The last time the Miami Hurricanes returned to Sun Life Stadium after their loss at Nebraska they insisted their season would start anew with divisional play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
On Saturday, their mindset will be simpler: Just win.
The Hurricanes (3-3, 1-2 ACC) will host the Cincinnati Bearcats (2-2, 0-1 American Athletic Conference) at noon in both teams’ last nonconference game of the season. And for Miami, even a victory doesn’t guarantee relief from the wrath of fans disgusted with coach Al Golden for not demanding a change in the way the Hurricanes play defense.
For Golden and defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, the past week has been fraught with fans and former UM stars bombarding social media and the airwaves with frustration over the Hurricanes not playing more aggressively, especially against the run.
In last week’s loss at Georgia Tech, the Canes allowed 318 yards rushing. In its previous loss at Nebraska it allowed 343 rushing yards.
Here come the Bearcats, who rank 110th in rushing offense (103.5 yards per game) but 14th in passing offense (328.5 yards). Usual starting quarterback Gunner Kiel, a sophomore who has passed for 1,257 yards and 15 touchdowns with only three interceptions, bruised his ribs in the Bearcats’ 41-14 loss last Saturday against Memphis.
Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said Tuesday he didn’t expect Kiel to play. “I’m not going to put him out there if he’s not close to 100 percent.”
But Kiel, ranked 13th in passing yards per game and per completion, practiced Wednesday and Thursday and was upgraded to “questionable” for the Miami game. Later Thursday night on his weekly call-in radio show, Tuberville said Kiel’s status would be a “gametime decision.”
Kiel’s backup is Munchie Legaux, a fifth-year senior who has played in 33 games and thrown for 2,904 yards and 20 touchdowns, adding 652 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. But he sustained a gruesome knee injury early last season and is not nearly as mobile.
The No. 3 quarterback is junior-college transfer Jarred Evans, who has thrown one incomplete pass this season and has run five times for 22 yards.
Golden wasn’t taking any chances.
“We better be ready for all three of those quarterbacks,” he said.
Defensively, the Bearcats are in worse shape than Miami – far worse. Miami, ironically, is 16th in the nation in total defense, allowing an average of 311.7 yards per game. Cincinnati is 124th of 125 FBS teams ranked, allowing 561.1.
That, in turn, puts the onus on Miami’s offense to rack up some points this week. A good start would be to convert third downs, as the Hurricanes are last in the nation in third-down conversions, having converted 23.8 percent of its 63 opportunities.
Quarterback Brad Kaaya says it’s a matter of “getting into more manageable third downs. I mean, third down can be third-and-1, or it can be third-and-15 or third-and-20. So I’d say it’s just getting better on first and second downs.”
Said senior receiver Phillip Dorsett: “You’ve got to execute. You’ve got to catch the ball. You’ve got to do everything right. Third down is real critical.”
Cincinnati is coached by a man who knows Miami well. Tuberville was a defensive assistant at UM in the glory days from 1986 through ’93, directing a Hurricanes’ defense ranked third nationally in scoring defense his final season there.
“It was hard for Miami to keep that going,” Tuberville told the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier in the week. “Coach [Al] Golden inherited a program that had gone down some, but he’s built it back up some with guys from South Florida, which is what it was built on in the ’80s.
“I can see them coming back. I know they’ve lost a few games, but their talent is getting better and better. They will be a team to reckon with nationally for years to come.”
The Hurricanes, favored by 14½ points, insist their morale has not been shattered. They just hope the improvement begins Saturday.
“I’m a human being. I can see where the frustration would come from,” freshman receiver Braxton Berrios said. “We’re 3-3 and we’re a lot better of a team than that.
“There are no heads down in the locker room. There’s no pity. There’s no feeling sorry for us. We’re a team. We’re bonded. Let’s go get it.”
▪ The UM Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, in conjunction with Camillus House, will be collecting gently worn sneakers at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday as part of the Renewed Soles Shoe Drive for the homeless. Volunteers to collect the shoes will be stationed outside all seven gates of the stadium.
Saturday: Cincinnati at Miami
Kickoff: Noon, Sun Life Stadium.
TV/radio: FSNF; WQAM 560; WSUA 1260 (Spanish); WVUM 90.5 FM.