The difference between Miami being No. 2 last week and No. 7 this week in the College Football Playoff rankings in large part was the admittedly unfocused and uninspiring play of quarterback Malik Rosier during the loss at Pittsburgh on Friday.
But Rosier, according to his head coach, offensive coordinator and himself, has rebounded with one of his best weeks of practice all season — mentally, physically and spiritually.
That has to be reassuring to Hurricanes fans, as the Canes (10-1, 7-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) will need Rosier’s sure hand and heart Saturday against Clemson (11-1, 7-1) in the ACC Championship Game after losing senior tight end standout Christopher Herndon to a season-ending knee injury at Pitt and star receiver Ahmmon Richards to a season-ending knee injury sustained during practice Wednesday morning.
“We probably had one of the best weeks we’ve had all year,’’ Rosier said before the Miami Herald reported that sophomore Richards was carted off the field with an injury. “Physically, probably the best condition I’ve been in, and mentally I’m fine.
“The big thing coaches have been stressing to me is push the offense, push the tempo, get these guys going. Coach [Mark] Richt said if a ball is not in play, the receivers can’t make one. That’s what we learned last week. I was overthrowing guys, missing balls I don’t normally miss. We’ve dialed down on that.’’
Rosier said he had been “kind of lackadaisical and very out of the zone. This week I’ve been pushing these guys ... [and] demanding greatness out of our team.’’
Rosier, who is fifth in the league in passing average (254.4 yards) and third in passing efficiency (198 of 359 for 2,798 yards, a league-tying high of 25 touchdowns, with nine interceptions), must find a way to compensate for the loss of 909 receiving yards, seven touchdowns and lots of blocking between Herndon and Richards.
Without Richards and Herndon, leading receiver Braxton Berrios (45 catches for 583 yards and nine touchdowns) will be heavily defended, leaving Richards’ backup Darrell Langham (11 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns), the 6-4, 220-pound redshirt junior who saved the day against Florida State and Georgia Tech, as an obvious target.
UM can also use 6-5, 218-pound Lawrence Cager (11 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns), though Richt has said he isn’t a steady blocker.
Also expect freshman speedster Jeff Thomas (14 catches for 306 yards and two touchdowns) to get some long balls, as well as Dayall Harris, who has caught eight passes with one touchdown the past three games.
Berrios said Wednesday that sophomore Michael Irvin II, who will replace Herndon at tight end, will be just fine.
“Obviously he’s thrown into a starting role right now,’’ Berrios said. “A lot of times it’s shocking to have an All-American-[type] tight end [gone]. You get plays here and there because he may be tired, something like that, and then all of a sudden you have those shoes to fill. You’re expected to fill that void. At the end of the day we don’t want him to be Chris Herndon. I don’t think he can be. He can only be Michael Irvin.”
Rosier knows the Canes must establish a run game Saturday, something they couldn’t do at Pitt, to have any chance to successfully pass against the 14th-ranked rush defense in the nation.
“The biggest thing in this game is going to be establishing the run,’’ Rosier said. “They have a great D-line. Any time you can get 3 or 4 yards on those guys that’s a positive play for us. If we can move those guys and start running on them it will be a really good day for us.”