The dream is over. The goal is gone. The season has faded into “what ifs.”
The University of Miami had no room for error Saturday at Kenan Stadium, no room for defeat.
But lose it did, as North Carolina kept its own dream alive of clinching the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference by crushing the Hurricanes 59-21 on a crisp, autumn day that became cold and stark and eventually spiraled out of control for the visitors.
Miami (6-4, 3-3), which returns home next Saturday for a 12:30 p.m. game against Georgia Tech, needed to win out to have a chance at taking the Coastal and earning its first berth in the ACC title game.
Instead, it appears that the Tar Heels (9-1, 6-0), winners of nine consecutive games since they lost their opener, will earn that honor with one more victory.
After repeatedly preaching “Coastal Division” as their season-long goal, the Hurricanes are faced with a sobering new reality. What do they play for now?
“You play for pride,” said Miami interim coach Larry Scott, promoted when Al Golden was fired the day after the Canes lost at home to Clemson 58-0 on Oct. 24. “You play for the opportunity. You play for the commitment that you made to your teammates, this university and to each other. That’s what you have to dig deep and play for. Such is life. Everything in life is like that.
“Once you’ve made a commitment to something, you’re committed to it. You have to finish it the right way.”
On offense, the Canes didn’t quit, scoring three touchdowns against UNC reserves from midway through the third quarter to late in the fourth, but the 59 points they gave up were the most they have allowed to Carolina in 19 meetings. The previous UNC high: 34 in 1952.
At the end of the first half, the score was 31-0.
At the end of three quarters it was 52-7, Miami’s only touchdown was an 8-yard pass from quarterback Brad Kaaya to freshman Lawrence Cager for Cager’s first career score.
“It was a great catch, but at the end of the day we still came out with a loss,’’ Cager said. “We needed more.’’
Kaaya made it 52-14 on a 1-yard rush early in the final quarter.
UNC’s 3-yard rush by Charles Brunson midway through the fourth quarter made it 59-14 and gave the Tar Heels 125 points in the past two weeks, a school record.
Carolina completed its first undefeated season at home since 1996.
“This is an incredible place I will never forget,’’ said UNC senior quarterback Marquise Williams, who completed 11 of 16 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. He added 12 rushes for 101 yards and three touchdowns.
UNC Tailback Elijah Hood ran for 132 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
“First off, you’ve got to give them respect,” Miami defensive tackle Calvin Heurtelou said so softly that it was almost a whisper. “They were a good team. They earned what they did [Saturday].”
The Hurricanes finished with 425 yards to UNC’s 487. But they committed 12 penalties for 103 yards and constantly hurt themselves with poor field position. Frustration from penalties they felt were unfairly rendered heightened the tension and appeared to put the game even more out of reach.
“You have to be able to compose yourself,” Scott said. “I understand you’re frustrated, and I understand sometimes it’s a result of how much it means to you, but … playing together and still staying together and not letting it get you to the point to where you do things to hurt the team [is imperative].”
Kaaya, who was sacked twice but after the game said he was fine, completed 24 of 43 passes for 326 yards and one touchdown. He threw one interception that was eventually converted into a touchdown.
The Tar Heels also scored after center Nick Linder’s errant snap in the first half.
“We’ve just got to win the rest of our games and go to a good bowl game,’’ Kaaya said. “I really want to get to a good bowl. That’s the motivation. At the end of the year we can hopefully finish 9-4, that’s the goal right now. Finish strong.”
After Georgia Tech, the Canes finish their regular season at Pittsburgh the day after Thanksgiving.
“It’s about pride and finishing strong for each other and the coaches,” Cager said. “We just have to stick together and get back to work [Sunday].”