The Miami Hurricanes were due for a day like this, a performance like this. But oh the timing and oh the team that would end UM’s unbeaten season and perfect dream.
It happened Saturday, stunningly, as the 10-0, No. 2-ranked Canes swaggered onto Heinz Field and got dominated by the 4-7 Pitt Panthers, 24-14.
“These guys are hurt,” said coach Mark Richt on TV. “I’m hurt.”
This Canes team had won everything in its sights until now, beating opponents, pressure, expectations, distraction, disrespect, doubters and deficits. They had been 4 for 4 in games decided by one score. Just a week earlier they had twice trailed by 14 points and yet won. They had waved high that golden Turnover Chain and been one of the wonderful stories of this season. They had been the most exciting thing in South Florida sports since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach.
All of that put the Canes in position Saturday to mint only the seventh perfect regular-season in nine decades of football, and the first since 2002. Instead, UM would lead only once, briefly, at 7-3, and now sees its path to a possible sixth national championship in school history snatched from its hands.
UM needed only to keep winning. (As if that were simple). Now, it needs that and plenty of luck.
The Canes figure to fall out of the College Football Playoff’s top four when the new rankings come out Tuesday. They must now hope some of the other teams jockeying for the four playoff spots lose Saturday. Then UM must beat Clemson on Dec. 2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Charlotte — and hope that is enough to elevate Miami back up into the coveted top four.
The talk all season for Miami — other the serendipity of that magical Turnover Chain – has been whether The U was “back.” Games like Saturday measure the distance you are from being close to back and being certifiably, unequivocally there.
No excuses, Miami. It was a bad performance, off-key notes in a symphony. A waste of a rare opportunity. That nation-leading 15-game winning streak dating to last season fell not with valor, but with a thud.
Quarterback Malik Rosier, who had been 11-0 as a starter in his college career, completed only 15 of 34 passes, throwing two touchdowns but inaccurate too much of the day. There was was no real ground game other than Rosier’s scrambling.
UM’s defense was just OK. The Turnover Chain was worn twice, but the defense also allowed Pitt’s true-freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett to have a career day in his first start, passing for a touchdown, running for two others and thoroughly outplaying Rosier. Pickett against this defense should have been a goldfish thrown into a pond of piranha, but Miami could never heap pressure on the kid.
And Rosier was so ineffective most of the day that coach Mark Richt benched him for a series, down 17-7 with 9:58 to play. In came backup Evan Shirreffs, who on his three snaps had a pass batted down, threw another incomplete and got sacked. Rosier thereafter returned.
Such a controversy bloomed among fans on social media that Richt found the need to go on Twitter after the game and emphasize that Rosier remains his starter.
The temporary QB switch was the first time all season Richt has made a move that seemed to convey panic. He blew that one. Period. It also conveyed desperation. It was a coach who felt like he was watching his shot at a national championship running away from him. And it may have been.
Perspective is the challenge right now, both for UM fans and for the CFP selection committee.
Yes, in college football, one loss coming late hurts so much more than one that came early, illogical as that is. But 10-1 is 10-1. Fans should see appreciatively that biggest picture even amid the hard, humbling disappointment of Saturday. So should members of the CFP as they convene to consider how far the Canes will fall.
It was one stumble. A bad one, and terribly timed.
But that it came when it did does not erase all the good that came before it, and that may yet lay ahead.