Mention the University of Virginia — Miami’s opponent Saturday in Charlottesville — and all sorts of memories flood the mind of Stephen Morris.
It was a bit more than two years ago that Morris’ career took off in a flash after former quarterback Jacory Harris was slammed in the sternum by a Cavaliers defensive tackle. Harris fell backward and smacked his head on the turf, sustaining a concussion.
After two interceptions on six passes by initial replacement Spencer Whipple, Morris’ redshirt season was unexpectedly burned, and a new Hurricanes quarterback was born.
“I’ve learned a lot of ball in between those past two years,’’ Morris said Tuesday, when asked how he has grown since that day. “The biggest thing for me is maturity. I understand the game a lot better. I’m a lot calmer.
Never miss a local story.
“The more experience you get, the better you become. I’m grateful to be in this position.’’
The Hurricanes (5-4, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), already in first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division, have an opportunity to tighten their grip with a victory over the Cavaliers (3-6, 1-4). A strong performance by Morris would do wonders for that cause.
With 2,384 yards in nine games, Morris is having a career-best season. But the past four games have not been nearly as productive as the first four.
Sandwiched in between: Morris’ 566-yard, five-touchdown performance against North Carolina State.
In his first four games, Morris completed 98 of 158 passes (62 percent) for 1,069 yards and four touchdowns, with three interceptions.
In his past four games, he completed 68 of 132 passes (51.5 percent) for 749 yards and three touchdowns, with three interceptions.
Not even taking into account Morris’ sprained left ankle against North Carolina on Oct 13, UM’s second half of the season has encompassed BCS No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 9 Florida State. BCS No. 2 Kansas State came in the first half.
“Those are great teams, and the bottom line is we just didn’t play good enough football to beat them,’’ Morris said. “I’m glad our team recognizes it, and we know what to do next time we’re in that position.’’
UM coach Al Golden said Tuesday that he believes Morris is developing each week. “He’s getting better,’’ Golden said. “We’ve faced some really good defenses and we’re going to face another good one coming up.’’
But Golden said he would like his quarterback to pull back his focus on monster plays for more modest ones that produce big results.
“He’s just got to get back to trusting those around him,’’ Golden said. “Stop looking for the big play. Just hit some singles.’’
Golden cited UM’s second touchdown to running back Mike James on Thursday in the victory against Virginia Tech.
“It’s a 1-yard completion that ends up being a 16-yard touchdown,’’ he said. “Distribute the football. It doesn’t always have to be down the field. We have enough talent out there to get explosive plays without throwing it 50 yards.’’
UVA’s pass defense is ranked 36th nationally, allowing 207.3 yards per game. UM is 34th in passing offense, averaging 277.4 yards.
“We have a lot of guys on this team who are athletic and explosive,’’ Morris said. “My biggest thing is to get them the ball. That’s been a focus the past couple weeks. I know my guys are going to make plays.’’
Does he ever have the urge to whip the ball downfield because his arm is so strong?
“It’s tempting once in a while,’’ he admitted. “When you see one-on-one matchups and see things on the field you like, you want to take advantage of it, but you’ve got to go with the flow of the game. Sometimes you just need a first down or some completions to get the team going and stay positive in yardage on first and second downs especially.’’
He said his sprained left ankle “is getting better every day. … Right now it’s feeling great.’’
Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch is confident his quarterback will keep improving.
“The best part of Stephen is he still has a lot of games left with us,’’ Fisch said. “He only started one game last year, and had no spring. His confidence is fine. We have to make some plays.’’