In my opinion

Linda Robertson: Meaningful ACC stretch begins for Miami Hurricanes

Miami's Stephen Morris sets up to pass early in the second quarter against South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013.
Miami's Stephen Morris sets up to pass early in the second quarter against South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013.
Al Diaz / Miami Herald Staff

T The University of Miami’s 49-21 knockout of tomato can South Florida might have looked like an unengrossing mismatch from the stands or the couch.

But at the bottom of the pile of entangled bodies there was abundant drama, according to UM quarterback Stephen Morris, who intimated that his tender ankle was yanked, twisted and otherwise mistreated by the Bulls.

“South Florida is a dirty team to say the least,” he said. “I wanted to score 70 points on them. They disrespected us. I had no respect for them at all.”

Morris, a gentlemanly sort, was so peeved Saturday that he wanted UM to pour touchdowns upon 0-4 USF after he was removed — grimacing — midway through the second quarter to prevent his ankle injury from getting worse.

“At that point I felt like we should just keep pushing it, keep killing them,” Morris said.

It sounds like UM is ready for the season to commence. Morris can’t wait to mix it up against a worthy challenger.

After winning three warmup games by an average of 42 points, the Hurricanes certainly appear dominant. They also beat No. 20 Florida 21-16.

But the meaningful part of the schedule begins unfolding Saturday when the Atlantic Coast Conference slate starts with Georgia Tech’s visit to Miami. Seven ACC games follow. UM’s premier goal is to get to the conference championship game it declined to compete in last year as part of its pre-emptive, self-imposed punishment for NCAA rules violations. A BCS bowl berth is goal 1b.

UM continued to work through its ACC prep checklist at sparsely populated Raymond James Stadium in what was once a promising Sunshine State rivalry. USF, ranked as high as No. 2 in 2007 and a threat to the state’s Big Three programs, is rebuilding after the firing of coach Jim Leavitt.

UM coach Al Golden said USF’s performance was reminiscent of some he saw from his Canes during his first two seasons.

He’s hoping that was part of the learning process that will pay off in year No. 3 of the Golden era.

“We’re ready for the ACC,” he said. “We need to get healed up. We’ve done what we needed to in the first third of the season. We got a lot of guys in, we grew up.”

It’s tough to say how revealing the past month has been for the 4-0 Hurricanes, but it hasn’t been totally painless. Morris sprained his right ankle in the 77-7 rout of Savannah State, and ACC opponents will be just as cognizant of any lingering soreness as the Bulls were.

Golden said he went to sleep Friday assuming that backup Ryan Williams would start, and although Morris was ready to go, Williams played most of the game and confirmed Golden’s confidence in him. He threw a beautifully timed 54-yard pass to Herb Waters and ran an efficient attack.

“Stephen gets dinged, Ryan comes in and we just move on,” Golden said. “Stephen did not go backwards. He will be markedly better this week.”

Likewise, Duke Johnson got banged up again after hurtling over center Jared Wheeler.

Johnson went to the sideline and underwent a concussion test for the second game in a row.

“It’s fine,” said Johnson, who tends to play with Dwyane Wade-like abandon — and vulnerability. “A lot of times it’s precautionary measures.”

UM occasionally played down to the level of its opponent, a weakness it must correct before venturing inside an ACC stadium where a regrettable upset can ruin a season.

UM fumbled four times — its worst case of butterfingers since 2005. Johnson lost the ball twice, and the one on which he tried to stretch his arms across the goal line while turned around on his back was really careless.

“I lost my concentration,” he said. “We’ve got to be more focused on details.”

Special teams penalties negated Johnson’s 100-yard kick return for a touchdown and Phillip Dorsett’s 61-yard punt return, a waste that Golden called “horrific.”

Golden, a stickler for disciplined decision-making, was critical of any “freelancing” that he witnessed.

But he saw plenty of positives. Shayon Green sacked the quarterback and forced a fumble that Jimmy Gaines recovered for a touchdown. Against Florida, Tyriq McCord made a sack and forced a fumble that resulted in the decisive touchdown two plays later by Johnson.

“Now guys are sacking and knocking the ball out and scooping it up,” Golden said.

That’s 16 sacks so far compared with 13 total last season.

Freshman Stacey Coley, who made two big drops in the opener, now has four touchdowns, including an acrobatic 11-yard catch Saturday.

Progress has been the name of the game. But you could sense from Morris that UM is ready for much more. The calendar flips to a new month and a new season.

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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