The reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year’s career bests for passing yards and completions — the best passing-yardage day in history for a University of Miami true freshman — came last year at Nebraska.
Quarterback Brad Kaaya would have gladly traded every one of those 359 yards and 28 completions for a victory instead of a 41-31 loss.
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, almost exactly a year to the day from when a younger, less experienced Kaaya entered a Memorial Stadium filled with more than 91,000 red-garbed, rabid Nebraska fans, Kaaya will get his chance to make things right at Sun Life Stadium.
“It’s the same guys out there, honestly, same dudes,” Kaaya said of the Nebraska defense, which returns five healthy defensive players with double-digit starts and another two with at least six. “It’s a well-put-together defense. Across the board they have some good athletes — big dudes. They plug up holes and also play coverage behind them with their safeties.”
But after two games, the Cornhuskers (1-1) are ranked 119th of 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing yards allowed, giving up 379 at home to BYU in a heartbreaking loss on a 42-yard Hail Mary as time expired and 313 to South Alabama in Saturday’s 48-9 victory.
Last year, in UM’s fourth game and second road game after opening with a loss at Louisville, Kaaya threw 42 times, with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
A year later, with UM 2-0 after victories against Football Championship Subdivision team Bethune-Cookman and FAU, Kaaya is more efficient, more poised and unquestionably more of a leader.
There are a lot of unselfish guys on this team. And no one is really stat-watching. It’s all about who can make plays.
Last Friday, in a game that was 20-20 in the third quarter, Kaaya completed 21 of 38 passes for 287 yards and a touchdown. After two games, his completion percentage is 62.7, and he has yet to throw an interception.
“I just told the offense, ‘Hey, breathe out,’ ” Kaaya said of his impassioned halftime speech. “ ‘Let’s go out there and do your job. Just one play at a time. Stop worrying about the next play or what play we’re going to set up or the fourth quarter. Stop worrying about all that stuff. One play at a time and let’s just keep moving.’ ’’
After the game, a reporter told Kaaya he was “teasing’’ tailback Joe Yearby for “putting in all that work’’ in rushing yards while fellow tailback Mark Walton was “eating the touchdowns.’’
“It doesn’t matter,’’ he shot back. “No one is worried about stats on this team. I threw a deep pass, and Joe ran it in. [Backup quarterback] Malik [Rosier’s] pass put us over 300 yards, so quarterbacks ate today, running backs ate today. There are a lot of unselfish guys on this team. And no one is really stat-watching. It’s all about who can make plays.”
On Saturday, junior receiver Stacy Coley will be back after missing the last game and most of the first one with a hamstring injury. Sophomore Braxton Berrios, who sprained his knee on the opening drive against Bethune-Cookman, will be out again Saturday, UM coach Al Golden said Wednesday.
What offensive coordinator James Coley wants now is consistency from multiple receivers. In the the past two games there have been several drops.
“We’re just trying to get them all together on the same night,’’ Coley said.
When he was told Tuesday that the Nebraska secondary was vulnerable, Stacy Coley said the receivers still hadn’t “broken them down yet. … I mean, we’re going to attack their cornerbacks and safeties and see where they’re at. We’re looking forward to that.’’
Nebraska senior cornerback Jonathan Rose said that despite UM losing, he recalls Kaaya handling pressure well last year.
“We came out early with shots,’’ Rose told reporters in Lincoln, Nebraska, earlier this week. “Even if we get up early, he’s not going to quit. We have to be persistent.”
Kaaya has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 15 consecutive games.
“He’s gotten much better,’’ said Herb Waters, who along with some recent drops led the Canes in receiving last game with five catches for 102 yards.
James Coley said the difference between Kaaya a year ago and now is confidence, preparation and routine — and together with Kaaya’s intelligence and passion, “your results are going to be good.’’