Linda Robertson

Despite close loss, UM is back on track

University of Miami Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya throws a pass against Florida State Seminoles in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday October 8, 2016, in Miami Gardens.
University of Miami Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya throws a pass against Florida State Seminoles in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday October 8, 2016, in Miami Gardens. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

The University of Miami football team lost a game it could have, should have won against Florida State, no question about that.

UM players are hurting, in more ways than one, after the hard-hitting 20-19 thriller. Especially the seniors, who have never beaten their archrival. FSU has won seven in a row, although UM still holds the overall edge, 31-30, in this series that never fails to provide five-star suspense, as if Alfred Hitchcock is hiding up in the coaches’ box, sitting in his director’s chair and scripting the twists and turns.

On Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium, the requisite bug-eyed, jaw-dropping, ‘What the?’ moment came when UM kicker Michael Badgley’s extra-point attempt was deflected by DaMarcus Walker with 1:38 left. Revenge for those Wide Rights that bedeviled Bobby Bowden?

“Heartbreaking,” said UM quarterback Brad Kaaya. “You think you’re going to overtime and then that happens.”

The loss was all the more heartbreaking considering that UM’s defense controlled most of the game, enabling the Hurricanes to keep the lead — as they had all season — until the third quarter.

The turning point occurred when Kaaya threw an interception just as UM was on the cusp of going up by 17 points. He made a poor decision and a poor pass that was picked off by Tarvarus McFadden as he undercut Ahmmon Richards in the far right corner of the end zone.

“A ball that should have been thrown into the stands or at least over the top of the defender,” UM coach Mark Richt said. “Our receivers need to learn to play defense, too.”

Richt concurred that the turnover primed FSU’s surge.

“Any time you throw a pick in the end zone with an opportunity for points it is a momentum changer, no doubt,” he said.

Kaaya’s mistake came four plays after he was knocked in the jaw by sack-hungry linebacker Matthew Thomas, who led with his helmet and was ejected for targeting. The hit was the second brutal one absorbed by Kaaya, whose head bounced off the ground when he was body-slammed on the first play from scrimmage by Jacob Pugh.

Both Kaaya and FSU quarterback Deondre Francois were abused all night. Francois missed most of the second quarter after he hurt his right (throwing) shoulder on a pulverizing takedown by Kendrick Norton.

UM’s offensive line had trouble against the biggest defensive line it’s faced, allowed penetration on the blocked PAT, and must do a better job of protecting Kaaya, who was sacked three times, Richt said.

“The pocket at times is getting condensed and squeezed,” he said. “The more secure you are, the more accurate you’ll throw the football. But there’s going to be pressure. You have to get back in there and trust it.”

Kaaya, who missed one game with a concussion last season, appeared to be slightly addled after the game (he also said he was missing half a molar), but Richt said he was OK on Sunday.

“As of right now we’re not categorizing anything as a concussion,” Richt said.

UM relied too heavily on Kaaya from the start on Saturday, a questionable strategy given the success of UM’s dual-back attack in its four previous victories. Mark Walton and Joe Yearby had rushed a combined 107 times for 776 yards and 13 touchdowns but were limited to a total of 24 carries for 78 yards and no touchdowns against FSU. Richt said the idea was to capitalize on quick throws against FSU’s suspect defense — made more vulnerable by the absence of injured defensive back Derwin James.

“The two-back offense — we had some in the game plan but probably not enough,” Richt said. “We’ll probably get back to that.”

By far the most gratifying sign of progress was UM’s alert, aggressive performance on defense. The explosive Dalvin Cook was unable to steer the game FSU’s way as he had the past two years, although the most blatant blown assignment was the most costly, when Francois found Cook wide open for a 59-yard touchdown.

The defensive line batted down passes and harassed Francois. Corn Elder, Rayshawn Jenkins, Sheldrick Redwine, Michael Pinckney and Chad Thomas were everywhere, and combined for 24 tackles.

Manny Diaz’s swarming defense has a wholly different temperament than that of Mark D’Onofrio and continues to “make opponents earn it by driving the field,” Richt said.

UM’s loss to lower-ranked FSU at home was an opportunity lost. None of the players were patting themselves on the back for the consolation prize of a close game.

The result may have been the same, yet Richt clearly has the program going in the right direction. The ACC Coastal Division is wide open with North Carolina visiting here on Saturday.

“We can feel bad for 24 hours but we’ve got to go back to work,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got to learn and move on.”

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