As Miami fans await the newest College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday night — the Hurricanes could move up, down or stay at No. 3 — coach Mark Richt sent a message Monday that it won’t really matter if they don’t “tighten up” in a hurry.
It’s bad enough the Canes (10-0, 7-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) had to make more than 60,000 fans, and obviously, themselves, sweat it out Saturday against Virginia until they emptied the hot sauce with 30 unanswered points in the second half, but Richt knows that run-blocking struggles and surrendering 75-yard aerial touchdowns and allowing blocked punts could eventually signal the end of the magical season that is heading to the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 2 against defending national champion Clemson.
“You don’t normally make those many mistakes on special teams, on offense, giving up big plays on defense like that and win the game,” Richt said during his weekly interview with WQAM. “We found a way to win, but we better tighten up the screws or we’re going to be in trouble.”
As UM approaches the chill of Pittsburgh for another noon kickoff — temperatures are forecast to be in the low-to-mid 40s during the game, “pretty good” football weather, assured Richt — the Hurricanes must focus on mastering the basics to get through the grind of the regular season.
Pittsburgh (4-7, 2-5) is struggling mightily, but that doesn’t preclude the Canes from cleaning up any shortcomings, even temporary lapses, that could come back to haunt them.
Richt, for example, spoke of how receiver Lawrence Cager, playing again this season after recuperating from reconstructive knee surgery last year, has “for sure” looked “a lot better” with some impressive catches the past couple weeks. But he warned on Monday that Cager, as well as the other receivers, needs to keep blocking.
“We gotta make sure that we’re disciplined every time the ball is snapped, that we block well,” Richt told WQAM. “We gotta be disciplined every time when you have to run a route at a certain depth, [that] you run it at the right depth. You can’t just make one play here, and then make a mistake here and there.
“I’m not pointing out just Cage. I’m pointing out everybody. We always see the play that is made — the catch — but are you blocking?
“…Every little detail matters. That’s where we gotta tighten up the screws on offense, defense and special teams. I mean, we made enough mistakes in all three phases to get beat.”
Despite the lapses, the Hurricanes, who have scored 198 second-half points this season to 139 first-half points, still figured out a way to rebound.
“Even at that point,” Richt said of the 21-14 halftime deficit (UM was down by 14 points twice on Saturday), “nobody freaked out and we knew there was a lot of clock and we just started inching our way back in it.”
When asked who the halftime locker-room leaders are, Richt said there are “a lot of really good ones,” and pointed out safety Jaquan Johnson and receiver Braxton Berrios.
“But I like it when the big guys are the leaders some times. You get a guy like [6-6, 275-pound defensive end] Chad Thomas, he’s just a big man and he’s a physical guy. [And 6-7, 300-pound left tackle] Kc Mcdermott, he’s a big dude. He’s a fiery competitor. Both those guys are.
“Those are the kind of guys that I think can look any single guy in the eye or look down on them and say, ‘Hey, get your butt in gear! Let’s go!’”
Johnson, UM’s 5-11, 190-pound, hard-hitting junior out of Miami Killian High, was honored as the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Back of the Week on Monday for the third week in a row.
Senior defensive end Trent Harris, who had a crucial, fourth-down sack late in the fourth quarter to help preserve UM’s victory, shared the ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week honor with Joshua Kaindoh of Florida State.
Harris had his third two-sack performance Saturday, raising his team-high sack total to eight. He had 6 1/2 sacks his first three seasons at Miami.
Johnson had a game-high nine tackles, one sack and a 30-yard interception returned for a touchdown to make it 28-28 with 9:57 left in the third quarter. He leads the team with 75 tackles and four interceptions and has worn the turnover chain five times this season.