All eyes were on Brad Kaaya on Saturday against Virginia — whether it was before the game to determine whether he would play or during the game once that question was answered.
The sophomore starting quarterback went through the University of Miami’s concussion protocol for the second week in a row after getting knocked out of the first half of the Oct. 24 loss to Clemson, and was finally cleared to play Friday night after practicing all week before UM’s 27-21 homecoming win over Virginia.
Although doctors cleared him Friday, his status was in doubt to those on hand until he ran onto the field for pregame warmups. Once the game began and he shrugged off some early errors, he was back to his same sharp self.
Kaaya connected on 20 of his 26 passes for 286 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
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The top highlight of his performance came in the second quarter, when he hit Stacy Coley perfectly in stride on a slant route around midfield that went for a 67-yard touchdown. Coley did most of the work on the play, running for most of the yards after the catch.
Kaaya had another big pass to tight end David Njoku for a 58-yard gain early in the fourth quarter that led to a Mark Walton touchdown run.
He got Njoku his first career touchdown on a five-yard pass early in the second quarter to break a scoreless tie. It capped a 16-play, 95-yard drive that Kaaya orchestrated.
“I felt good, and the doctors said, ‘If you feel good, all is clear and you’re passing all your tests, then you’re good to go,’” Kaaya said. “So that was just a huge sigh of relief for me.”
It also marked relief for his teammates on offense. Although Malik Rosier filled in admirably at Duke the previous week, they had their leader back on the field with them in the huddle.
“He walks into the huddle and you go, ‘There’s our guy.’ It’s just like any other organization. When the leader walks into the room, it gets everybody’s attention,” interim coach Larry Scott said. “It relaxed everybody, just from the standpoint of, ‘We got our leader back.’ They knew he was going to be prepared and they were going to get his best today.”
Said Coley, who led the team with seven receptions for 132 yards: “Just having his presence out there on the field, being the leader that he is, it just felt great for him to be back and him to be healthy playing how he’s playing right now.”
Kaaya gave the team a boost on third down, which has plagued the UM offense many times this season. The Canes converted on 8 of 13 third downs Saturday.
Although Kaaya’s two touchdowns came in the first half, his efficiency increased in the second, completing 9 of 11 passes after halftime. He can thank a balanced attack for that as the Hurricanes made a conscientious effort to run the ball with 20 handoffs in the second half, compared to nine in the first.
“Sometimes you just have to put the saddle on your guys up front and your backs and say, ‘Hey guys, we have to chop wood here. We have to get four yards a carry,’” Scott said.
While Kaaya impressed overall, it wasn’t entirely the case at the start, and admittedly so.
“I played alright,” he said. “It wasn’t amazing. The defense definitely bailed us out of a lot of situations, and most of the points that they scored, honestly, it was our fault. It was my fault.”
Of Virginia’s eight first-half points, Kaaya played a role in all of them.
He was called for intentional grounding while getting hit in the end zone, throwing the ball over a safety in deep zone coverage without a receiver even on that half of the field. By rule, the play resulted in a safety for Virginia. The Cavaliers then converted a field goal on the ensuing possession attained via the safety.
Kaaya’s lone interception with 1:01 remaining in the first half set up another Virginia field goal right before halftime.
“It was a bit hard getting back to the rhythm of the game,” Kaaya said. “I settled down a little bit. I’m just glad I got this game over with and I can just progress.”