As heartbreakers go, count this one as a whopper for Miami.
Just one stop. That’s what the Hurricanes needed Saturday during Virginia’s game-winning drive, and they had ample opportunities to get it done — even with three starters missing on defense.
But with six seconds left, Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco threw a perfect 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jake McGee, who got one foot inside the back of the end zone to shock Miami with a 41-40 victory.
As the Cavaliers rushed Rocco and McGee amid the crowd eruption at Scott Stadium, the stunned Canes walked off the field still one victory shy of bowl eligibility.
Miami (5-5, 4-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), which plays nonconference opponent USF next week at home, must defeat Duke at Durham, N.C., in the season finale Nov. 24 to win the Coastal Division of the ACC.
Virginia (4-6, 2-4) can still qualify for a bowl with victories in its final two games.
“We were fighting our tails off,” said a clearly dejected and barely audible UM coach Al Golden. “We were short-handed, with Denzel [Perryman] and Deon [Bush] out for the game. They’re dynamic guys, and that hurt.
“But we had enough talent here to win the game, and we didn’t do it. There’s no excuse. We needed to make one more play than them, and we didn’t make it.”
The Cavaliers, down by 10 points with 11:38 left in the game, made it 38-35 on a 12-play touchdown drive that took 6:05 off the clock. UM then went three and out, and the Cavs took over on their 12. But Rocco, who threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns, was penalized for intentional grounding inside the end zone, resulting in a safety and two more points for Miami.
The Canes took over with 4:19 left, but after three consecutive running plays — including a 2-yard gain by Duke Johnson on third-and-6 — had to punt.
Johnson, a freshman, had another phenomenal day, with 368 all-purpose yards — the fourth-best ACC all-purpose performance in history. Among Johnson’s feats Saturday was a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a touchdown pass.
“I gave him the ball because I thought he was the guy that could make them miss and get us the first down,” Golden said.
Instead, Virginia took over for its final 16-play, 87-yard drive. UM had its chances. On fourth-and-7 from the Virginia 44, Rocco completed a 9-yard pass. Then, on the next fourth-and-7 from the Miami 31, cornerback Thomas Finnie was flagged for holding.
Linebacker Gionni Paul, who started in place of Perryman, was beaten on the final play.
Though Perryman and Bush didn’t travel to the game because of injuries, Miami’s second-leading tackler this season — linebacker Eddie Johnson — was another story. Johnson did not travel to the game because he “didn’t do what he needed to do to make the trip,” according to UM director of communications Chris Yandle.
Another blow to the Hurricanes: second-leading receiver Rashawn Scott was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. Scott did not make the trip.
“It’s something we need to take care of,” UM quarterback Stephen Morris said, when asked what he thought about players still getting suspended this late in the season.
“Especially in crucial games like this in the ACC. We have to take care of it and make sure it doesn’t leave the locker room.
“We need to do a better job as leaders on this team to execute our role before anything gets back to the coaches.”
Morris said the only thing going through his head during Virginia’s final drive was his fumble near the Cavaliers’ goal line at the start of the fourth quarter.
“It was just killing me,” said Morris, who finished 17 of 25 for 179 yards and three touchdowns. “We should have never had the defense in that situation.”
After a frenetic first half filled with prolific offense, the pace finally slowed a bit in the second half. In the first quarter, the teams combined for 35 points.
Virginia led 28-24 at halftime.
Golden said he refuses to let the victory bring his players down for long.
“We’re not going to go backwards,” he said. “We’re not going back to the days where everyone does their own thing and we turn into individuals. It’s a tough loss, but we have to bounce back.
“It’s the seniors’ last home game coming up, and we have to fight back.”