Notes, thoughts and reaction from UM’s 38-10 win against FAU that pushed the Hurricanes to 2-0:
• No UM team has ever scored more points in its first two games than this one (70 against Florida A&M, 38 tonight). But what’s actually most pleasing so far is UM’s defense, which is playing the attacking style that coordinator Manny Diaz preaches, and doing it effectively, albeit against opponents with considerably less talent. (More on that in a minute.)
• Mark Walton seized the starting running back job in the spring, impressing the new staff after averaging just 3.5 yards per carry as a freshman.
And Walton has fully validated that faith; he delivered a gem Saturday, with four rushing touchdowns on a night UM’s passing game was somewhat out of sync.
In the process, he established a career high for rushing yards for the second week in a row.
Walton scored on runs of 7, 3, 16 and 30 and became the first Hurricanes player to score four touchdowns in a game since Mike James in 2012 and the first with four rushing TDs in a game since Tyrone Moss in 2005.
Walton’s final numbers: 17 carries for 156 yards. And that followed a 15-carry, career-high 117-yard game last week against Florida A&M.
“I wanted to be the guy that sparked the team tonight,” he said.
Joe Yearby had a 2-yard touchdown run late and closed with 123 yards on 20 carries.
“They’re both tough, physical runners,” Mark Richt said.
So both Yearby and Walton have gone over 100 two straight weeks. But Gus Edwards, who topped 100 yards rushing last week, didn’t get a carry. Neither did Travis Homer.
• It ultimately didn’t matter, but watching Brad Kaaya struggle in the first half against a middling opponent was rather jarring. He opened 1 for 7 and midway through the second quarter, he was 6 for 17 for 105 yards and two picks. He finished 17 for 31 for 191 yards, no touchdowns and the two interceptions.
“They came out with some looks I hadn’t seen on film,” he said.
In his defense, he completed 14 of his last 19 throws, many of them short passes. And he didn’t get a ton of help from his friends, with David Njoku dropping a pass on a third down and Njoku failing to make a lunging catch in the end zone (which would have been a spectacular grab if he had been able to come down with it).
Kaaya had a terrific 46-yard completion early to Njoku and a bunch of shorter completions that UM backs and receivers turned into longer ones, but this wasn’t a good start. He missed an open Stacy Coley in the end zone early in the third quarter. On his first interception, linebacker Nate Ozdemir anticipated a throw to Coley. He was hit when throwing his second interception.
“Brad missed a couple opportunities,” Richt said. “Throwing and catching tonight was what really stagnated us…. Offensively, not pretty. We were off with our timing.”
UM got no points on its first five possessions and didn’t score until 7:53 remained in the second quarter, a drive that required UM to go only 39 yards.
• With the passing game wheezing, Richt smartly shifted to a run-heavy approach, with some shorter passes mixed in. “Simple zone plays, little bubble screens to wide receivers,” Richt said. “We simplified everything.”
And it worked, with Walton and Yearby combining to do most of the damage on a 75-yard drive that ended with a Walton 3-yd TD and a 14-3 lead that carried into halftime.
• When he got the job, Richt made clear that UM’s penchant for penalties wouldn’t be tolerated. Players who committed them in practice were forced to push sleds, do up-downs or some activity that’s unpleasant under any circumstances, let alone in 92 degree heat.
But apparently, this isn’t going to be an easy problem to eradicate, and merely changing coaching staffs won’t be enough.
UM committed six penalties for 65 yards in the first half and most were costly, foolish, or both. And for the night, UM finished with 90 penalty yards on nine infractions.
There was a roughing the punter penalty on Travis Homer, a Jamal Carter unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for barking and putting his hand in the face of an FAU player, a Stacy Coley unsportsmanlike conduct, a Chad Thomas offsides (by a lot), chop blocks by KC McDermott and Trevor Darling, a Malcolm Lewis holding call negating a big gain and a false start by Sunny Odogwu.
“Very disappointing,” Richt said of the penalties. “Some no excuse for. I don’t want this to be a recurring theme. I’m not doing a good enough job of sending the message, I guess.”
• UM’s special teams, nothing special in recent years, had several first-half breakdowns, with several missed tackles, a block on a 24-yard field goal attempt by Michael Badgley and the roughing the passer penalty. The second half was substantially better, with Sheldrick Redwine downing a punt on the FAU one.
• UM’s defense, for most of the night, played brilliantly. One exception: An 81-yard drive in the third quarter, in which Gregory Howell plowed corner Michael Jackson and eluded others on a 38-yard TD run.
“We played as if we were always under control,” Diaz said. “First two games, our run defense has been outstanding.”
Superlatives: UM finished with seven sacks. Mike Pinckney had seven tackles and a sack in the first 20 minutes and finished with nine and 1.5 sacks.
Diaz said Pinckney, Shaq Quarterman and Zach McCloud “continue to impress. You see Pinckney’s play making ability.”
Richard McIntosh, benefitting from the move from end to tackle, was a force, with a blocked punt, 1.5 sacks and a batted pass.
Redwine had an electrifying hit that jarred a ball loose, then made a splendid play in coverage on a third down pass. Redwine was beaten for a 15-yard completion early in the game but generally acquitted himself well in the absence of Adrian Colbert, who could miss a couple games after knee surgery.
“Great to see him step up,” Diaz said. “Loved his competitiveness and urgency. We never looked at Redwine as not a starter. We felt like we had three starting cornerbacks” with Corn Elder, Redwine and Colbert.
Michael Jackson did a terrific job in coverage, allowing Rayshawn Jenkins to make an interception in the third quarter. FAU had only one yard rushing on 17 carries in the first half.
Freshman defensive end Joe Jackson had two sacks.
The tackling is much improved. “Our guys have bought into a system of tacking,” Diaz said. “They’ve done a nice job of tackling guys in space.”
The Owls were 0 for 11 on third downs in the first half and 4 for 19 for the game.
• Richt called it a “good solid victory. I’m thankful we played well and came out with [no] injuries that will cost us playing time. Our defense was spectacular.”
• Safety Jaquan Johnson opened as UM’s SAM linebacker position in the nickel, and Diaz said he split snaps about evenly with McCloud.
• Ahmmon Richards started opposite Coley at receiver for the second week in a row and had three catches for 30 yards.
• Linebacker Darrion Owens played in a game for the first time since suffering a serious knee injury last year against FAU. Diaz called that the “greatest thing of this game.”
• Gerald Willis, playing his first game for UM after last week’s suspension, had a sack.
• Dayall Harris had his first catch as a Hurricane and it was his only one of the night, for six yards… This game completed a three-game series between the schools… UM plays next Saturday at noon at Appalachian State on one of the ESPN networks.