Russell Maryland wasn’t always an NFL star.
Maryland, a former defensive tackle, the first overall pick in the 1991 NFL Draft and a three-time Super Bowl champion, visited his alma mater on Friday night to talk to the current batch of Miami Hurricanes players.
The message was simple: The Hurricanes who entered Saturday’s Pittsburgh game on a four-game losing streak … they didn’t have to be those guys forever.
They could change their fortune, and that’s what happened in a 51-28 win over the Panthers at Hard Rock Stadium.
“[Maryland] told us that when he came to ‘The U,’ he was bigger than the O-linemen, but he was always getting beat, and he was losing reps,” UM defensive end Chad Thomas. “He found out that it was all in his mind. He had a small mind. Our coaches told us we had to grow our minds, block out the outsiders and believe.”
The Canes’ minds expanded on Saturday … but only after a difficult second quarter that featured a roughing-the-passer penalty on backup linebacker Charles Perry and an unnecessary-roughness penalty on backup defensive tackle Courtel Jenkins.
Both of those penalties led to Pitt touchdowns.
Miami’s fortunes — much like those of Maryland — changed in the third quarter.
With Miami leading 27-21, Pitt’s Quadree Henderson, who had taken a kickoff for a touchdown in the first quarter, ran around left end before getting surrounded behind the line of scrimmage. Just then, Miami defensive tackle Kendrick Norton arrived with force.
“Norton jumped over the pile — he does that a lot — and he slapped the ball out,” Thomas said.
Thomas recovered the fumble and ran 9 yards to the Pitt 8, leading to a crucial Canes touchdown.
Canes coach Mark Richt said the defense works on “ball disruption” every day.
“We knew it was going to rain off and on,” Richt said. “It’s always hard to hold on to a wet ball. I told the team at halftime that somewhere along the line the ball was going to be on the ground.
“And the harder you hit, the better chance you have to get the ball out.”
The second and final turnover Miami forced against Pitt was more brains than brawn.
With Miami leading 34-21 in the third, Pitt had a second-and-goal at the Canes’ 4. Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman was flushed out of the pocket to his right by freshman linebacker Zach McCloud.
When Peterman scrambled, Miami safety Rayshawn Jenkins was ready … or at least ready enough.
“I played for the run first because they have one of the best backs in college [James Conner],” said Jenkins, who was in man coverage. “But [Conner] didn’t get it, and my [receiver] got past me a little bit. I ran straight to the corner route, and the ball was there as soon as I turned around.”
It was his second interception of the season and the ninth of his career. Jenkins, a redshirt senior, is one pick away from tying for 10th place in Canes history.
“I’m not sure who is up there [on the UM career interception list],” Jenkins said. “But I have a pretty good idea — Ed Reed, Sean Taylor … It would be nice to have my name next to those guys.”
Miami’s defense did make a major mistake in the fourth quarter as Pitt wide receiver Jester Weah scored on a 75-yard touchdown pass — an obvious coverage bust because no one was near him.
On the positive side, the Canes made some big stops when the game was still close in the earlier stages of the second half.
With Miami leading 34-21 later in the third, Canes defensive end Trent Harris sacked Peterman on third-and-9 from the UM 13. That led to a field-goal attempt, which was missed.
McCloud, whose pressure led to Peterman’s interception, stopped Conner in the backfield on a third-and-2 run with 8:15 left in the game. And on Pitt’s next drive, McCloud tipped a third-down pass that led to another Pitt punt.
Those big plays — coupled with a suddenly explosive offense — were enough to get the Canes to 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“It’s always great to win,” Jenkins said. “We have to finish the season strong, especially for the seniors. We’ve been through so much.”