October started sweetly for the No. 14 Miami Hurricanes — but by no means easily.
Miami is 4-0 for the first time since 2013, defeating Georgia Tech 35-21 Saturday in a rough, intense game at Bobby Dodd Stadium that served as its initial Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division victory of 2016.
Next Saturday: another expected bruiser, as nemesis Florida State (3-2, 0-2) heads to Hard Rock Stadium after losing at home to North Carolina 37-35 on a 54-yard field goal as time expired.
“I’m thankful for how our players played and how our coaches got them prepared,’’ said Mark Richt, 14-2 all-time as a head coach against the Yellow Jackets and 9-0 against them in Atlanta. “Everybody is pulling in the same direction right now. It’s a tough league. College football is tough to get it done every week.’’
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Richt also praised the large contingent of UM fans who often out-roared the home crowd of 53,047, some waiting for Richt to exit the stadium gates so they could fete him with chants of “Richt, Richt, Richt!”
“The energy of our fan base was outstanding.’’
UM never trailed against the Yellow Jackets, its young defense coming up huge several times, despite a pounding, punishing triple-option running attack by the Yellow Jackets — and the unbalanced time of possession because of it.
The Canes scored three touchdowns within 98 seconds in the second quarter. After Mark Walton sprinted 14 yards to give Miami a 14-7 lead, two freshmen scored defensive touchdowns within 46 seconds of one another.
First, linebacker Shaquille Quarterman had a 17-yard fumble recovery, thanks to junior end Trent Harris’ strip.
Then, end Joe Jackson scooped up a Justin Thomas fumble and ran 18 yards into the end zone to make it 28-7.
“That was huge for us,’’ said quarterback Brad Kaaya, who was hit multiple times but still completed 13 of 19 passes for 241 yards and a touchdown. “As an offense, it takes the pressure off your back knowing that, hey, their offense is going right back on the field, and they have to go 80 yards again, and their quarterback has to pitch the ball and get hit again probably five or six more times before they get down towards the end zone.
“For it to happen two times in a row, that’s just awesome.’’
Freshman weak-side linebacker Michael Pinckney was not to be outdone. Pinckney, who had graded his all-freshman defensive unit an “A+’’ coming into the Georgia Tech game, sacked Justin Thomas on third-and-7 at the UM 37-yard line and forced the Jackets to punt with 10:41 minutes to go until halftime. And with 2:21 left in the game, Pinckney made an interception to seal the victory.
UM’s defense gave up 267 yards rushing to the Jackets and 361 overall.
Georgia Tech had the ball for 22:43 and Miami 7:17 in the first half, with the Canes nonetheless up 28-14. By the end of the game it was 39:54 to 20:06.
The Yellow Jackets (3-2, 1-2) scored one touchdown early in the second quarter, another with time running out in the first half and made it 28-21 with 5:01 left in the third quarter.
That’s when Kaaya and his fast, efficient offense came roaring back with two consecutive 31-yard completions. The first was to freshman Ahmmon Richards, who broke a tackle and gained several more yards. The next was to senior Stacy Coley (team-leading four catches for 75 yards) for a touchdown that put the Canes ahead 35-21.
“I knew I had a slant route so the only thing I had to do was just beat the nickel [strong-side linebacker] across his face, and that’s what I did. Brad made a beautiful throw.’’
During UM’s first scoring drive, Coley made an acrobatic 25-yard catch just inside the right sideline, an even prettier reception as he appeared to snatch the ball right from the defensive back.
“It was right in front of me,’’ Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “Our guy missed that and how their guy caught it I have no idea.’’
Joe Yearby led UM in rushing for 65 yards and a 27-yard trip to the end zone five plays later.
The Hurricanes, including their coaches, are no doubt pumped to meet FSU next week. UM hasn’t won in the series since 2009.
“You go to Florida State to play in this game. You go to Miami to play in this game,’’ defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “We’re happy that we have it at our stadium.’’