Sometimes the best opportunities are the first ones that come your way.
Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier, looking to make up for his dreadful performance in a deflating loss at Pittsburgh last week, had that scenario play out Saturday night in the ACC Championship game.
With the Canes trailing 7-0 and looking to quickly answer Clemson’s opening score, coach Mark Richt dialed up a pass play that included a deep route to Jeff Thomas, who found himself at least 10 yards behind the Tigers’ nearest defender by the time Rosier fired the ball his way.
But that’s the funny thing about opportunities — they can close quickly. By time Rosier’s pass got there, Clemson safety K’Von Wallace had made up the ground needed to make a play, knocking the pass out of Thomas’ hands and ultimately negating Miami’s best opportunity to score points.
Everything else that happened after that in Clemson’s 38-3 thrashing of the Hurricanes at Bank of America Stadium didn’t really much matter — because the Tigers were well on their way to an easy victory.
“Well, we had a little double move, similar to the one we scored a touchdown in the last game against Pitt,” Richt explained of the play call. “It’s a different formation, but pretty much the same play. Different guy running it.
“[Thomas] broke free. We sprint out to the right, then we’re going to hit the brakes. The quarterback is going to take about seven to nine steps, then launch it. He felt like he was getting somebody in his face as he was trying to cut the ball loose and lay it out there. Just couldn’t quite throw it as far as we would have liked him to. But from what we heard upstairs, there was a little leakage in the protection. It wasn’t as clean as it could have been or should have been. We weren't able to get connected.”
Rosier, who said he put too much air under the pass and not enough on it to get it to Thomas, finished 14 of 29 passing for 110 yards and two interceptions and with 19 yards rushing on 10 carries. Both of his interceptions Saturday came off deflections – one off a Clemson defensive lineman who got his hand in the air and another off the hands of an open Darrell Langham.
Another time, Rosier found Thomas wide open for an 18-yard gain on a well thrown ball. Then, Thomas had it ripped out of hands and Clemson recovered the fumble at the UM 47.
Critical Canes fans, already upset with how Rosier played at Pittsburgh, would be accurate in putting some of the blame on its quarterback and his offensive line for how this season has gone from a goose-bumpy 10-0 to such a deflating feeling over the last two weeks.
But it’s hard to place blame all on Rosier’s shoulders — especially with Miami’s three best weapons in Mark Walton, Ahmmon Richards and Chris Herndon all out for the season and not playing in Saturday’s showdown against the No. 1 team in the country.
“For the most part, we thought he was making good decisions in trying to go to the right guy,” Richt said of Rosier’s performance Saturday. “I think, you know, a few balls got batted. Some protection broke down from time to time. He missed a shot or two.
“I mean, I think it was a solid performance. We’ll have to watch tape to really see exactly how it all went down. But, you know, we didn't think he was just playing poorly, just the entire offensive unit didn’t get enough going on.”
Clemson’s defense limited the Hurricanes 214 yards total offense and 10 first downs. The Tigers, ranked sixth nationally in total defense, held Auburn to 117 total yards earlier this season and South Carolina to 207 yards a week ago. So what they did to an ailing, shorthanded Hurricanes team playing for the 11th week in a row was hardly surprise.
“No matter how you try to confuse those guys, they try to play straight up football and they think their athletes are better than yours,” Rosier said of Clemson. “They have a great front four so if they can get their guys to cover two or three seconds, the quarterback is going to get drilled and that’s what happened. They did a great job. They didn’t really surprise me. They just let their athletes go play.”
Rosier at least was willing to take some of the blame for the Canes’ struggles.
“At the end of the day it’s the quarterbacks job to win. There’s a lot that I have to fix personally,” he said. “But man at the same time there was a couple shots we had and unfortunately we had the one play with Jeff where he caught it and he fumbled. The big thing is that guy is a freshman. Freshmen, you’re playing against the No. 1 team in the nation, that’s hard. The big thing is to teach the young kids to grow and get better because we have another big game in the Orange Bowl against Wisconsin or Auburn. We have another big team coming up. So the big thing is to grow from this.”
When you face the facts, Rosier wasn’t even the guy Richt was convinced would win the starting job going into training camp.
In the end, he led Miami further than Jacory Harris, Stephen Morris or Brad Kaaya ever did. He guided the Canes into the ACC title game and made a lot of big throws in narrow wins over Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Florida State to get them there.
The thing is for Rosier — a 6-1, 216-pound redshirt junior — is that he’s going to have to convince Richt again he’s really the guy next season. N’Kosi Perry, a four-star recruit out of Ocala Vanguard, wasn’t ready to really give Rosier a fight for the job this season as a freshman. Neither was freshman Cade Weldon. They’ve now spent an entire season being redshirted and groomed.
Richt, who has coached plenty of good quarterbacks in his day, will almost assuredly give them stronger consideration to take Rosier’s job next season — plus whoever else ends up walking through the door in Coral Gables.
“Malik’s done a great job this season,” left tackle Kc McDermott said. “Honestly I feel like the last two games it’s been our fault up front. We haven’t given him the time or the space to do what he needs to do. We need to do a better job communicating up front, making sure we’re on the same page. Just because he’s struggled these last two games doesn’t mean he’s a bad quarterback. He’s a really good quarterback. I couldn’t be prouder to have somebody like him as my quarterback my last year here.”