Even coming off a career-high 405-yard passing performance at Florida State, Brad Kaaya admitted he was a little nervous going into Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech.
“Bud Foster is a really good coach,” Kaaya said. “He’s really good at scheming a team. You don’t really know what he’s going to throw at you the first few drives. It’s a good defense. The way he uses personnel is really good.”
Zone, man, blitzes, stunts — nothing Foster threw at Kaaya seemed to bother the 20-year-old sophomore Saturday. Neither did the lack of a running game (UM ran 39 times for 99 yards), uneven pass protection or more mind-numbing penalties by his offensive line and receivers.
Kaaya brushed all that off. He completed 19 of his 30 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns, made plays when his team had to have them, and guided the Hurricanes to a much-needed 30-20 win over the Hokies in front of 50,787 fans at Sun Life Stadium.
If his last two starts say anything, it’s that Kaaya may be growing into one of those quarterbacks who can put a team on his back and win games on his own. And also that he’s pretty tough.
“He’s not scared to get hit,” said UM leading-receiver Rashawn Scott, who caught both of Kaaya’s touchdown passes Saturday — one late in the first half that put UM up 20-13 at the break and then the game-clincher in the fourth quarter.
“He’s going to stand right there and throw it. Then he’s going to get back up. Even with no one picking him up, he gets back up. He’s going to come to me, look at me and say, “Let’s keep going.’ That boy takes harder hits than me. His accuracy on his back foot, side foot, running, it’s amazing.”
Last week in Tallahassee, Kaaya took a helmet to the gut in the first quarter. His team ended up taking one, too, with their sixth consecutive loss to their bitter rivals. He promised that loss wouldn’t linger like it had in years past when UM ended its 2013 and 2014 seasons by going a combined 2-6 after falling to the Seminoles.
Saturday, when the Hurricanes needed him most he delivered. Facing a third and 20 at his own 11 with the score tied at 13 and under a minute to play in the first half, Kaaya caught Hokies cornerback Terrell Edmunds jumping offsides. He called for the snap, heaved a pass downfield for Herb Waters and connected for a 45-yard gain. Six plays later, he threw a perfect dart to Scott in the back of the end zone.
“I think it changed the outcome of the game,” Kaaya said. “Going into halftime up 20-13 they’re getting the ball. That changed the momentum of the offense and of the team.”
So, too, did his fourth quarter pass to David Njoku. Facing a third and 3 at the Hokies’ 28 and UM up 23-20, Kaaya evaded a blitzer and found Njoku for a 23-yard gain. Three plays later, he found Scott from two yards out to put the game on ice.
“I think the thing about Brad right now is there are subtle little changes in his game that he didn’t do a year ago,” coach Al Golden said. “For him to kind of flatten out and move laterally to his right and keep the play alive and hit David [Njoku], that’s big. He has got more confidence in that right now. That’s big. You can’t always just sit there in the pocket. That was huge for him to do that and make the play. And then what a hell of a play by David.”
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and Foster both said they came away impressed by UM’s young quarterback.
“He didn’t put many balls somewhere other than where they needed to be,” Beamer said. “He impressed me.”
They have to be. Kaaya is the first quarterback since Ken Dorsey to beat them in back-to-back years. Dorsey actually did in three times in a row from 2000-02.
“As a quarterback you’ve just got to be tough,” Kaaya said. “I wear my Kelly Tough shirt for a reason. I wore it today. I had it on last year at Homecoming. You’ve just got to be tough as a quarterback. As a quarterback, there’s a lot of things you can critique, but you can’t really critique that. You’re either tough or you’re not. I have to sell out for my guys, too. I know the receivers and the offensive line are all going to sell out for me. Joe Yearby is going to sell out on blocks. The receivers are going to lay out for me and I have to sell out and hang in there and make something out of nothing, too.”
Said Foster: “I think he’s a big-time player and he showed that tonight.”