Down 7-0 and gasping for breath, the Miami Hurricanes’ offense went from sickly to sensational in about six minutes Wednesday.
Quarterback Brad Kaaya threw three touchdown passes to close out the first half, came back with another early in the third quarter, and after looking woefully out of sorts, led the Canes to a 31-14 Russell Athletic Bowl victory over No. 14 West Virginia at Camping World Stadium.
Led by Russell Most Valuable Player Kaaya and a fierce defense, Miami ended its season with five consecutive victories to finish 9-4 and bust a decade-long streak of bowl losses, winning its first bowl since 2006.
“It’s fun to win,’’ an ebullient UM coach Mark Richt said. “After all these years of coaching, that is by far the most fun for me, to be in that locker room after a game like that and celebrate. There’s nothing like it.”
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A few minutes later, Kaaya said he would wait and consult with several people before deciding whether to forgo his senior season and enter the 2017 NFL Draft.
“Not really leaning a certain way right now,’’ Kaaya said. “Like I said, I’ve got some soul-searching to do. Got to talk things over with Coach Richt, Coach Jon [Richt], some of my teammates, some of the guys who are coming back next season, and then talk to some of my former teammates as well, some of the guys who have left. Get some opinions, talk to a couple of mentors of mine, just gather all the information and then make a decision from there.’’
Added Kaaya: “Regardless if I’m here or not next season, I think this team is headed to greatness.’’
The Hurricanes, who conquered their highest-ranked opponent since beating No. 12 Florida in September 2013, had not won five straight games to close out a season since their 2001 national championship campaign.
The Mountaineers’ only previous losses this season were to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. They dropped to 10-3.
Much of the first half had to be ugly for the 48,625 fans at Camping World Stadium, and it was rough and physical from the start.
Kaaya, after the first quarter, had completed 4 of 8 passes for 14 yards.
At one point he was 5 of 13 for 29 yards.
After that: 9 of 9 for 157 yards and three touchdowns.
His final numbers: 24 of 34 for 282 yards and four touchdowns.
The Canes’ defense held the Mountaineers to 229 total yards, 95 of that on the ground.
Of Miami’s 363 yards, 81 came rushing.
UM’s comeback began when speedy freshman All-American Ahmmon Richards took a pass from Kaaya on the right side and outraced the defense clear across the field for a 51-yard touchdown that took all of 14 seconds and tied the score at 7-7 with 6:30 left in the second quarter.
“After that play, just everyone just got hyped,’’ Richards said.
Next, senior Malcolm Lewis culminated a six-play, 59-yard drive with a 3-yard catch in the back of the end zone to make it 14-7 with 2:11 left in the second quarter.
Then, junior Braxton Berrios leaped for a 26-yard touchdown pass to culminate a five-play, 70-yard drive that took 52 seconds and gave UM a 21-7 lead with 27 seconds left in the half.
Miami gained just 31 yards on its first six drives, each ending with a punt.
Conversely, the Canes’ defense limited WVU to -4 yards over its final six drives of the first half.
UM, which won the opening toss, came out in the second half, and within four minutes, had a 28-7 lead when gifted tight end David Njoku caught a 23-yard pass from Kaaya. West Virginia safety Jarrod Harper had Njoku’s ankles in his grasp, but the former high school national high-jump champion leaped away and sprinted into the end zone.
Njoku, a redshirt sophomore, told reporters after the game that -- as expected -- he will enter the NFL Draft in April.
West Virginia later scored on a four-yard run by quarterback Skyler Howard, but Michael Badgley came back and kicked a 30-yard field goal to put UM up 31-14.
The Hurricanes, on defense first, looked dominant at the start.
On third-and-five from the WVU 30, UM defensive end Chad Thomas pounded Howard and forced him to fumble. Defensive tackle Kendrick Norton recovered, and the Canes took over at the Mountaineers’ 41-yard-line.
But UM’s offense went backwards twice, was flagged for a false start, had an incomplete pass and punted.
The Mountaineers took over and drove to the UM 46 until a couple of brick walls hit them. On first-and-10 from the 46, freshman All-American linebacker Shaquille Quarterman sacked Howard for a loss of nine yards. Defensive tackle Courtel Jenkins then pummeled Howard on the next play for a loss of 13.
Jenkins was wired, thrusting his arm in the air while running jubilantly.
Two plays later, the Mountaineers punted.
This time, UM gained a mere three yards, which included a false start, punting from its 11.
Enter UM freshman special teams standout Travis Homer, who slammed into punt returner Gary Jennings and was penalized for interference on what officials ruled a fair catch signal.
The 15-yard penalty gave the Mountaineers a first down at the UM 39. Three subsequent rushes, including a 24-yarder by Howard and the 6-yard trip into the end zone by Kennedy McKoy, gave the Mountaineers a 7-0 lead with 5:40 left in the first quarter.
Richt, in his first season at UM, was jubilant in the on-field ceremony, as were his players.
“You know, I’ve heard the term ‘meaningless bowl games.’ It just makes me mad when I hear that because I know how much it meant to us,’’ Richt said. “And if you were ever in that locker room, you would have seen it. If you were in that practice every day, you would have seen it. I’m just really proud of our guys for busting their tails for us and trusting us.’’