University of Miami

UM defense, led by Jaquan Johnson (pick-six), has forced 19 turnovers in past five games

Miami Hurricanes defensive end Trent Harris sacks Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Kurt Benkert in the fourth quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, November 18, 2017.
Miami Hurricanes defensive end Trent Harris sacks Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Kurt Benkert in the fourth quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, November 18, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

If defense really does win championships, the University of Miami is in good shape.

Despite giving up 384 passing yards and four aerial touchdowns, the Hurricanes’ ‘D’ came through again in the clutch Saturday in UM’s 44-28 victory over Virginia.

And perhaps no one came through bigger than safety Jaquan Johnson, who certainly made a convincing statement to Walter Camp Player of the Year voters who already made him a semifinalist this past week for the award, one of the most prestigious in college football.

Johnson, a Miami Killian High graduate described recently by UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz as “the heart and soul’’ of UM’s secondary, had a game-high nine tackles, one sack and the play that helped spark the Hurricanes in a 30-point second-half rally for the victory: a 30-yard interception returned for a touchdown to make it 28-28 with 9:57 left in the third quarter.

Johnson, a junior, now leads the Hurricanes with 75 tackles and four interceptions. He also has three tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and forced fumble. He has worn the coveted “turnover chain’’ five times this season.

“It was a great play call by Coach Diaz,’’ Johnson said of the pick-six, the second interception returned for a touchdown in as many weeks, last week’s against Notre Dame by freshman cornerback Trajan Bandy. “He gave me the ability to read the quarterback on that play and I just saw the quarterback look in one direction and I just took off that way.

“We were just talking about it on the sideline that we needed a turnover, we needed a stop, we needed to get some momentum going.’’

Why is Johnson able to repeatedly make big plays?

“The guys believing in me, me believing in myself, the coaching staff believing in me and me just being able to answer the phone when my number is called. Everybody works hard in practice. We’ve been working since the spring, so nothing’s changed in that aspect except games are on Saturdays so everybody can see it.’’

Also having a big game for the defense was senior end Trent Harris, who had his third two-sack performance of the season, raising his team-high sack total to eight. His biggest play Saturday was on fourth-and-3 at the UM 40-yard line, when he sacked quarterback Kurt Benkert for a loss of 13 yards with 6:45 left in the game.

Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt speaks to the media after the University of Miami Hurricanes defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.

Harris had 6 1/2 sacks in his first three seasons at Miami.

UM had five sacks and 11 tackles for loss Saturday, holding the Cavaliers to 0-6 on third downs and 0-3 on fourth downs in the second half.

“Credit to the whole team,’’ Harris said. “I mean, we were down but that didn’t faze us at all. You know, going into halftime Virginia was all hype, but we knew it wasn’t close to being over. We just came out there the second half and dominated.’’

Harris called it “a sad feeling’’ to have played his last regular-season home game at Hard Rock Stadium. “It’s been an awesome four years.’’

UM’s other takeaways were fumble recoveries by cornerback Michael Jackson, who wore the turnover chain for his fifth time after linebacker Zach McCloud forced the fumble in the first quarter; and by Travis Homer, a running back who made the play when Virginia fumbled away a punt return.

Homer, who rushed for 96 yards, became the Canes’ first offensive player to wear the turnover chain.

UM has forced 19 turnovers in the past five games.

Linebacker Shaq Quarterman conceded that “it was difficult’’ getting the energy fully back for the noon kickoff after the emotional win against then-No. 3 Notre Dame the previous week.

“You still have to be able to execute like you would if it was a prime-time game,’’ Quarterman said. “...It took us too long. But once we got going, we got going.’’

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