Despite a season of turmoil, the University of Miami proved the day after Thanksgiving that it has plenty for which to be grateful.
The Hurricanes defeated Pittsburgh 29-24 on Friday, marking their best finish to a regular season since 2009 — four victories in their past five games.
The win improved UM’s record to 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, while Pitt fell to 8-4 and 6-2. The public perception of the Hurricanes being quitters after they dropped the final four games of 2014 seemed to come to an end Friday.
“It meant a lot to us,” said receiver Rashawn Scott of the victory, witnessed by 40,126 at Heinz Field. “People have known us for folding at the end of the season. We ain’t got time for that anymore.”
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The victory assured the Hurricanes of a more attractive bowl, possibly the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City on Dec. 26 or the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville on Jan. 2, though the bowl lineup won’t officially be announced until Dec. 6.
“This team, this program made something out of nothing,” said Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, who threw for 261 yards and a touchdown and leapfrogged four quarterbacks to rise to No. 5 on UM’s all-time passing yardage list with 6,217. “A lot of people thought we were going to throw in the [towel] and cave in after all that happened after the Clemson game. Just credit to our team and credit to Coach [Larry] Scott for keeping us all together — and credit to Coach [Al] Golden for getting this team together last January.”
A day after Clemson beat Miami 58-0 at home, the worst loss in UM history, Golden was fired. Athletic director Blake James immediately named tight ends coach Larry Scott the interim head coach.
Scott was so emotional Friday after the game that he had to pause more than once for several seconds to take deep breaths and compose himself.
“I’m proud of these guys, proud of this football team,” Scott began, before pausing and wiping away tears. “You go through it, and when you coach you hope you can teach kids that there’s a way to do things and there’s a way not to do things. And that’s all we went to work on — that was the focus. Because we always knew we had a talented football team, but we weren’t as detailed all the time at the little things [at which] we needed to be really good.
“That’s still a work in progress, but they bought in. They did everything I asked them to do, and more. You’re happy to see that when they do buy in and believe in each other, they play for the right reasons — pride, commitment and the brand that they represent — and they’re hard to beat.”
Scott said the players were “happy’’ in the locker room, and said he has told them that “life is about choices and the consequences of those choices. Don’t always look at consequences in a negative sense. If you’re willing to do what’s right and do things the right way, sometimes those consequences are success.”
The Canes never trailed Friday, though the Panthers began to close the gap with an 89-yard kickoff return by Quadree Henderson with 6:38 left, followed by a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Scott Orndoff (and two-point conversion) to make it 29-18.
Pitt’s Chris Blewitt missed a 47-yard field goal attempt with 4:22 left.
Panthers quarterback Nate Peterman rushed for a 5-yard touchdown three plays after throwing a 36-yard completion to Tyler Boyd to narrow UM’s lead to 29-24 with 2:34 remaining, but Pitt’s onside kick was recovered by Miami at the Pitt 48. By the time the Panthers got the ball again there were six seconds left, and a multi-lateral play — unlike the eight-lateral kickoff return for UM that won the game at Duke — was unsuccessful.
Kaaya’s 261 yards were generated on a 21-of-35 day. He passed Bernie Kosar, Ryan Clement, Craig Erickson and Vinny Testaverde on the all-time passing list, with Gino Torretta, Stephen Morris, Jacory Harris and Ken Dorsey still ahead of him.
Kaaya also rushed for a 1-yard touchdown to culminate UM’s opening drive.
“We were just going all-out,” said Kaaya, who for the first time this season was not sacked, despite being hit multiple times. “This is our last game of the season. We felt, ‘Start early, start fast.’ I enjoy winning.”
Tailback Joe Yearby led the Canes with 99 rushing yards on 22 carries, and his freshman counterpart Mark Walton led UM in receiving yards with 80 on three catches. Rashawn Scott added 74 yards and a 22-yard touchdown on seven catches. Kicker Michael Badgley kicked five field goals to account for 15 points.
Defensively, UM sacked Peterman three times, and cornerback Artie Burns collected his sixth interception of the season.
When asked about his bowl preference, Burns answered with three words.
“Anybody, anywhere, anytime.”