Early drops set tone for Miami Hurricanes’ disappointing loss

The opponent was legendary. The temperature fell into the wind-blown 30s. A howling, hostile crowd filled a sacred old stadium. The challenge was all ways enormous here for the University of Miami football team Saturday night.

And yet none of that intangible stuff beat UM. Neither the atmosphere nor the elements conquered the Hurricanes.

If only such easy excuses were available.

The Hurricanes beat themselves, first, and then the Notre Dame Fighting Irish took over and did the rest. The combination — Miami mistakes and the opponent’s might — fashioned a 41-3 rout by Notre Dame that instructed the young Canes on exactly how far they remain from the return to elite status this program seeks so hungrily.

If this was a measuring stick, it just slapped UM upside the head.

What has to hurt a Canes fan as much as the defeat itself is that on a night when the opportunity was as big as the stage, this was a game completely and thoroughly lost as a once-great old rivalry renewed itself on national TV from Soldier Field.

The Miami offense that has mostly looked so dominant this season was humbled and buried by Notre Dame’s vaunted defense.

And the Canes defense, a problem all season — at times embarrassingly bad — was run over, through and around by an Irish offense that (you wouldn’t know it) had been struggling. Notre Dame rushed for 379 yards against a school once renowned for run defense. Warren Sapp and Cortez Kennedy had to be shaking their heads. The tears in heaven were Jerome Brown’s.

Former UM stars Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis were on the sideline before the game exhorting the current troops. Better they should have been out there trying to help tackle Notre Dame’s running backs. The chilly weather didn’t stop UM coach Al Golden from eschewing a jacket and going with his trademark white shirt and tie. He wanted to set an example. Asked if he worried his players would be huddle around sideline heaters, he said, “I hope we’re just tough enough to go out and play.”

They were tough.

Just not good enough.

Golden, student of college football history, had called this a “special day.” The kind that “creates memories.”

If only many of those that shaped Miami’s loss weren’t the kind the Canes would rather forget.

So many early wounds all were self-inflicted.

The first play of the game was a likely 72-yard Stephen Morris touchdown pass that Phillip Dorsett let fall to the ground. Later in that series Dorsett would drop a perfect pass in the end zone.

A roughing-the-punter penalty against Miami and then a personal foul would help Notre Dame to its first touchdown.

A Miami holding penalty would erase a 13-yard TD run by Morris.

A Canes possession that started at the Irish 35 was squandered, expiring with a Jake Wieclaw field goal try that knuckled and wobbled horribly short and left.

A defensive personal foul gave the Irish a first-and-goal that turned into a TD.

The mistakes became a small parade, but the grand marshal was that initial drop. You have to wonder how the game might have been different had Dorsett made that first catch. Had a big crowd been stunned silent so soon. Had the Irish trailed in a game for the first time all season.

I don’t mean to pick on Dorsett. He was the team’s last-minute hero only one week earlier.

But big plays — those made, and those not made — define big games, and those two huge drops on Miami’s first possession set the tone for this night and had the Canes scrambling from behind long before Notre Dame began to overpower the UM defense in the second half.

So the Irish, now 5-0 and feeling a renaissance in search of their first national title since 1988, can expect to rise from their No. 9 national ranking.

And the Hurricanes, now 4-2, can at least take consolation in that 3-0 ACC record that leaves hopes of a big bowl, maybe even the Orange Bowl, still in reach.

This was a big, big chance missed, though. A chance for Miami to get back into the national polls and into the national conversation in this sport.

The opponent was certainly right. Echoes of these schools’ riveting “Catholics vs. Convicts” rivalry from 1985 to 1990 gave this rematch a broader context and interest. Notre Dame is always Notre Dame, but Notre Dame in the top 10 ascends to another level.

“I’ve been waiting for this game since my freshman year,” the UM quarterback Morris had said.

Dorsett one-upped him. “I’ve been following Notre Dame since I was born,” he said earlier this week.

Miami had a huge opportunity to convince poll voters who clearly needed convincing. There were seven one-loss teams in the Top 25 entering this week — UM not among them. That 52-13 loss at Kansas State lingered sourly in voters’ minds. Plus, apart from the routine win over undermanned Bethune-Cookman, the Canes’ wins over Boston College, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State all have had a frantic quality to them, involving desperation or late comebacks.

When you make a list of the biggest victories in UM history you start with the five that brought national championships (the most recent in 2001). Right after that, though, any short list of biggest victories for this storied program surely would have included Saturday night had these Canes been up to the task.

Instead this signature opportunity went the way of that very first pass that arched so beautifully toward a waiting receiver Saturday night.

It was dropped.

It fell hard.

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