Mark Richt: ‘The thing I enjoyed the most was the celebration in the locker room’
The Miami Hurricanes found new life Saturday — despite so much seemingly going wrong.
Big plays on offense, defense and special teams catapulted the Canes to a 38-14 victory over Virginia Tech, qualifying Miami for a bowl game with its first win since Oct. 6.
“The thing I enjoyed the most was the celebration in the locker room afterward with the players and managers and trainers and everybody involved,’’ said Miami coach Mark Richt. “I had a chance to thank everybody in the room for holding it together in a very difficult time. It’s probably the most difficult time I’ve been through as a coach.
“And not that everything is rosy and over, but the bleeding, we stopped the bleeding and got the victory. Our players just stuck together and our coaches did and I’m really proud of how we handled the adversity — because it was not easy.’’
Sophomore cornerback Trajan Bandy acknowledged that becoming bowl eligible was, indeed, more meaningful than those on the outside thought it would be, mainly to honor the seniors.
“That was our main key coming into this game,’’ Bandy said. “We want to get those guys to a great bowl game. Those guys work so hard in the offseason. They prepared so hard in the offseason, too, so just to get this W meant a lot to us.’’
Miami, which snapped a four-game losing streak, rose to 6-5 overall and 3-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference with its first road victory against a Power 5 team since beating North Carolina in October 2017 and first road victory since Toledo this past September.
“It’s been a long time coming,’’ said linebacker Shaq Quarterman, who had a pivotal interception that led to a touchdown. “[Defensive coordinator Manny] Diaz gave us a parable today about a man that God called upon to push on a rock and he pushed on it tirelessly, and we related to it a lot.
“These last couple of games we just kept pushing and pushing, and it hasn’t gone our way. But tonight, like I said, it only takes one game. We’re just happy and proud of it.’’
The Canes, who return home for the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh two days after Thanksgiving, scored their most points Saturday since their Sept. 27 victory over UNC.
UM took a 17-14 halftime lead and extended it with two third-quarter touchdowns by freshman running back Cam’Ron Davis — a 42-yard run to make 24-14 and a 16-yard catch to make it 38-14 with 1:17 left in the quarter. And Jeff Thomas’ dazzling 51-yard punt return for a touchdown in between Davis’ scores was all UM would need to finally go home happy.
“It feels real good, knowing that we have to fight to get a win,’’ Thomas said. “So knowing we’ve got a bowl game, momentum could get on our side even more. Everybody came together today and we just had fun and balled out.’’
What Miami didn’t do is meaningful as well, as it avoided extending its losing streak to five games, which would have been the first five-game slide since 1977.
Once proud Virginia Tech fell to 4-6 and 3-4.
Redshirt freshman starting quarterback N’Kosi Perry went 21 of 34 for 171 yards and two passing touchdowns, with his first career rushing touchdown, as well. He did so despite his two tight ends going down with injuries — freshman Brevin Jordan (ankle) on the UM’s first offensive play of the game and freshman Will Mallory (left knee) a few minutes before halftime. UM is left with no healthy scholarship tight ends if Jordan and Mallory don’t return.
“He’s getting better and better and more confident,’’ Richt said of Perry. “We had a couple balls that got dropped that could have been big plays. You could just see his comfort level rising, and one day I really believe you’ll see him really come into his own.’’
UM gained 339 yards and allowed 335.
The Canes’ defense had two interceptions and recovered a fumble. They also had four sacks.
The other discouraging news Saturday came before the game. Starting weakside linebacker Michael Pinckney and true freshman quarterback Jarren Williams were suspended for the game for violating team rules. But they are eligible to play next week.
Richt made it a point to say that Pinckney’s suspension came after an “honest mistake.’’ Pinckney posted on Instagram that he “mistakenly took a pain medication’’ that he “did not realize was against the rules.’’
The Hurricanes immediately got behind in the first half, allowing the Hokies to drive 76 yards on five plays for a 15-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Keene. After only two minutes, Virginia Tech led 7-0.
UM took over and drove 60 yards in six-and a half minutes, culminating the 13-play drive with a 33-yard field goal by Bubba Baxa to make it 7-3 at 6:29 of the opening quarter.
Miami went up within the first minute of the second quarter after Quarterman intercepted a Ryan Willis pass at the Hokies’ 23-yard line, returning it 20 yards to the 3.
The Canes immediately scored on an acrobatic, one-handed grab by Darrell Langham, who snatched the ball behind his head with his extended left arm in the right rear corner of the end zone. The 3-yard touchdown gave UM the 10-7 lead.
Virginia Tech came right back on its ensuing 10-play drive, scoring on Turner’s 20-yard run to regain a 14-10 lead with 10:06 left in the first half, before the Canes mounted an impressive 71-yard scoring drive near the end of the half.
The Canes went on to culminate the long drive with Perry’s first career rushing touchdown, a 1-yard plunge after his 13-yard sprint down the middle. UM led again, this time 17-14.
UM’s game against Pitt next week will kick off at 3:30 p.m. and serve as senior day, when the seniors or sometimes graduating underclassmen are honored with their families.
Perry said the Hurricanes needed the win “badly.”
“Especially for the senior to get them in that bowl game,’’ the young quarterback said. “That was the most important thing to me, and I felt like it was to the team.’’