Linda Robertson: Canes shine bright under college football spotlight

Duke Johnson and Michael Taylor knocked facemasks as they exchanged unpleasantries in the scrum after Johnson was dragged down by his ankle. It was early, but trash talk was gushing like a geyser.

When the University of Miami and University of Florida football teams meet, animosity oozes from the sweat glands of players and fans. Saturday’s game was the last installment of the rivalry until who knows when, so everyone made sure to get their licks in.

Miami partisans broke out the hillbilly jokes. Florida fans emphasized that only those who are insecure need to disguise it with swagger — and then brag about the swagger. Stuffed toy alligators were beheaded. Miami’s NCAA troubles were mocked.

“Hators,” read a UM fan’s T-shirt. “The U is EZ to spell,” read a UF fan’s T-shirt.

In spotlight

Miami hurled the final insult with its 21-16 victory. Florida had no retort for its five turnovers.

As they celebrated, UM players held up a discarded limp inflatable gator by the tail, symbol of their accomplishment. They had taken the air out of No. 12-ranked Florida with crushing defense and placed themselves back in the national picture.

UM, 6-6 and 7-5 in two previous seasons under coach Al Golden, needed this signature win over an intrastate rival and perennial SEC power. UM had beaten only two ranked opponents in the past three years, and both turned out to be pretenders rather than contenders. UM lost badly to Florida State, Kansas State and Notre Dame last year.

The landmark win against brand-name Florida will propel UM back into the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since 2010.

But, given that the pecking order will shift considerably over the next two months, what UM can really hold onto is belief in its progress. Golden, who looked like Jim Valvano when he sprinted ebulliently down the field, called it a “cathartic” victory after more than two years on the “hard road” of the NCAA investigation.

“We have such a long way to go,” he said. “Big win? Yes. Program yet? No. It was a big game but in terms of building our program we have to be humble and hungry and get back to work.”

Golden wasn’t overselling this one. His candidness is a rare trait in a coach.

His players might have folded under such pressure a year ago, but this time, as a record Sun Life Stadium home crowd of 76,869 roared, they proved they are older, wiser, tougher.

It was so invigorating to see the Dolphins’ stadium full (except for no-show pockets in the upper deck) for a UM game.

College football hysteria descended on Miami for a change. And Miami’s players fed off it rather than choking on it.

“We couldn’t handle this setting a year ago,” Golden said. “I’ve been saying it since the spring — I think they’ve grown up. We are different — physically different, not just mentally different. We’re more mature. But we’re not a finished product.”

UM’s defense, so unreliable the past two seasons, was a revelation against UF. With one pivotal play after another, UM’s defenders erased Gator threats. The defense actually saved the offense, which generated just 211 yards, its lowest total since 2009.

“When the offense struggled, we said, ‘Pick it up, we got y’all’s back no matter what,” cornerback Tracy Howard said.

Taking momentum

When UF quarterback Jeff Driskel, trailing by five points, had a beautiful chance to strike back with 6:57 left and his team on UM’s 17-yard line, Howard anticipated the route and grabbed the interception.

Gator fans dying to chomp stuffed hands into pockets once again.

Early in the second, with UF poised at UM’s 11-yard line, Rayshawn Jenkins made Driskel pay for a gamble with an interception. Seven minutes later, on fourth-and-one from the 16-yard line, a burrowing Driskel was stopped short by Denzel Perryman and Olsen Pierre.

UF maneuvered inside the red zone before halftime only to have Jimmy Gaines punch the ball from Trey Burton’s grip. Thurston Armbrister recovered the fumble, and another UF drive was extinguished. The play sent Hurricanes into the locker room bouncing on the balls of their feet while the frustrated Gators shuffled through the tunnel.

With time running out in the fourth quarter, Driskel couldn’t release the ball before being blindsided by Tyriq McCord. The fumble recovery on UF’s four-yard line led to Duke Johnson’s 2-yard touchdown scoot and a 20-9 lead.

Driskel said the three turnovers inside the 20-yard line “killed us.”

“When Denzel makes a play, I have to give back to him, and when Tracy got his pick, I said, ‘It’s my turn,’ ” McCord said. “I dream about a sack-caused-fumble and now I wake up and it’s reality.”

Saturday was one of those afternoons when all the teaching and learning switched light bulbs on in a burst of wattage. The defense, led by the omnipresent Perryman, held UF to 122 rushing yards. Without its grinding running game, UF’s offense is pot luck by chef Driskel.

It would be the height of college football fun to see a UM-UF rematch next year, but the series that dates back to 1938 ends with Miami holding a 29-26 edge. UF is preoccupied with its loaded SEC schedule and UM will have to search for other ways to sell out its rented home.

But for one more Saturday, at least, players and fans got to partake in the passion of a rivalry that deserves to be renewed.

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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