For the past three weeks, all they kept hearing about was how much they stunk, how their coordinator Mark D’Onofrio didn’t know what he was doing and whatever they accomplished over their first seven games gave the false impression they had really improved.
On Saturday, the Hurricanes defense finally got to feel good about itself again. Although it allowed 483 yards to a bad Virginia team in a 45-26 win, Miami’s defense produced four turnovers, two that were returned for touchdowns and another two that were returned deep into the red zone that led to another 14 points.
“Early in the year, we were counterpunching really well if the offense made a mistake or special teams made a mistake,” UM coach Al Golden said. “During this stretch, we haven’t been counterpunching as well as we have needed to. I thought the defense counterpunched so much better [Saturday]. We made a mistake, and they went out there and they had a different look than they’ve had. They didn’t get disappointed, they weren’t, ‘Here we go again.’ It wasn’t that mentality.”
Sophomore cornerback Tracy Howard got it all started on the game’s first play from scrimmage. He stepped in front of a pass that was supposed to be a bubble screen and returned it 19 yards for his first college touchdown. The pick ended a run of 10 consecutive quarters without a turnover for Miami’s defense.
“Coach D really put us in a perfect call to be honest,” said Howard, who said he made the same play in practice earlier this week. “I just decided to make a play. I knew it was coming. I watched film on it.
“The difference was really the call. It was like Cover 2, but a different type of call where I got a lot of freedom, and I could go ahead and jump it instead of setting the edge and just being firm on the perimeter. I really had a chance to make a play on it. Coach D told me to make a play on it.”
As good a start as that was, Virginia still rolled up 203 yards on the ground against Miami in the first half and appeared headed to take the lead when Ladarius Gunter changed UM’s fortunes.
With UM clinging to a 14-13 lead, he caught a pass that was deflected and returned it 81 yards to setup a Dallas Crawford 1-yard touchdown run moments later.
Virginia (2-9, 0-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) punted on its first three possessions of the second half and produced only 42 yards and three first downs as the Hurricanes (8-3, 4-3) took control 31-13.
Although the Cavaliers drove 75 yards and scored early in the fourth to make it 31-20, UM’s defense survived a Crawford fumble that was recovered at the Canes’ 40 and forced a punt.
Moments later, Kacy Rodgers intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 14 yards to set up another Crawford touchdown. David Gilbert then returned a fumble 72 yards for a touchdown on a sack and strip by sophomore Tyriq McCord.
“We told ourselves we’re going to do our job, basically,” Rodgers said. “We’re going to buckle down, do what we got to do and send everybody out on the right way.”
In its first seven wins, UM produced 19 turnovers. On Saturday, the Canes doubled their total from their three previous losses combined (two interceptions against Florida State).
Golden said afterward he hoped his defense had heard the criticism from the past three weeks and said why UM played better was because it tackled better, ran to the ball better and had more energy in pass rush.
He still lamented the fact the team was on the field for a season-high 91 plays.
“Nobody can be out there that long, we’re just not that deep,” Golden said.
Either way, Howard said: “It was just very satisfying for us to come out here and play to our potential. We definitely got a monkey of our back with losing three in a row.”