Brad Kaaya looked like the Brad Kaaya of old, his offensive line looked like a new line and the University of Miami offense returned to form on Homecoming Saturday, defeating Pittsburgh 51-28 at Hard Rock Stadium.
Kaaya passed for four touchdowns and ran for another as Miami snapped a four-game losing streak, putting the Canes (5-4, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) one victory from bowl eligibility. Miami’s last three regular-season games are at Virginia on Saturday, at North Carolina State on Nov. 19 and home against Duke on Nov. 26.
“Just very thankful and very proud of our players today and really all season long,’’ UM coach Mark Richt said. “They’ve shown a lot of fight and a lot of resiliency. It’s tough to lose four in a row and still keep your heart and soul and effort going.
“If you asked me every day, ‘Are these guys still fighting? Are they still working hard?’ I would say, ‘100 percent, yes.’ So many really good things happened. I don’t know where to start, other than the bottom line is we got a great victory in front of our home crowd.’’
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An announced crowd of 51,796 sat through much of the first half in torrential rain, thrilled to see UM’s offensive line protect Kaaya, even if it was against one of the worst pass defenses in the nation. After getting sacked 13 times the past two games and having zero passing yards in the first quarter last week at Notre Dame, Kaaya went down only once Saturday and completed his first 13 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
“The offensive line just showed up and played great football,’’ Kaaya said. “They opened up some good cut-back lanes for our running backs. They gave me some good time to get the ball out of my hands fairly fast. Coach [Richt] called a great game. In all phases, it just all came together on the right day.’’
Pittsburgh (5-4, 2-3) came into the game ranked 125th of 128 FBS teams in pass efficiency defense, and Kaaya and his receivers took full advantage. The Panthers, however, also began the day ninth in the country in team sacks, with end Ejuan Price tied for the national lead with nine. Price had none Saturday.
Kaaya completed 32 of 47 passes for 356 yards and the four touchdowns — two in the first quarter, one in the third and another in the fourth. His touchdown recipients: tight end David Njoku and wide receiver Stacy Coley, each scoring twice.
Kaaya added a 1-yard touchdown rush late in the second quarter.
“We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied,’’ said Njoku, who finished with 86 receiving yards and the two scores on six catches, including one for 12 yards that he grabbed before vaulting over a defender into the end zone on UM’s opening drive. “We still have a long way to go, and a few games left. We have to finish strong, and we’ll be OK.’’
Coley had 59 yards and his two touchdowns on a career-high nine catches. Along the way, he passed Michael Irvin, Santana Mass and Lamar Thomas for second all-time in UM career receptions, with 148.
“I’m just thankful for the talent that God blessed me with,’’ said Coley, whose previously injured left knee began hurting again after he fell early in the second quarter. “My team, I put them first. …so I got up, walked it off and got right back in.’’
But it was Ahmmon Richards who led all receivers Saturday with eight catches for 144 yards — breaking his own single-game UM freshman receiving record.
“Crazy,’’ is the adjective Kaaya used to describe Richards’ exploits.
UM tailback Mark Walton led all runners with 125 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
The Hurricanes gained 534 total yards and led 27-21 at halftime, trailing before that by one point briefly in the second half.
Twice after Miami touchdowns, the Panthers scored on the next play — a 100-yard kickoff return by Quadree Henderson in the first quarter and a 75-yard pass from Nathan Peterman to Jester Weah in the fourth quarter.
But the Canes’ defense had three huge plays that helped save the victory. Early in the third quarter, tackle Kendrick Norton forced a Henderson fumble, defensive end Chad Thomas recovered and UM scored three plays later.
Next was safety Rayshawn Jenkins’ interception in the end zone with the score 34-21 late in the third quarter.
And the final huge defensive stop was end Trent Harris’ sack of Peterman with about three minutes left in the third quarter. Pitt lost 12 yards on the play, and kicker Chris Blewitt’s 43-yard field-goal attempt bounced off the left upright and was no good.
“Winning is a great medicine and antidote for that losing streak,’’ Jenkins said.
Added Richt: “I told the guys to enjoy this thing and enjoy it in the right way, and let’s get back to work and try to do it again.’’