All week, the talk was quarterbacks at the University of Miami.
The defense must have felt slighted.
Redshirt freshman quarterback N’Kosi Perry made his first career start Thursday night against North Carolina, but the Miami defense helped his cause in a huge way.
The No. 16 Canes forced six turnovers, returning three of them for touchdowns and giving Perry the cushion he needed to secure a 47-10 victory in UM’s first Atlantic Coast Conference game of the season at Hard Rock Stadium.
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Next up: Florida State on Oct. 6 at Hard Rock.
“It was a sight to see,’’ said UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz of his unit’s prolific play. “We always say turnovers, they seem to come in bunches. Once the first one came out, guys were pouncing and making plays. The fact that we could turn defense into offense on those was quite a sight.”
Thursday, the three defensive touchdowns tied a school record set on Sept. 23, 2000 against West Virginia.
“The turnover chain was out a bunch,’’ UM coach Mark Richt said. “It’s always fun to score points on defense for the defense and offense. The fans love it. I felt the first half the entire team played like we should play. If we put two halves like that offensively, we’d be in good shape.’’
In all, UM (4-1, 1-0 ACC) scored 24 points off:
▪ A first-quarter 9-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by sophomore defensive end Jon Garvin, made possible by linebacker Shaq Quarterman’s strip-sack.
▪ A second-quarter 42-yard pick-six by defensive end Joe Jackson.
▪ A 28-yard Bubba Baxa field goal set up by cornerback Jhavonte Dean’s interception to close out the first half.
▪ A fourth-quarter pick-six by striker Romeo Finley.
The Hurricanes earned six turnover chains, with Garvin celebrating his second one after a third-quarter fumble recovery and Bradley Jennings earning his first ever with a fumble recovery with 15 seconds left in the game.
“It’s fun. It’s special,’’ Garvin said of the turnovers. “Last year we had a couple games with four, and that was great. Six? I was like, ‘Man, that’s a lot.’ It’s a double whammy, because getting the chain is almost like scoring, and scoring is scoring, so that was fun.
“We’re growing up and we’re just getting better. Today, we’re happy. But we’re going to be our biggest critics. We’re going to go in the film room, and we’re not going to be smiling there.’’
The dominant defensive display made it much easier for Perry, who started out strong in the first half but lost a fumble and threw his third interception of the season on back-to-back drives to begin the second half.
UM’s defense to the rescue, holding the Tar Heels (1-3, 1-1) scoreless after both turnovers.
Perry finished 8 of 12 for 125 yards and a 5-yard touchdown to Darrell Langham, with the one pick.
At halftime he was 7 of 10 for 121 yards and the touchdown.
“Overall I thought he played well,’’ Richt said of Perry, “but certainly better in the first half than the second half.’’
The Canes’ 33 first-half points were the second most in program history against an ACC opponent, one fewer than the 34 they scored against Wake Forest on Nov. 12, 2005.
Perry’s first pass as a starter was a laser-like line drive down the middle of the field to an open Mike Harley for 28 yards, eliciting loud cheers from the crowd of 60,843. But the drive, in which Perry hit both his passes, eventually stalled and UM punted.
After that, the Canes scored on their next three offensive drives.
First came their four-play, 75-yard march highlighted by tailback Travis Homer’s 56-yard sprint down the right side, and punctuated by DeeJay Dallas’ 4-yard touchdown run with 6:01 left in the opening quarter. Dallas, who gained a career-high 114 yards on 11 carries, had his second career 100-yard game.
Next came their 10-play, 57-yard drive that ended with Bubba Baxa’s 35-yard field goal to make it 17-10 early in the second half.
Perry’s touchdown pass to Langham made it 30-10.
Trayone Gray’s 1-yard plunge with 4:04 left was the Hurricanes’ final offensive score.
“As a team we feel like we can play with anybody,’’ Dallas said. “We feel like we can beat anybody. We always talk about running the table. The first game stung us and we came back — and came back hungry.. [The defense] put up three touchdowns and the offense went out and did the rest.”
The defense, however, stole most of the glory.
It was the third consecutive game that UM had double-digit tackles for loss (14), a category in which they lead the nation. Quarterman had a career-high three before heading to the locker room for X-rays on his left ankle.
Richt confirmed after the game that Quarterman sustained a sprain.
The Canes held the Tar Heels to only two-of-13 third-down conversion attempts.
Two of Quarterman’s tackles for loss were sacks.
During his post-game interviews, Richt mentioned the ACC’s Coastal Division and how UM won it last year but “obviously got beat pretty bad in the [ACC] championship game.”
“That goal of making it to Charlotte again is very real and it means a lot,’’ Richt said. “We want to get back to Charlotte.
“That was a good start.’’