Be assured that the University of Miami football players arose from their post-game sleep, if they managed any at all, with emotions as powerfully buoyant as they’ve had all season: gratitude and joy for starters.
Half the regular season is over for the Hurricanes, and their gritty 17-9 victory late Friday night over the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division leader No. 20 Virginia (4-2, 2-1 ACC) gave them concrete reason for hope — though UM coach Manny Diaz has repeatedly said the Canes (3-3, 1-2) had it all along.
You could see it in quarterback N’Kosi Perry’s unusually upbeat energy as he spoke to reporters. You could see it in the especially impressive back handspring by striker Gilbert Frierson immediately after opposing quarterback Bryce Perkins’ Hail Mary bounced into the end zone as time expired. And you could see it in Diaz’s face as Perry, on third down, took off as if he were catapulted from a slingshot into the end zone for the 3-yard touchdown that iced UM’s victory with 2:31 left in the game.
“We were relentless, just relentless,’’ said cornerback Trajan Bandy, who had six tackles, one of five team sacks, a tackle for loss and fumble recovery. “We’ve still got more games to win. This is not it for us.
“We’re never going to give up on each other.’’
The Hurricanes admittedly gave up on each other last season, the offense and defense splintering after a painful 7-6 season.
“I think the neatest thing about our team is that we just don’t panic,’’ Diaz said after the game. “When things are going poorly, our guys get back out there and continue to fight again. That’s the whole thing we talked about before the year started: The execution is going to get better, but as long as the intangibles are there, as long as the fight and the attitude of never giving up [remain], you can win.
“As you all know, you can talk about culture, but we are in a results business. As I mentioned, we were playing really hard [before] and we were playing together, but we weren’t getting wins. It’s validating for the guys in the locker room...so to walk into that locker room and see the guys get that reward— a team victory where everybody had a hand in it— was pretty awesome.’’
Perry, a redshirt sophomore who started his first game this season in place of the injured Jarren Williams (shoulder), completed 16 of 27 passes (59.2 percent) for 182 yards and a 17-yard touchdown to tailback DeeJay Dallas — to accompany the 3-yard touchdown rush late in the game.
Diaz made it clear that Williams is still “our guy,’’ but not without immediately noting that “the question we have right now when we get back, is, ‘How is Jarren?’ The second part of of the question is, ‘How does Jarren respond to all of this?’
“There is a locker room of guys that know we can win with all our quarterbacks.’’
Translation: It’s still undecided who will start next Saturday, Oct. 19, when Georgia Tech (1-4 and 0-2) comes to Hard Rock Stadium for the last game in UM’s season-long, five-game homestand.
UM almost certainly must win the rest of its league games against the Yellow Jackets, at Pittsburgh Oct. 26, at Florida State Nov. 2, home against Louisville Nov. 9 and the regular-season finale at Duke. Even then, it would likely have to survive an ACC tiebreaker.
Going into this weekend, North Carolina was tied with Virginia at 2-1 in the Coastal. UM needs The Tar Heels, who beat Miami previously, to lose two more of their following ACC games: at Virginia Tech Oct. 19, against Duke Oct. 26, against Virginia Nov. 2, at Pittsburgh Nov. 14 and at NC State Nov. 30.
“It’s really important,’’ redshirt freshman defensive end Greg Rousseau said, when asked about the importance of UM’s hunt for the Coastal title. “That’s something in the back of our heads. But we go game by game, week by week, practice by practice, lift by lift, meeting by meeting. We’re focusing on trying to win days, win every single day, and then everything else will come.”
As it was, UM’s offensive line progressed against the nation’s No. 2 sack producers of Virginia, allowing three sacks. The line came into the game last in the nation in sacks allowed, and had allowed 10, 4, 0, 4 and 7 in the previous five games.
Though the Canes’ offense still has plenty of improvement to make (2 of 10 in third-down conversion attempts), it converted 2 of 3 red-zone opportunities for touchdowns and the other for a field goal.
Also showing great improvement was Miami’s discipline, as it was flagged only four times for 32 yards. UM went into the game next to last in the nation in penalties per game, and near the nation’s bottom with 403 total penalty yards.
And the defense that previously upset Diaz, the former defensive coordinator, so much that he announced last Monday he was involving himself in the day-to-day coaching? It held the Cavs to only three field goals, produced two goal-line stands, recovered a fumble and except for a couple lapses, was aggressively dominant.
“I was very, very proud of the way they responded,’’ Diaz said. “It was high-level stuff. To be resilient like we were, I’d like to think that is more true to who the real Miami is on defense...’’
Some notables from the win:
▪ Kicker Turner Davidson, the third-string walk-on redshirt sophomore, made his collegiate debut and hit a 19-yard field goal and both extra point attempts.
▪ Rousseau, in his first college start, had a career-best seven tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and a forced fumble.