Canes linebacker Michael Pickney on the loss to North Carolina
The New Miami likely woke up Sunday feeling ancient.
But few could have imagined they’d plummet back 41 years to become the first Hurricanes to open the season with two consecutive losses since 1978, when Lou Saban was the coach and the Miami dynasty had not been born.
Miami’s 28-25 loss at North Carolina late Saturday in its Atlantic Coast Conference opener not only put Hurricanes fandom in a tizzy, but also exposed a weakness that many took for granted as Miami’s strength: its defense.
How else would you describe a fourth-and-17 situation, with 2:55 left in the game, where one stop would have virtually translated to a UM victory and at minimum changed so much that now feels so wrong?
“Everybody was asleep,’’ senior linebacker Michael Pinckney said after the game, and he didn’t mean the fans. “They definitely had the momentum coming in. It was a packed house — sold out. We were just trying to get back into ball. To me it looked like they played a game last week and we didn’t.’’
On that fourth-and-17 post corner route, sophomore safety Gurvan Hall and junior Trajan Bandy left a gaping hole for gifted true freshman quarterback Sam Howell to fire a completion to Rontavius Groves for a first down at the UM 40-yard line. The stunned Canes’ defense then pretty much folded, as it had the first quarter, eventually allowing the beauty of a pass into the right corner of the end zone to Dazz Newsome for the winning touchdown with 1:01 left.
“Our communication in the secondary,’’ UM coach Manny Diaz said when asked what went wrong. “We were cutting guys completely free and giving them free offense, which is something we pride ourselves on not doing.”
Middle linebacker Shaq Quarterman: “The fourth-and-17— it’s always more than one guy. On film or the people watching TV copy, they’ll always say, ‘Oh, this guy, it’s him.’ It could’ve very well been the pressure lacking, getting to the quarterback, as well as something in the back end.
“...It just comes down to competitive excellence. Can you make the play when your number is called? Ultimately, they ended up making more plays than we did.’’
The Canes (0-2, 0-1) got the ball back on their own 25-yard line and made the most of much of that final minute, until they stalled at the Tar Heels’ 32-yard line. UM redshirt freshman quarterback Jarren Williams’ deep pass was incomplete to Brian Hightower and his rush up the middle was stuffed. Then, after the only timeout that UM took in the drive (with two never used), Williams threw another incompletion that was followed by a wide left 49-yard field-goal attempt by Bubba Baxa, who earlier missed a 26-yarder and had an extra point blocked.
“There are still too many things that we’re doing that are getting us beat,’’ Diaz said.
“We’ve got to go home, and we’ve got to get well and learn how to win a football game. We talk about it all the time — when we get it all sorted out, we have a chance to be a good football team. But, right now obviously we don’t have it figured out yet.”
To be fair, UM lost three stellar defensive backs to graduation and the NFL: safeties Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine and cornerback Michael Jackson. But last year, despite a 7-6 overall record, the Canes finshed fourth nationally in total defense, first in third-down conversion defense, first in passing yards allowed and first in team tackles for loss.
Miami gave up 17 quick points to UNC (2-0, 1-0) in the first quarter Saturday, digging a hole by surrendering big chunks of yardage that made it very difficult to escape for the second game in a row. The Tar Heels gained 389 yards, 292 of them through the air, and 97 on the ground, with Miami delivering four sacks but no turnover chains.
UM also lost the services of top safety Amari Carter for targeting in the first quarter. He was ejected for the remainder of the game.
“Obviously, that’s a guy in the secondary, and not just in your starting lineup but your sub-teams,’’ Diaz said. “He’s our starting dime, he’s a great special teams player. And it’s a shame because he’s trying to move, to not hit the quarterback, and I guess his arm hit the quarterback. I feel gutted for Amari because he’s a competitor and would have wanted to be in there the entire game. But that’s the nature of our game now.”
On offense — the part of UM’s game considered the weakest — the Hurricanes actually looked promising.
Quarterback Jarren Williams was impressive, completing 30 of 39 passes for a nearly 77-percent accuracy rate. He threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns, and again didn’t throw an interception, though he had two fumbles, which were recovered by UM. Williams also improved his pocket presence, and was sacked four times compared to 10 against Florida.
DeeJay Dallas (107 yards for a 7.6-yard average) and Cam’Ron Harris (63 yards and a touchdown for a 6-yard average) are a formidable pair. Harris, it should be noted, had a 54-yard gain called back Saturday because of a D.J. Scaife holding call. He had a similarly long play called back against UF on a holding penalty.
And K.J. Osborn, Jeff Thomas, Brevin Jordan and Harley combined for 279 receiving yards, with Osborn scoring on a 6-yard reception.
The offensive line did better with freshman Jakai Clark moved to right guard and Scaife moved from guard to tackle.
“Jakai, I’m really proud of him for his first college game coming from high school,’’ Williams said. “The O-line, as a whole, picked up the blitzes very well and gave me time to get the ball out of my hands. I helped them a little bit too this game, which [meant] trusting them and staying in the pocket, keeping my eyes downfield.
“...It’s a tough one to take for sure. But we’re all staying together. We’ve got to go back and watch the film to clean up all the sloppy mistakes we made. We’re a team. We’re going to stick together through whatever.’’
Concluded Pinckney: “There ain’t nothing for us to do now but get better. We’ve got to take this one across the chin. There’s nobody to blame but ourselves for this loss. We just gotta take it for what it is and go back to the drawing board.’’
The Canes return home to face FCS team Bethune-Cookman in their home opener at Hard Rock Stadium at 4 p.m. Saturday.
“It feels good going home to our crowd and our stadium,’’ Quarterman said. “It gives us time to reflect because we have a long season ahead of us. Nobody’s feeling like the season is lost. Social media will say one thing, but in our locker room, where it really counts, on our campus, we’re not worried one bit.
“We’re going to show up every Saturday.’’