University of Miami

Hurricanes seniors expect ‘emotional’ home finale vs. Pittsburgh

UM seniors will run through the smoke for the final time Saturday against Pittsburgh.
UM seniors will run through the smoke for the final time Saturday against Pittsburgh. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

They say they’re not ones to look back. Yet on Saturday night, at least 19 Miami Hurricanes will reminisce as they prepare to play their final home game and run through the smoke for the last time.

It’s senior night at Sun Life Stadium, and after a bumpy ride through an NCAA investigation and more losses than they could have imagined, these young men want to remember it as a happy one.

“Emotional, very emotional, man,” is how tight end Clive Walford, one of only three fifth-year seniors who have been at UM (6-5, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) since their start of college football, said he expects to be before the 7 p.m. kickoff against Pittsburgh (5-6, 3-4). “These are my brothers. When I came here we created a bond. Now I’m leaving and I might not see some of these guys for the rest of my life. So, I’m going to enjoy this Saturday.”

Those seniors include many who have rarely played and some, such as quarterbacks Jake Heaps and Ryan Williams, who had lofty dreams that weren’t realized – but stayed loyal and worked hard nonetheless.

“It’s been a little disappointing personally, because it really wasn’t the way I planned it,” said Williams, who was slated to be the starter this season until he tore the ACL of his right knee in April during spring practice. “But I don’t really have any regrets for coming to Miami. Obviously I didn’t get to play my senior year … but still happy I could be out there for my teammates and here with Clive and Denzel [Perryman] and all of them.”

Some of these seniors were called into action before they were physically ready. Some could have used the extra year to master the playbook. But all did their part to contribute.

“I’ll have a lot of chills going through my body,” defensive tackle Olsen Pierre said of running through the smoke for the last time. “It was worth it to come here. There were a lot of challenges and a lot of ups and downs, but this place made me into a man.”

Linebacker Thurston Armbrister, named after Thurston Howell III from the television show Gilligan’s Island, came to UM as an undersized Hollywood Hills player unrated by recruiting services.

He has since grown into a 6-3, 241-pound every-game starter who leads the Canes with five sacks and 7 ½ tackles for loss and has two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

“There are all types of ‘What ifs,’ ” Armbrister said of the Hurricanes’ journey. “But things happen. You adjust and adapt and move forward.

“It’s going to be emotional. I came in as a small freshman. Mentally I was just a pee wee, a little guy. Coach [Mark] D’Onofrio and Coach [Al] Golden helped me develop as a person and player. I’m glad to be part of this.”

After an especially nasty loss last week to Virginia, the Hurricanes say they’re determined to win this last home game. The underclassmen want to especially do it for the seniors.

Freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya said he’s “sure it’s surreal” for the seniors. “I told some of the guys I talked to individually, ‘Let’s finish strong. It’s the seniors’ last game. You can’t take it for granted.’ ”

Added receiver Braxton Berrios: “They brought us along. They taught me, Brad, everybody, everything. You really want to put it all out for them.”

The Hurricanes need this victory for more than the seniors. An impressive showing could only help their cause in earning a better bowl and would subdue, if even just somewhat, the anger among fans that returned last week.

But Pitt wants this victory just as much, and has even more immediate motivation. Win this game and the Panthers, coming off a victory against Syracuse, earn bowl eligibility. Lose this game and their season ends.

“I think the game itself, especially playing Miami, it’s motivation enough,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “Every game is crucial. If you win enough to earn the right for another game, you’re very appreciative.”

Pittsburgh’s game is all about the run and ACC rushing leader James Conner, whose status was in question this week because of a hip injury. The 6-2, 250-pound bruiser leads the league in rushing yards (1,600), rushing yards per game (145.5) and rushing touchdowns (22).

“He’s one of the best backs we’ll play all year and we’ve played a lot of good ones,” Pierre said. “He’s fast, physical, strong, big. I’m excited for the challenge.”

As is Miami’s own star running back Duke Johnson, a junior who is contemplating entering the NFL Draft. Johnson also might be playing for the last time at Sun Life Stadium.

“Coach Golden says do it for the seniors,” Johnson said. “The seniors say do it for Coach Golden. At the end of the day, we’re doing it for each other.”

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