Greg Cote

Miami Hurricanes beat ranked Virginia for first quality win — and saved a sinking season | Opinion

It all worked for the Miami Hurricanes on Friday night — well, enough did, finally — for the first time this football season against a quality opponent.

Nothing has come easily for the Canes in 2019, and nothing did this time. Still, a cloud just lifted from this team.

It felt like a season was saved. Given hope, at least.

UM scored its first quality win of the year, and of the Manny Diaz era, with a taut 17-9 victory over 20th-ranked Virginia.

“Super proud of our team. Very hard fought win,” said Diaz afterward. “What changed today was, the team that made the plays in the fourth quarter was the Miami Hurricanes. This was a huge shot in the arm for us and maybe a little bit of momentum.”

N’Kosi Perry replaced injured Jarren Williams at quarterback for his first start of the season and was good enough to not lose it, throwing for one touchdown and running for the other.

The head coach Diaz got more involved with his defense -- and with palpable results as UM fiercely owned the red zone and denied the Cavaliers the end zone.

Oh and the kicking-plagued Canes missed neither a field goal nor an extra point as 5-9, 155-pound sophomore Turner Davidson played big in his first-ever college game.

It didn’t hurt that Virginia demonstrated itself to be over-ranked.

Nevertheless, it all came together every bit as much as it needed to at Hard Rock Stadium.

The only questions now:

Was it enough? Was it in time?

Was this the spark that will turn around what had been a sinking season?

Hey, no rally ever began without something good happening, right?

Now we see if this was the impetus that might lead Miami to run the table and not lose again, a possibility when one surveys the schedule ahead.

What Friday night did, then, was just about everything. It breathed life into a season in jeopardy of flat-lining. It made every game matter again, starting next week when Georgia Tech visits.

Big win? Canes linebacker Gilbert Frierson literally was doing backflips onto the field as the game ended.

Miami is even at 3-3 now, and at 1-2 in the ACC is only one game back in the weak Coastal Division race with five league games left.

A loss would have realistically crushed all hope for 2019.

It would have left UM 2-4 for the first time since 1997. It would have made the Canes 0-3 in conference play -- never before done by Miami, either in the ACC (since 2004), or in the Big East before that.

Before night fell Friday a cement-gray sky dumped torrential rain onto Hard Rock around the time rush-hour traffic was crawling on the Turnpike just to the east. No matter. Canes fans turned out early and impressively, given the elements, huddling under acres of 10-by-10 foot popup tents sprawled across sodden parking lots, grills smoking, music blasting.

The mass of tailgaters showing up early and the 54,538 in the stadium was impressive for more than just the inclement conditions.

It was impressive given the season, a dispiriting one as it reached its midpoint vs. the Cavaliers before ESPN cameras.

“Canes don’t quit,” fan Marco Rosario, from Kendall, said as rain pelted his pregame tent, reflexively touching thumb tips together to form a ‘U.’ “You saw it last week. We will get there. We will find the promised land again.”

That is the leap of faith Canes fans have little choice but to hang onto. What is the alternative? To believe the glory days will never reprise themselves? To think a sixth national championship will never join the handful of rings UM won in that run of greatness from 1983 through 2001?

Easier, and better for the heart, to believe coach Manny Diaz, a face of Cuban Miami, son of the former mayor, is the perfect man to lead the renaissance -- despite a current season that seemed stalled before Friday’s prime-time rising.

Miami -- players and fans, city and school -- went into this game needing to save a season.

The Canes somewhat surprisingly were 2 1/2-point favorites. With betting lines set by public opinion, it was another indication of the faith in Miami to turn it around and be great again.

A program’s storied past is a powerful and lingering perfume. It has wafted around Notre Dame for decades. It is why the Dallas Cowboys are still America’s Team. It is what keeps The U relevant nationally almost 20 years removed from its last national crown.

The Big Tease of 2017 helped.

And hurt, too.

Because it reminded Canes fans and America what UM used to be. And then it went away so damned fast.

I don’t have to ask if you remember, because you do. Miami was 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the national polls late in the ‘17 season. ESPN College GameDay had been on campus. Mark Richt was king. The College Football Playoff was genuinely in play.

The U was back! Whatever “back” means short of a championship parade, the Canes seemed right there.

Everything unraveled.

Since that 10-0/No. 2 pinnacle that felt like a portal to new glory days, Miami had been 9-12 in the 21 games before Friday’s win.

The record had been 4-12 vs. Power 5 conference teams, 4-8 in ACC play, 1-4 against ranked opponents, and 0-3 in the postseason (ACC Championship Game, Orange Bowl, Pinstripe Bowl) by a combined score of 107-30.

The fast fall pushed Richt to resign, bringing Diaz back home from Temple on a proverbial white horse before this season. His honeymoon has been short, alas.

UM entered Friday night still seeking its first quality win of 2019. Because routing little Bethune-Cookman and barely escaping Central Michigan, 17-12, are results not designed to impress.

This one did, especially with a defense reinvigorated by Diaz’s added attention.

“Ultimately I am responsible for how we play on defense,” he said this week. “There is a culture that was created here back in 2016 that, for some reason, we have not been able to recreate. It is not a coaching issue. It is not a scheme issue.”

Of course, the culture the Canes have been unable to recreate began a lot longer ago than 2016.

It began in 1983, ran roughshod through the ‘90 and hit its crescendo in ‘01

Nobody wants it back more than Diaz, Son of Miami.

Except maybe those Canes fans who keep the faith not only when the sun is out, but when it’s pouring rain, too.