Greg Cote

Hurricanes’ heart and fight keep the perfect dream alive

Miami Hurricanes defensive lineman Trent Harris (33) reacts after sacking Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Kurt Benkert (6) in the fourth quarter as the University of Miami Hurricanes host the Virginia Cavaliers at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, November 18, 2017.
Miami Hurricanes defensive lineman Trent Harris (33) reacts after sacking Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Kurt Benkert (6) in the fourth quarter as the University of Miami Hurricanes host the Virginia Cavaliers at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, November 18, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

This is the Miami Hurricanes team that finally solved its long hex in finally winning at Florida State, and then beat ranked Virginia Tech, and then routed then-No. 3 Notre Dame. This is the team that just secured the school’s first 10-victory season since 2003 and has done nothing but win and win and win again.

And what happened Saturday may have been, in its way, the biggest UM win so far in this magical season.

Don’t you dare dismiss or downplay 44-28 over Virginia because the Cavaliers are unranked, and don’t you dare not be impressed because Miami was not its best and struggled and trailed for so much of the game.

Be impressed for precisely those reasons.

Hammering the Fighting Irish 41-8 remains this season’s signature win, but that one came easily. It turned into a party. Saturday was an uphill climb, a victory hard-earned.

This was a Canes team experiencing a natural letdown after consecutive prime-time mega-games, and twice trailed by 14 points, yet found in itself a way to score the game’s final 30 points and not allow to happen what would have been a crushing, season-ruining defeat.

Instead, UM overcame Virginia and overcame itself to keep alive national-championship hopes as the No. 3 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, a place it should maintain heading into the regular-season finale at Pitt.

The Canes did a lot wrong for a lot of Saturday. The pass defense was awful. There were special-team lapses. The running game wasn’t working …

“But what we didn’t have was a heart issue,” noted coach Mark Richt. “[Virginia] took it to us early on. but we kept banging away. At halftime I told our guys, ‘Just keep believing in yourself.’ ”

Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt speaks to the media after the University of Miami Hurricanes defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.

From deficits of 14-0 and 28-14, this was a win that came with an exhale of relief and maybe a thank-you-lord, but it also served a valuable purpose by letting a young team know what being No. 3 feels like.

It means complacency is not allowed. Off games are not allowed. Not if you imagine being the school’s sixth national champion and first since 2001.

“It’s hard to be at your best every week and take everybody’s best shot when you’re a marked man,” as Richt put it.

Only one team a year — the one that ends up No. 1 — does that.

Richt showed his Canes a video about those pitfalls, starring all the highly ranked teams that had been knocked off this season.

Miami then went out and proceeded to look like a team that might join that unfortunate list.

Trailing 28-14, the near-sellout home crowd at The Rock got so quiet that Canes coaches were waving towels on the sideline, imploring noise, begging a lift.

But then something happened. A team that believes in itself happened. UM was about to earn the noise it needed. An unbeaten team said, “OK, here’s why we are.”

Trailing 28-14, quarterback Malik Rosier — with his father back in the stands watching after suffering as stroke two weeks earlier — completed a huge third-down pass to Braxton Berrios and then a 9-yard TD to Lawrence Cager to draw Miami within one TD.

Miami Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier (12) speaks to the media after the University of Miami Hurricanes host the Virginia Cavaliers at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, November 18, 2017

It was 28-28 seven seconds later in the third on Jaquan Johnson’s 30-yard pick-6 interception score — one of the most perfectly time Turnover Chain gets of the season.

“There was talk on the sideline that we needed a turnover to get momentum,” Johnson said.

Done. And UM never looked back, roaring ahead on a 44-yard field goal, getting the ball back on a huge Trent Harris fourth-down sack, scoring on Rosier’s snaking 8-yard TD on a series that featured a 36-yard run by Travis Homer, and tacking on the final six on Homer’s 19-yard end-zone arrival.

Clutch plays at big times were blossoming all over the field, the Canes literally taking Virginia’s huge upset victory away from the helpless Cavaliers.

Ringo Starr sang it in a hit song in 1973 and, if his grammar was off, his message was spot-on: “It don’t come easy.” Not always, anyway.

The football gets complicated when you are unbeaten and ranked No. 3, and when your family tree includes five championship rings, and, yes, when your Turnover Chain exudes the attitude the haters love to hate. You don’t just wear a Turnover Chain. You wear a bull’s-eye.

It becomes about heavier and heavier expectations and stakes that keep growing, and about opponents who now get to play the angry, disrespected underdog — not you. Expect more of the same this coming week at Pitt, in freezing temperatures, as the Panthers throw manic, make-our-season intensity at the Canes.

You know why Saturday may have been the biggest win yet? Because of the fight it took to get it. And because of the way you’d have felt if everything had crashed in a stunning upset loss.

The magic season almost got ruined Saturday, but the Canes wouldn’t let it.

Stalwart left tackle Kc McDermott, one of the seniors playing his final home game, said it just right in savoring 10-0, in savoring a dream still alive, and in savoring a hungry fandom that has come alive with it.

“Some tragedies happen and it brings a city together, and some good things happen and it brings a city together,” he said. “We have a really good thing going on right here. We’ve given this city a reason to believe in something.”

​UM linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, offensive lineman Kc McDermott speak to the media after University of Miami Hurricanes defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.

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