Greg Cote

Orange Bowl loss for 3rd defeat in a row doesn’t erase the Canes’ positives and progress

Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Derrick Tindal (25) intercepts the ball in the end zone intended for Miami Hurricanes wide receiver Lawrence Cager (18) in the third quarter as the University of Miami Hurricanes take on the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017.
Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Derrick Tindal (25) intercepts the ball in the end zone intended for Miami Hurricanes wide receiver Lawrence Cager (18) in the third quarter as the University of Miami Hurricanes take on the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

This is the first time I ever have written the following about any football team’s season, at any level.

The Miami Hurricanes finished with three consecutive losses. One to a huge underdog. One a blowout in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. Now this to end the season, in the hometown Orange Bowl game. Yes, the season that soared for so long sagged so, so badly at the end.

And yet this UM season that ended in triple disappointment was an overriding success, it was progress, another step climbed — and that should be unequivocal. That should not be open to reasonable debate.

It is always toughest to see the macro view, though, when the micro, the right-this-minute, offers only fresh hurt. It would be far easier today to rail about what went wrong than to make the greater effort to appreciate all that went right.

The frustration even got to UM coach Mark Richt Saturday, penalized during the game for arguing with the officials and complaining afterward about lopsided calls that went against his team.

“I apologize to anyone who can read lips,” he said, of his tirade caught on TV. “It [the officiating] was a shame out there.”

Richt also sees the bigger picture, though. He is the closest to it, after all.

“We will get better, I can promise you that,” he said. “The season was successful in a lot of ways, but we’re hungry for more. For taking it one step further next year.”

Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt addresses the media after UM lost to the Wisconsin Badgers 34-24 in the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, December 30, 2017.

Yes, the loss at Pitt to end the regular season was a stunning crusher. The loss to Clemson, in a play-in game for the playoff, was embarrassingly lopsided at 38-3. And Saturday night’s game vs. Wisconsin in the 84th Orange Bowl game was supposed to be the salve, the happy ending, but was a 34-24 letdown-defeat instead.

All true. But so is this:

The Canes were 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation before The U made a late U-turn. Those exhilarating wins over longtime nemesis Florida State, then Virginia Tech, then Notre Dame really happened. Deep into the season, Miami was in the conversation to be in the College Football Playoff. Talk of a sixth national championship grew plausible, materializing like a photograph in an old-time chemical bath.

How it ended told UM how far it still is from being a serious player for another national title, but it does not erase the progress made toward that goal.

This marked Miami’s first 10-win season since 2003, in its first OB and biggest bowl appearance since then. A year earlier, Richt’s first as Canes coach, saw the end of six consecutive bowl losses across 10 years. UM is sure to tumble now from its No. 10 ranking entering the game but still should end up with its highest post-bowls rank since 2004, when current players were preparing to navigate first grade.

Progress, all of it. Miami fans also ought to be encouraged by an incoming 2018 recruiting class ranked seventh in the latest ESPN.com national rankings, based on December commitments.

The future in Coral Gables remains on the ascent under Richt, enough to withstand even the L-of-a-letdown that ended 2017.

The onset of the College Football Playoff has been great for the sport, but the negative is that every program but the four that make it are left to parse their disappointment, how they came up short, why they failed.

That is what made the Orange Bowl a consolation prize for both teams, not just UM. Wisconsin was 12-0 and CFP-aimed before its miserably timed Big Ten championship game loss ruined everything.

This Canes season nevertheless has been the salvation of South Florida sports this year compared with our Big Four pro teams. The Dolphins have lapsed back to mediocrity; the Heat are average, too; the Panthers are trying to get there; and the fire-sale Marlins evidently are trying to do the impossible and make us all miss Jeffrey Loria.

It’s UM football that has been the parade through town, lifting us, with that blingy, so-Miami Turnover Chain, the perfect symbol of the Return of Swagger, the Road to Back — a road still traveled, for sure, but the distance growing ever shorter.

Amid the optimism that should be the residue of this season, though, one reality has become clearer and clearer.

Miami needs consistently better play from the quarterback position than Malik Rosier has provided.

Miami Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier discusses UM's 34-24 loss to the Wisconsin Badgers in the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, December 30, 2017.​

He has not been altogether bad, although he was quite that in the finishing three-game losing streak, including Saturday’s performance that saw Rosier lack accuracy and throw three interceptions, one in the end zone.

Rosier was thoroughly outplayed by Wisconsin counterpart Alex Hornibrook, who was voted game MVP. The contrast in QB play was the difference in an otherwise fairly even game.

Rosier, of course, also is the QB who Saturday produced his 31st TD passing or running, breaking Vinny Testeverde’s 1986 UM season record. Rosier also has enhanced the offense with his running ability.

But the Canes must do better at QB, have more there, to help take that next step. At the very least, Rosier, a junior expected to return in ’18, should face open competition to keep his job.

I trust Richt to do that.

By the way, Miami and the Orange Bowl game next host a College Football Playoff semifinal.

Let’s see if that, and the way this season ended, are enough incentive for the Canes to continue their journey to Back.

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