The University of Miami will end the 2015 season with a winning record.
The Hurricanes did not quit Saturday like they did last year at the end of the season, when they lost four consecutive games for a 6-7 record. They did not fold after being eliminated last week from the Coastal Division race of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Instead, the Canes delivered as they vowed they would, playing for pride, for each other and for a chance to go to a better bowl by defeating Georgia Tech 38-21 at Sun Life Stadium in the last home game of the season.
“I hope what they played for was pride and the commitment they made to each other,’’ UM interim coach Larry Scott said. “… We’re all in this together.’’
Miami is now 7-4 overall and 4-3 in the ACC as it heads into its regular-season finale at Pittsburgh (8-3, 6-1) the day after Thanksgiving.
A win against Pittsburgh and in a bowl game would give UM a 9-4 record, the same finish it had in 2013. If UM defeats Pitt, its bowl game would likely be one of the following: the Pinstripe in New York City on Dec. 26; the Belk in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Dec. 30; the Sun in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 26; and either the Taxslayer in Jacksonville on Jan. 2 or the Music City in Nashville on Dec. 30.
Georgia Tech, favored by two points Saturday, fell to a dismal 3-8 and 1-7.
“We can’t seem to get out of our own way,’’ lamented Tech coach Paul Johnson.
Miami was undoubtedly aided by an undisclosed injury to Yellow Jackets’ option quarterback Justin Thomas at about 3:15 of the first quarter. When Thomas, who missed the rest of the game, exited the field, so did the Yellow Jackets’ chances.
Redshirt freshman Matthew Jordan replaced Thomas. He completed 4 of 8 passes for 59 yards and an interception and ran for 60 yards and a touchdown.
Freshman running back Mark Walton scored three times, twice running and once breaking three tackles on a 25-yard pass from Brad Kaaya.
Kaaya completed 16 of 25 passes for 300 yards and the touchdown to Walton. He threw some beauties that covered 46 yards (to Herb Waters), 46 (Chris Herndon), 42 (Stacy Coley) and 33 (David Njoku).
“It feels awesome,’’ Kaaya said. “We know we’re better than last year, I guess. Just win the rest of the them and go out the right way. I think the guys have the right mind-set.’’
Seven UM receivers accounted for those yards.
And in a school-record tying performance, kicker Michael Badgley belted a 57-yard field goal as time expired in the first half. Badgley’s record tied Danny Miller’s 57-yarder against Florida State in 1981.
The Yellow Jackets scored the game’s first touchdown but never led again.
“In a way, we kind of needed that,’’ Scott said of UM’s ability to be resilient after giving up a touchdown on Georgia Tech’s first drive. “There was never any wavering. The look in their eyes said, ‘OK, we got it.’ ’’
Miami’s defense was pumped Saturday, jumping up and down, hugging each other and bumping midair with their coaches and fellow players after nearly every dominant play. The Canes forced three of the Yellow Jacket’s nine fumbles (Juwon Young, Ufomba Kamalu and Al-Quadin Muhammad) and had two interceptions (Corn Elder and Jamal Carter).
Linebacker Muhammad, who said Tech’s first touchdown “woke up’’ the Canes, also finished with a career-high 11 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack.
“We came to the sideline and stuck together,’’ Muhammad said. “It motivated us to not let that happen again.’’
In a particularly impressive defensive play in the second quarter, defensive end Kamalu violently stripped running back Patrick Skov of the ball on second-and-5 from the Georgia Tech 40. Kamalu, 6-6 and 297 pounds, ran down the left side of the field, then fumbled just before he reached the end zone. Canes linebacker Jermaine Grace pounced on the ball for his first career defensive touchdown, and UM led 21-7 with 6:18 to go before halftime.
The game was delayed by lightning for 30 minutes in the third quarter, the third time this season that play was halted by nature.
With 10 minutes left in the third quarter, the skies opened with a fury, and it poured for much of the rest of the game, players slipping and sliding across the field.