Twenty thoughts and notes after UM’s 31-14 Russell Athletic Bowl win against West Virginia, Miami’s first bowl victory in a decade:
• In what many expect will be his UM finale, this was a microcosm of Brad Kaaya’s UM career – bouts of wildness and ineffectiveness when pressured, but lethal and often razor-sharp when given time to throw.
He opened 5 for 13 for 29 yards, missing a bunch of throws high. Then he reeled off nine completions in nine attempts for 157 yards, a streak that reached 18 of 19 at one point.
“He started throwing darts,” Mark Richt said.
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Here’s what analysts had to say about him as this game was unfolding:
NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah: “When Kaaya is on time, in rhythm and clean in the pocket, he’s really good. When any of those factors change, he’s not the same guy.”
ESPN’s Greg McElroy: On Kaaya’s good days, he’s “as good as anyone in college football. Average and below average days happen way too often for a player of his talent.”
He finished the season with 27 TDs and 7 picks after going 24 for 34 today for 282 yards, four TDs and no picks.
• Kaaya told ESPN he will announce his NFL decision within a few days but first must do “some soul searching” and talk to Richt and players with whom he’s particularly close. Several people inside the UM program expect him to turn pro, but Kaaya insisted in his postgame press conference that he hasn’t made a decision.
“I loved every minute of it, through good and bad, ups and downs,” Kaaya told WQAM’s Don Bailey, sounding like a player who’s gone.
• Has any coordinator at UM in recent memory extracted more from his group than defensive coordinator Manny Diaz?
West Virginia, which entered averaging 507 yards per game (12th in the country) and 32.6 points, managed a season-low 229 yards and 14 points.
What an impressive job by Diaz, who extracted every bit of talent from a defense that lost arguably its two best players to season long suspensions (Al Quadin Muhammad and Jermaine Grace).
UM entered having allowed only 18.9 points per game this season, its lowest total in a decade and tied for 13th nationally.
“Best defense we faced all year,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said.
• We told you this morning that impressive freshman defensive end Joseph Jackson had been receiving starting reps and would play more.
Jackson got the start, played a ton, and was terrific, stopping a run for no gain on WVU’s first play and collecting a sack, giving him 8.5 this season. He was frequently in the Mountaineers’ backfield.
• This was a banner night for all of UM’s prominent freshmen. On a run/pass option, Ahmmon Richards sparked UM’s slumbering offense with a 51-yard catch and run (mostly run) to get UM on the scoreboard.
Shaquille Quarterman was active and disruptive (including a nine-yard tackle for loss); Zach McCloud made a terrific tackle for loss (but also dropped an interception that could have been a return for a touchdown); and Mike Pinckney also had some moments (including a tackle for loss) before a justified spearing penalty resulted in him being ejected early in the third. Pinckney must sit out the first half of UM’s opener next season.
• During the fourth quarter, Richt lit into his offensive line, the UM unit that was most disappointing this season.
Too often against quality opponents this season, UM’s o-line has allowed Kaaya to be pressured on three-man rushes. That’s unacceptable.
The line didn’t create nearly enough push in the running game, with Mark Walton limited to 52 yards on 17 carries.
As usual, the o-line committed too many penalties, including a KC McDermott false start, a foolish unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Alex Gall, a Tyree St. Louis holding penalty with WVU rushing only three; and a Danny Isidora false start.
• McDermott, who started at left guard the first nine games, was uneven in his fourth start at left tackle. Trevor Darling, who was the starting left tackle for UM’s first nine games, alternated with Tyler Gauthier at left guard.
UM might need incoming freshman tackle Navaughn Donaldson to start immediately. LSU transfer George Brown will help, too.
• UM got the ball more to Braxton Berrios, who was underutilized this year, and he caught 4 for 64.
• David Njoku broke a tackle for an impressive touchdown in what’s expected to be his final game. UM people say he has told teammates he’s turning pro. [UPDATE: Njoku just told reporters he’s turning pro.]
His brother, Evidence, is currently the only receiver orally committed to UM in this class.
• Chad Thomas, much improved but not as good as coaches believe he can be, forced a fumble and deflected a pass. The 2017 projected starting defensive line of Thomas/Joe Jackson/Kendrick Norton/Richard McIntosh should be very good.
McIntosh was very good tonight, and UM moving him from end to tackle last spring was one of its smartest offseason decisions.
• Courtel Jenkins, who irritated the staff earlier this season with foolish penalties and a questionable attitude, has escaped the doghouse.
He was very good tonight, including a tackle for loss. Jenkins, who reportedly might transfer, has clearly moved ahead of Anthony Moten as UM’s third-best defensive tackle.
McIntosh and Jenkins combined for a terrific fourth down stop.
• Wasn’t it nice not hearing words like “read and react” about UM’s defense this year? This attacking style was a rousing success.
“It’s a lot different than last year,” McIntosh said about Diaz’s system, in a postgame chat with WQAM’s Josh Darrow. “I’m very excited he’s here and I’ve got a couple more years from him. He’s going to make me and my teammates great players with his system. We were penetrating, putting pressure on the quarterback.”
Rayshawn Jenkins, on WQAM, said Diaz’s system is “fun, crazy aggressive, everything you dream of in a defense.”
• Corn Elder got the better of his matchup with talented WVU receiver Sheldon Gibson, including nifty coverage on a failed fourth down play in the second half.
Elder, who entered UM as a running back, became a reliable, physical corner, and Mel Kiper projects him as a third day NFL draft pick.
• Safety Jaquan Johnson, a projected starter next season, should have had an interception, but it was negated by a bogus pass interference call against Jamal Carter. Gibson actually ran into Carter on that play.
• Richt used a ton of bubble screens this year, and they’ve worked far better than they did under the previous regime. Richt kept going to that well on Wednesday before West Virginia finally stopped it.
• UM coaches, trying to convince Gus Edwards not to transfer, gave him 10 carries, but he mustered only 19 yards.
Joe Yearby, who previously tweeted (then deleted) that he’s turning pro, had three late carries for 16 yards.
• Good to see Malcolm Lewis close out his UM career with his first TD catch of the season. Lewis worked tirelessly to return from a gruesome dislocated ankle injury in 2012.
• Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, to WQAM’s Don Bailey: “This team deserves this. This program deserves this. We shot ourselves in the foot [early on]. One or two guys missing a block here or there. Once we got rolling, it was pretty to see.”
Brown, on Richards: “Speed kills. He’s got plenty of it. Been locked in all year long. Big time playmaker for us.”
• Stacy Coley, who had 5 catches for 51 yards in his UM finale, to WQAM: “We knew we had to calm down” after UM mustered just 22 yards on its first 15 offensive plays.
“Everyone was pumped up and anxious. We had to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. Once we did that, everything clicked.”
• Richt, to ESPN: “I really hope we end up in the top 25.”
UM, at 9-4 and with five wins in a row, deserves to be there after beating a 10-2 team that entered 16th in the country.
The Hurricanes finished a season with five wins in a row for the first time since its 2001 championship season.