University of Miami

For the Canes’ ride to continue, they’ll have to do what they haven’t done in 15 years

Miami Hurricanes defensive end Joseph Jackson reacts after taking down Virginia running back Jordan Ellis at Hard Rock Stadium on November 18. On Friday, the Canes will play at Pittsburgh and attempt to finish the regular season undefeated for the first time since 2002.
Miami Hurricanes defensive end Joseph Jackson reacts after taking down Virginia running back Jordan Ellis at Hard Rock Stadium on November 18. On Friday, the Canes will play at Pittsburgh and attempt to finish the regular season undefeated for the first time since 2002. adiaz@miamiherald.com

This is how extraordinary the University of Miami football season has been: When the Hurricanes won their 10th game last week — the first time they have achieved double-digit victories in 14 years — it was almost an afterthought.

When they won the Coastal Division title even before they stepped on the field and annihilated Notre Dame 41-8, the news was just a footnote during an otherwise stunning night.

And now, as the Canes prepare to take on Pittsburgh at noon Friday in the regular-season finale at Heinz Field, they can do what no UM football team has done in the regular season since 2002 — go undefeated.

“It’s very difficult and very special,” senior receiver Braxton Berrios said. “Not many teams can say they had an undefeated season. It’s a very, very tough thing to do, playing against teams with the same amount of scholarship guys you have, each week.

“To be one game away is a testament to how hard we’ve worked and how much we’ve bought into everything this coaching staff brought.”

The Hurricanes have had six previous undefeated regular seasons (1986, ‘87, ‘91, ‘92, ‘01 and ‘02) since 1979, what UM calls “the modern era” of Miami football.

Not many teams can say they had an undefeated season. It’s a very, very tough thing to do, playing against teams with the same amount of scholarship guys you have, each week.

Braxton Berrios, Miami Hurricanes wide receiver

Yet, even going undefeated would be a fleeting joy — at least at this point — as the most important game of the season, the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game against No. 3 Clemson, awaits at 8 p.m. Dec. 2 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The “most important game,” that is, if the No. 2 Hurricanes (10-0, 7-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) can take care of Pitt (4-7, 2-5).

If they can’t, the Canes would surely drop out of the College Football Playoff top-four rankings and the ACC title game would likely become a pre-Orange Bowl tilt.

The Hurricanes have had six previous undefeated regular seasons (1986, ‘87, ‘91, ‘92, ‘01 and ‘02) since 1979, what UM calls “the modern era’’ of Miami football.

“Our record says we’re perfect, but we had opportunities to lose games and made plays,” safety Jaquan Johnson said. “That’s what we’re looking at. We’re not looking at the W’s. We’re looking at how we can get better each and every day.”

Be assured that the Panthers, who have not qualified for a bowl game, would consider a victory Friday as satisfying as any in recent memory.

The Canes are the highest ranked team Pitt has hosted at Heinz Field in 16 years. That opponent? Miami, ranked No. 1 on Sept. 27, 2001, when UM won 43-21 en route to an undefeated season and its fifth national title.

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.

“All our guys understand that anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said about the prospect of being the spoiler on Senior Day. “That’s the method our kids have walked into every game, that, ‘Hey, we can win.’

“I think they believe that we can win.”

The Hurricanes, Narduzzi said, “have proven that they’re the best in the ACC and one of the top four teams in the country. But it’s not just going to be laid in their lap. Miami’s not going to come in here and lay down. They’re well coached. They’re motivated. They’re a very confident bunch of guys that are on a mission.

“They have a lot to lose if they don’t come in here ready.”

The Panthers have not proven dominant on either side of the ball, but could be especially vulnerable up front offensively, as they are 105th of 129 FBS teams ranked nationally in tackles-for-loss allowed, and 107th in sacks allowed.

Miami, conversely, is first in the nation in sacks and fourth in tackles for loss.

The Hurricanes, a team that often hinges on dramatic comebacks and second-half runs, hope to start out faster Friday and keep the gas pedal down for four quarters. But coach Mark Richt pointed out this week that “everybody is doing the best they can.”

“I think what people forget is there’s an opponent,” Richt said. “There’s somebody else who has scholarship players and offseason [programs] and coaches that know what they’re doing.

​UM linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, offensive lineman Kc McDermott speak to the media after University of Miami Hurricanes defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.

“There are good teams. There are good players. Some teams win the close games and some teams don’t. The ones that don’t win the close games, it doesn’t mean they’re not a good team. It just means they didn’t do what they had to, to get it done,” he said. “When a team has a certain record or ranking, everybody thinks there’s that much of a difference. There’s not that much of difference. The [Virginia] team we just played, Pitt beat them 31-14.”

On Friday, after what is expected to be a cold Thanksgiving with temperatures in the 30s, the Hurricanes could get milder weather than former Canes have gotten in the recent past.

The forecast calls for dry conditions and temperatures in the mid- to upper 40s.

Either way, players know what’s at stake.

“The season isn’t over,” defensive tackle RJ McIntosh said. “We have a lot more to do. Being No. 2 is special. It’s nice. But that’s not where we want to be right now.

“We want to be No. 1.”

Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman contributed to this report.

Friday: No. 2 Miami at Pittsburgh

Kickoff: Noon; Heinz Field, Pittsburgh.

TV/radio: ABC; WQAM 560; WMEN 640; 990 ESPN Deportes.

Favorite: Miami by  13  1/2.

Records: Miami 10-0 (7-0 ACC); Pittsburgh 4-7 (2-5 ACC).

Series: Miami leads 25-10-1.

Miami injuries: Out — LB Charles Perry (knee); DL Demetrius Jackson (knee); LB Jamie Gordinier (knee); RB Mark Walton (ankle); WR Evidence Njoku (knee).

Pittsburgh injuries: Questionable — LB Anthony McKee Jr. (upper body); DB Damar Hamlin (undisclosed); WR Dontavius Butler-Jenkins (leg); FB George Aston (ankle); TE Matt Flanagan (leg). Out — QB Max Browne (shoulder); FB Colton Lively (upper body); WR Michael Vardzel (upper body); LB Quintin Wirginis (lower body); WR Tre Tipton (knee).

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