Few, if any, doubted the vaunted University of Miami offense.
Pretty much everyone questioned the defense.
But by the end of the first half Friday in Miami’s first meeting with Florida Atlantic University, it was the defense keeping Canes fans from hyperventilating as the offense failed to find weapons besides Duke Johnson.
The Hurricanes defeated FAU 34-6 in the season opener at Sun Life Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 50,151.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Next up: the 10th-ranked Florida Gators, who should give the Hurricanes a considerably tougher time on Sept. 7 at Sun Life.
“Give FAU credit,’’ UM coach Al Golden said. “They played hard. They made us earn it. We played overzealous sometimes... We dropped some passes we hadn’t been dropping.’’
At least on this night, UM did not play the part of an offensive juggernaut – despite Johnson’s usual mastery and the Hurricanes’ final tally of 503 yards, 303 of them rushing and 200 passing.
Defensively, the Hurricanes had five sacks and held FAU to 250 yards – 133 rushing and 117 passing.
The Canes’ defense twice held the Owls to field goals after FAU marched within 10 yards of scoring.
“We didn’t play smart all the time, weren’t as good as we needed to be on third down on offense, but our defense played really, really hard, played physical and ran to the ball well,’’ Golden said.
Sophomore tailback Johnson, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 2012 Rookie of the Year, rushed for a career-high 186 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 19 carries. But Johnson walked off the field with an apparent injury on teammate Herb Waters’ 63-yard score off a reverse with 4:43 left in the third quarter and Miami leading 27-6.
Johnson told reporters after the game that he was tested for a concussion, but was “fine. I took a test on the sideline and everything came back good.’’
Before their final score, the Hurricanes had registered two field goals by new kicker Matt Goudis, a 53-yard run by Johnson, a 16-yard catch by tight end Clive Walford and the Waters’ reverse.
But what could have been a much more comfortable first-quarter lead was stymied by two would-be-touchdowns-turned-drops – one in the end zone and another in stride – by true freshman Stacy Coley. All through fall camp, players and coaches raved about Coley, though Golden tried to soften the praise in explaining that the teenager from Northeast High hadn’t even played a snap in a real game.
“I was nervous,’’ Coley admitted, saying he will be ready to go for the Gators. “It was my first college game. Coming straight out of high school, there are more fans. It is moving fast. I have to put this behind me.’’
As for UM quarterback Stephen Morris, he left the game with 13:47 remaining, replaced by backup Ryan Williams.
Morris, tabbed by college football analysts as one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks this season, struggled at times connecting with his receivers. He finished the night completing 15 of 27 passes for 160 yards and the 16-yard touchdown to Walford. His interception came after 156 consecutive passes without a pick.
He also ran once for 16 yards.
“Obviously I know there’s a big game next week,’’ Morris said, “but our main focus right now is to get healed up, to get ready for next weekend and focus on improving. We left a lot of touchdowns and opportunities on the field.
“FAU played their hearts out. They’re a great team.’’
Williams completed three of four passes for 40 yards.
Junior receiver Rashawn Scott appeared to be badly injured on a 26-yard reception by Williams that brought the Canes to the 2-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. It was unclear at that point the nature of the injury, except that it appeared to be around the shoulder or collarbone.
The Owls used three quarterbacks, two of them passing.
Sophomore Jaquez Johnson completed 10 of 19 passes for 78 yards and freshman Greg Hankerson completed five of 11 for 34 yards.
“It was exciting,’’ Johnson said, “but I feel like we could have performed better than we showed. I feel like we can play anybody. We just made a lot of mistakes.’’
With 1:10 left in the third quarter, UM safety Kacy Rodgers caused the FAU quarterback to fumble, and recent Wisconsin transfer David Gilbert recovered. On the next play, tailback Dallas Crawford went four yards into the end zone for his first career touchdown and a 34-6 UM lead.
The Hurricanes won the toss to open the game, elected to defend, and promptly stopped the Owls on three-and-out. And though UM took its opening drive from the 16-yard line to fourth-and-1 on the FAU 24, the Canes came up empty when Johnson was stopped.
The Canes finally got on the scoreboard with a 35-yard field goal by sophomore Goudis – the first of his career – on their next drive. Johnson began the drive with a 43-yard run to the right side on first down.
UM led 3-0 with 6:46 left in the opening quarter.
The Canes scored again about two minutes into the second quarter on a 53-yard dash by Johnson, set up by sophomore receiver Waters’ 33-yard reception from Morris. The four-play drive covered 93 yards and took all of 58 seconds.
After being stopped in its own territory in three of its first four drives, FAU scored with 8:30 left in the second quarter on a 25-yard field goal from Mitch Anderson. Hankerson threw consecutive passes of 11, 18 and 7 yards during the drive, then rushed for 3 for a first down at the UM 31. A subsequent 16-yard run by DJ Juste brought the Owls to the UM 16, and a UM personal foul sent FAU eight yards further. The Owls scored four plays later.