University of Miami true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya got an unkind introduction to college football Monday night.
The Louisville Cardinals got a thrilling introduction to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Hurricanes kept it close for three quarters, but the Cards were relentless and defeated Miami 31-13 in front of a Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium record crowd of 55,428.
It was UM’s first loss in a season opener since coach Al Golden lost at Maryland in his 2011 UM debut.
It also was Miami’s second loss to Louisville in as many games. The Hurricanes were routed by the Cardinals 36-9 in the 2013 Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 28.
Except for two interceptions — one on the final play of the game — Kaaya, for the most part, kept his poise, and had enough promising moments to give UM fans hope for the future.
“No. 1, he’s a tough kid,” Golden said. “He’s courageous. Tough environment for him to open up his career. I don’t think we did a good enough job protecting him.”
Kaaya completed 17 of 29 passes for 174 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
He was sacked twice.
After the first half he was 8 of 12 for 84 yards and the scoring strike.
After three quarters he was 10 of 18 for 94 yards, the touchdown and one pick.
“It felt good,” Kaaya said of his first college game. “ It’s what I’ve been dreaming about since I was 5 years old. It felt pretty awesome. Win or lose, it still felt good to get out there.”
Among the historic firsts for the teenager, who turns 19 on Wednesday:
“Again, it’s a tough position for him to be in,” Golden said of Kaaya, “but I think he’s going to make a lot of progress in the next four or five days. “He’s going to learn a lot from that.”
Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson, back from a broken ankle he sustained Nov. 2 at Florida State, gained 90 yards on 20 carries. But Cards’ tailback Dominique Brown led all runners with 143 yards and a touchdown on 33 touches.
“Before the game, we knew that was their whole game plan, trying to stop me with stacking nine, eight in the box,’’ Johnson said. “They did their job better than we did ours.”
Herb Waters led UM’s receivers with six catches for 61 yards.
Cards’ quarterback Will Gardner, a 6-5, 230-pound sophomore, finished 20 of 28 for 206 yards and two touchdowns. “They [came] out and fought tonight and played their butts off,’’ Gardner said of his teammates, “and that’s all you can ask for.
“We fought through it.’’
Down 14-10 at halftime because of a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Miami Northwestern High graduate Corvis Lamb, it was UM’s defense that allowed its offense to chip away at the Cardinals’ lead. After the Canes failed to convert and punted to end their opening drive, UL took over. On first down, Gardner fumbled when he was sacked by UM linebacker Thurston Armbrister. Raphael Kirby recovered, and the Canes took over.
Four plays later, Matt Goudis kicked his second 24-yard field goal to make it 14-13.
But the Cardinals marched right down the field two drives later and scored on a 15-yard run down the middle by Brown with 3:34 left in the third quarter. Safety Dallas Crawford had one futile shot to get him as Brown closed in on the end zone and put UL ahead 21-13.
Kaaya’s first career pick, on a crossing pattern, led to the 28-yard field goal by John Wallace that put the Cards up 24-13 with 13:11 left in the game.
Louisville scored its final touchdown with 1:43 left.
UM won the opening coin toss and deferred, but the Cardinals went three-and-out to give Kaaya and the Canes the ball.
Kaaya did hit that first completion, but it was for no yards and the Canes punted three plays later.
That’s when Louisville took over for its second series of the night, and made it count.
Gardner, who had some hefty pressure playing his first game in place of now-NFL quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, led the Cards down the field like a polished veteran. He completed all five of his passes on the drive for 50 yards — including a 2-yard touchdown — and in between Brown ran seven times for another 43.
Louisville led 7-0 with 6:39 left in the first quarter.
The Hurricanes made it 7-7 on their third drive.
On fourth-and-5 from the Cards’ 33, Golden called a timeout. The Canes came back and Kaaya hit freshman Braxton Berrios on a slant for a 5-yard gain, but it was called back because of defensive pass interference, which put UM on the 27, then 33 again after a Canes’ false start.
Two plays later, Kaaya hit his first deep pass of the night, a 31-yarder on play action to Walford. Kaaya followed with his 2-yard touchdown to tie the score.
“It felt good to get the first one out of the way,” Kaaya said. “Of course I wanted to score many more, throw many more touchdowns. That’s my plan.”
UM got its first lead of the Brad Kaaya era on a 24-yard field goal by Goudis to make it 10-7. The drive included a 24-yard run by Johnson and another long play-action completion by Kaaya, this one a 39-yarder to Phillip Dorsett.
On third-and-goal from the Louisville 5, sophomore tailback Gus Edwards, nicknamed “Gus the Bus,’’ was slammed for a loss of 2 yards in his only carry of the first half.
Goudis’s kick put the Canes ahead 10-7.
UM fans likely were still celebrating when Lamb took the ensuing kickoff at the right hash and sprinted the 97 yards for his touchdown. It was the first kickoff returned for a touchdown against UM since Oct. 24, 2009 against Clemson, and as quickly as the Canes were pumped, that’s how quickly they were deflated.
“That was a huge play for us,’’ Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “We were sitting right there and he was able to get it and take it to the house.”
The Canes meet Florida A&M at 7 p.m. Saturday in their home opener at Sun Life Stadium.
"We have a lot of things we need to fix starting with me and the coaches,'' Golden said. "We'll start on that here tonight on the way back and get with the guys on Wednesday.
"We don't have a lot of time to sit around. We have to get better."