They earned this. And they deserved it.
The Miami Hurricanes earned Saturday’s victory against the Florida Gators because it was a backyard-brawl of a game that came ugly and came hard — “Nothing easy out on that field for either team,” as coach Al Golden put it afterward.
They deserved it in a broader sense, this moment and this feeling because of all that this program has been through the past few years. Because of the mess Golden inherited and has handled with such grace. Because of the NCAA anvil that continues a threat to drop on UM and these players for others’ old sins.
All of these emotions roiled inside the Canes’ head coach as the seconds wound down on this 21-16 triumph, this signature victory of his UM tenure now in its third season. He had to let those emotions out. It had been a long time.
So he ran.
It was not a mannerly coach-trot. It was a full-out sprint, orange necktie flying. Golden burst some 50 yards toward the west end-zone to join his celebrating defensive players who had won this game and had just ended the Gators’ last hopes.
A good feeling
He ran and he ran and that anvil fell off him. He might have been flying, carried by satisfaction and relief and joy. He reached his players and his own ecstatic shouts merged with the din.
You’re damned right this coach and this team deserved this feeling.
“We’ve been through so much,” Golden said afterward, trying to find the words for what sent him on that crazy dash as time expired. “It was almost cathartic. Twenty-six months just unleashed there in the last four or five seconds.”
Golden’s Canes had not beaten an opponent ranked as high as Florida (No. 12 in The Associated Press poll coming in), and neither had any UM team since 2009.
Now it is Miami that will come charging into next week’s national Top 25s, possibly in the high teens.
Saturday also marked a victory for Canes fans. The packed crowd of 76,869 set a UM record for the Dolphins’ stadium and included plenty of Florida fans, yes. But there were a lot more fans touching thumbs to form a U than there were slapping palms in a Gator Chomp. The Canes absolutely enjoyed the home-field advantage some doubted it would have Saturday (with help from a UM defense that tended to give UF fans laryngitis)
The framework of this game only underlined the magnitude of the result. These great old rivals were meeting for the 55th time since 1938, and maybe for the last time, with no additional games on the horizon or being discussed.
Miami and Florida had last met in 2008, when the current players were in high school. No matter. It was Canes and Gators. The animus is handed down.
“A high trash-talking game,” Miami quarterback Stephen Morris described it. “It was dirty. A lot of dirty plays out there.”
It was as ugly at times as it was elbowy, which can happen when two great defenses take a game upon themselves.
Florida’s defense limited UM to 212 total yards, its fewest in a game in four years.
And Miami’s defense pounded the Gators into five turnovers, had a fourth-down stop and forced four punts.
We knew Florida’s defense was supposed to be good.
That Miami’s is, too, is the revelation that bodes well for a big season.
The Canes’ defense was so bad last year, remember, that fans calling for defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s job joked he should be called Mark “Onofrio” because he had no D.
He does now. D’Onofrio — with a D — and his entire unit received a game ball from Golden.
Four of UM’s takeaways came with the Gators driving in Miami territory. The fourth-down stop was at the UM 16. The Canes were dominated almost 2-to-1 in time of possession and gave up 413 yards, yet it was a tremendous, clutch defensive show.
Morris was average but for one gorgeous 52-yard scoring pass, and Duke Johnson was budgeted to 59 hard-won yards on 21 carries. But the Canes defense was there to pick them up.
“We couldn’t handle this setting a year ago,” Golden said. “This team had the guts to win.”
A year ago, Miami got clobbered by ranked opponents Kansas State and Notre Dame, remember.
“The stipulation that’s been around us is that we can’t play with the bigger programs,” admitted running back Dallas Crawford.
Games like Saturday’s put a paintbrush to graffiti like that. I suspect Morris had that opportunity as much as the rivalry in mind when he said, “We’d been thinking about this game for a long time.”
Handling the Gators also means the Canes might now claim bragging rights for eternity, or at least until this great rivalry resumes as it should.
Miami’s series lead is now 29-26. (I might also remind that UM enjoys a lead over the Gators in national championships. Not sure what new math they teach in college these days, but I’m pretty sure five is still greater than three.).
Not as quantifiable is whether Saturday’s win means Miami is fully “back,” that long, elusive road that would end with the Hurricanes being players again on the top echelon of college football. Five national championships were bunched between 1983 and 2001. Golden is running toward another one as hard as he sprinted toward his players as this game ended.
He isn’t overselling or dramatizing what Saturday meant.
“Big win? Yes,” he said. “But we have a long way to go. It’s been such a long road. We’ve been battling this thing.”
Beating the Gators matters. It matters as tangible proof of progress, and it matters as a reward for perseverance. For believing.
Those were the things carrying Al Golden on Saturday on the happiest spring of his life.