The Mark Richt Era began with a flourish Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium, as the Miami Hurricanes made Richt’s homecoming a joyous one by crushing Florida A&M 70-3.
Miami scored 42 points in the third quarter, a UM record for one quarter, to reach the 70-point mark — six points shy of the most ever allowed by the Rattlers and the most ever scored by a Richt-coached team.
It was Miami’s third largest margin of victory ever and only the fourth time it scored at least 70 points.
“Very thankful for the victory,” Richt said. “I'll just say this: I really, really like it here. I like these players, I like this University, I like the vibe of the city. I’m very thankful to be here at The U.”
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The crowd of 60,703 was more than thankful. It was ecstatic.
The Hurricanes played with passion — four true freshmen started, including three at linebacker; one scored a touchdown and true freshman Pat Bethel blocked a first-quarter punt.
The veterans made their marks — senior Corn Elder had an interception three plays in and junior Joe Yearby ran for a career-long 64-yard touchdown.
The defense dominated — middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman had seven tackles and two booming tackles for loss, and the Canes held the Rattlers to 22 yards rushing and 175 passing.
“Proud of the effort of our players tonight,’’ said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “I was very impressed with the way we played up front. I think [it’s] what we wanted to be as a defense in terms of the way we’re getting our feet across the line of scrimmage, being disruptive, making plays in the backfield. It looked for most of the game that they had a hard time getting the ball back to the line of scrimmage against our rush defense.
“We played a ton of people tonight. It was a very unusual night with the rushing-yard disparity (UM had 373 yards rushing) and the time of possession disparity (37:33 for FAMU and 22:27 for UM). So, we played most of the night on defense. Our depth was tested very early on and I was very proud of the guys that were our backups, who played like starters for most of the night.’’
Quarterman said he wasn’t nervous, despite it being his first college game. “Once we ran through the smoke I was totally focused' ' he said. On either side of Quarterman was weak-side starter Michael Pinckney (or redshirt freshman Jamie Gordinier) and strong-side starter Zach McCloud. “It was a great experience,” Quarterman said. “Everything I hoped it would be...We have tremendous potential.”
The quarterback? Still elite.
Brad Kaaya threw to nine different receivers, including a four-yard touchdown on his first pass of 2016 to 280-pound fullback Marquez Williams and a 15-yard touchdown to true freshman Ahmmon Richards in the third quarter.
And the running backs? Impeccable. For the first time since 1987, UM had three 100-yard rushers: Mark Walton, with 116 and a touchdown; Gus Edwards, with 106 and a career-long 74-yard touchdown in his first game since sitting out last season following foot surgery; and Yearby, with 105 and two touchdowns.
Few, if any, could have expected anything but a solid victory, considering the Rattlers of Tallahassee are a Football Championship Subdivision team coming off a 1-10 record.
But this was nearly epic for the formerly forlorn Hurricanes, coming off an 8-5 season and a mediocre tenure under Al Golden. Note that Richt’s biggest win as a former Canes quarterback was 49-0 over FAMU in 1980.
Under the tutelage of Richt, once the backup to UM great Jim Kelly, Kaaya completed 12 of 18 passes for 135 yards and a career-high-tying four touchdowns. Kaaya is now tied with Craig Erickson for seventh place on UM’s career touchdown list, with 46.
He had 105 yards and two touchdown passes in the first half. He was sacked once.
“This was the only birthday present I wanted today,” said Kaaya, who turned 21 Saturday. “All the other things are cool and stuff, but this is what the day was about for me. I had to tone out all the text messages and all the posts and stuff like that just play football. My phone is exploding now.
“It was great, couldn’t have asked for anything better on all sides of the ball, just to make coach Richt’s first game a win like this and hopefully it just carries on and continues and his first season is memorable. Hopefully he doesn’t have to go through what the last guy went through.’’
As usual, Kaaya did not discriminate in his choice of targets. Catching passes were receivers Richards, Lewis, Stacy Coley and Braxton Berrios; tight ends Chris Herndon, David Njoku and Standish Dobard; tailback Joe Yearby and Williams.
Backup quarterback Malik Rosier relieved Kaaya with 4:04 remaining in the third quarter, and ran in for a 19-yard touchdown on the fifth play of the drive to make it 63-3. Rosier completed one of three passes for 15 yards.
FAMU finally got on the scoreboard after a nine-play, 61-yard drive culminated in a 31-yard field goal by Austin Miller with 4:47 left in the first half.
Defensively, the Canes had two picks, the one by Elder and another by Texas graduate transfer Adrian Colbert. Demetrius Jackson had two sacks and safety Jaquan Johnson added another.
On special teams, Berrios returned a punt for a 41-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Berrios said the Canes gave Richt a present after the game.
“We gave him a game ball, of course,’’ Berrios said. “We’re happy for him. He’s done so many things for us in the short time he’s been here. All we can do is give back to him, go out there and do what these coaches are teaching us, and do it in a respectful manner. I think today was the epitome of that.’’
Next week, it’s on to FAU at Hard Rock, before what could be an intriguing matchup on the road against Appalachian State, which lost in overtime at No. 9 Tennessee on Thursday night.
Richt said earlier in the week that he didn’t sleep the night before the spring game, when he called plays for the first time in many years. After Saturday’s victory, he was asked if he was able to sleep Friday night.
“I actually slept pretty good last night,’’ the coach said. “For whatever reason, there was a calmness that started last night. I was able to sleep. I didn’t go to bed until about midnight, but once I laid my head down, I slept pretty good.”