For those who consider most bowl games meaningless, dare to tune in to the Russell Athletic Bowl at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Camping World Stadium (ESPN).
All-time University of Miami passer Brad Kaaya, who Hurricanes fans might be watching for the last time in college, knows otherwise.
Gifted tight end David Njoku, who Canes fans likely will be watching for the last time in college, knows otherwise.
Mark Richt, who was fired by Georgia last year after one of the most illustrious coaching careers in college football, knows otherwise.
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And nearly 20 seniors, some of whom have rarely touched the field and others bruised and battered through probation, frustration and a mediocre era of UM football, know otherwise.
To the unranked Hurricanes (8-4), the Russell Athletic Bowl against No. 14 West Virginia (10-2) is their biggest bowl in 10 years – because that’s how long it’s been since they’ve won one.
“It’s very important, and right now we’ve got the opportunity,’’ said junior defensive end Chad Thomas, a former Miami Booker T. Washington All-American who stayed home “to be a part of the change and help the city out, our team out, our school out.
“Just looking back on everything that’s happened over the past, the stuff that the school has gone through… And then coming off [probation] and going to the past two bowl games and losing.
“I can’t lose no more bowl games,’’ said Thomas, tied for the team lead with 10.5 tackles for loss. “I’ve got to do it for our seniors right now.”
The last time UM won a bowl was against Nevada in the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl. After that, there was Cal in the 2008 Emerald Bowl in San Francisco; Wisconsin in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando; Notre Dame in the 2010 Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas; Louisville in the 2013 Russell Athletic Bowl; South Carolina in the 2014 Duck Commander Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana; and Washington State in last year’s Sun Bowl.
Though some young Hurricanes, such as All-American freshman linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, say they won’t be happy until they win a “Natty’’ – short for national championship, Richt knows you’ve got to start somewhere.
On Tuesday at the bowl’s kickoff luncheon, Richt said every bowl is meaningful.
If you were in a losing locker room and saw the reaction, he explained, “you would never say that game was meaningless.’’
The same, he said, is true of a winning locker room.
“That in itself for me is worth all the work – when you see them jumping up and down and having fun.”
Richt acknowledged that “everybody wants to be great’’ and that “a lot of guys came to Miami because of the football tradition. It is part of the reason why I’m back – partially because it is my alma mater, but more than that it is a team and a place [at which] history has proven you can be great.”
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen’s Big 12 Mountaineers’ only losses this season were 37-20 to now-No. 13 Oklahoma State on Oct. 29, and 56-28 to now-No. 7 Oklahoma on Nov. 19. Holgorsen was asked Tuesday about Miami having extra motivation in trying to win that elusive bowl game.
“Well, it’s been one year since we’ve won one,’’ he said, seemingly a bit frustrated with the question. “so I guess that evens it out. You have to worry about your own brand …I’m a little bit more concerned about us winning, than them.’’
Ranked or unranked, the Hurricanes are favored in Vegas by 2 ½ points.
West Virginia has a quick-paced offense led by talented dual-threat quarterback Skyler Howard, who has passed for 3,194 yards and 26 touchdowns (10 interceptions) and rushed for 400 yards and nine touchdowns.
Three other Mountaineers have rushed for more, including Justin Crawford, with 1,168 yards and four touchdowns.
UM’s defense has proven among the nation’s best: 13th in scoring defense, 11th in yards allowed per play, sixth in tackles for loss and 23rd in total defense.
Its offense is led by Kaaya (9,686 passing yards in three seasons), running back Mark Walton (1,065 yards and 14 touchdowns), receivers Ahmmon Richards (866 yards and two touchdowns), Stacy Coley (703 yards and nine touchdowns) and tight end Njoku (654 yards and seven touchdowns).
Richt shut down access to Kaaya nearly two weeks ago after his only interview leading to the bowl. Mostly what anyone wanted to know was if he intended to declare for the NFL Draft.
“We haven’t won a bowl game in like 10 years, so that’s a pretty big deal to this school,’’ Kaaya said. “Right now, it’s just all about beating West Virginia because that’s a damn good football team.’’