The No. 2 Miami Hurricanes are kings at keeping their fans in a panicked state — then filling them with joy.
Down twice by 14, Miami scored 30 unanswered second-half points Saturday to defeat Virginia 44-28 and stay in contention for its sixth national title in front of a boisterous, near-sellout crowd of 63,415 at Hard Rock Stadium.
UM, now 10-0 and 7-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, has earned its first 10-win season since 2003.
“We had some special teams issues, we had some defensive issues, we had some offensive issues,’’ UM coach Mark Richt said. “But the thing we didn’t have was a heart issue. Everybody played with all their heart.
Never miss a local story.
“And we didn’t have an issue with belief and team unity when things weren’t going too great. That’s probably the thing I appreciate most about this team.’’
The Canes go to Pittsburgh for their final regular-season game at noon Friday before meeting Clemson in the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 2 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Should UM, No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, win at Pittsburgh, the ACC title game would in effect be a defacto play-in for a spot in the four-team playoff to decide the national champion.
“The way this city has reacted to how we are playing is unbelievable,’’ said left tackle Kc McDermott, one of 14 upperclassmen honored on Senior Day. “We have a really good thing going on right here...We gave the city a reason to believe in something.’’
With the victory in UM’s final regular-season home game of 2017, Miami extended its nation-leading win streak to 15 games.
Virginia fell to 6-5, 3-4.
The Hurricanes are still one of three Power 5 teams undefeated. The others: College Football Playoff No. 1 Alabama and CFP No. 5 Wisconsin. Also undefeated is American Athletic Conference member UCF.
Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert, who finished 28 of 37 for 384 yards and four touchdowns, had, for the most part, a spectacular performance. But he also threw a pass that was intercepted by UM safety Jaquan Johnson and returned for a touchdown with 9:57 left in the third quarter to tie the score at 28 and help spur the avalanche of points.
Johnson’s pick-six was one of three Canes takeaways Saturday during UM’s worst pass-defense showing of the season. Nonetheless, the defense was stifling again when it counted, with 11 tackles for loss and five sacks, including a fourth-and-3 sack by Trent Harris at the UM 40 with 6:45 left in the game and UM up 31-28.
The other takeaways: a fumble recovery by Travis Homer on a Virginia punt and a fumble recovery by cornerback Michael Jackson.
UM’s comeback began seven seconds before Johnson’s interception with a 9-yard touchdown from Malik Rosier to Lawrence Cager to make it 28-21.
Rosier, who finished 15 of 28 for 210 yards and three touchdowns, threw two interceptions and had an uneven, at times trying, day. He also had some pretty completions and one huge touchdown run.
“They are a very exotic defense,’’ said Rosier, who said he told his teammates when they were down, “Don’t panic. We’ll be fine. Let’s methodically drive down the field to give us a shot and let’s take it. Let’s come back and win this game.’’
After Johnson’s pick-six, senior Michael Badgley kicked a 44-yard field goal to give the Canes their first lead of 31-28 with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.
Rosier’s tough, weaving 8-yard touchdown run up the middle — three plays after Homer’s 36-yard rush — gave UM some breathing room with 4:03 left. Badgley missed his first extra point of the season and UM led 37-28.
On a day that UM had trouble finding even a sliver of running room, Homer, who had 5 rushing yards at halftime, finished the scoring with a 19-yard run to make it 44-28 with 1:16 left.
By game’s end, Homer had 96 of UM’s 148 rushing yards. He also became the first offensive player to earn the coveted turnover chain. One play later, UM scored on a 36-yard pass to Dayall Harris to tie it at 14-14 with 9:14 left in the first half.
The Hurricanes’ scoring defense came into Saturday ranked 10th nationally, allowing only 16.6 points a game. By halftime the Cavaliers, up 21-14, had exceeded that point total.
UM’s pass defense had been allowing 192 aerial yards a game, but Benkert had surpassed that number with about nine minutes left in the first half. The Cavs’ 75-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to Joe Reed was the longest play of the season against Miami.
“Miscommunication on the back end,’’ Johnson said. “We don’t give up big touchdowns like that. That was uncharacteristic of us.’’