacks,” Golden admitted. “We hit [Rocco] a couple times, but we didn’t get enough sacks. [Virginia’s] third-down percentage was excellent; we had chances to put them away on offense and we didn’t do it. We had chances.”
Added Miami redshirt sophomore Ladarius Gunter: “The first half, we didn’t do well [on third downs]. But second half, we just turned it on and came on out and put it on them. We came down and got a couple of third-down stops so that really helped a lot. [Virginia was] calling the right plays and at the end it just slipped away from us.”