Linda Robertson

Miami can keep ACC title in sight with a bounce-back win over North Carolina

Hurricanes coach Mark Richt did not pass his first big-game test at UM (4-1, 1-1), but the upcoming stretch could ultimately be more meaningful.
Hurricanes coach Mark Richt did not pass his first big-game test at UM (4-1, 1-1), but the upcoming stretch could ultimately be more meaningful. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The University of Miami football team does not have a stellar record of resilience in this Decade of Decent that followed the Decade of Dominance. Often, a loss to Florida State precipitated a downturn.

Take, for example, the past three seasons, when losses to archrival FSU preceded pivotal losses to ACC opponents Virginia Tech, Duke, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Clemson and North Carolina that scuttled any hope of UM winning its first conference title. UM concluded each season with a bowl loss, too.

UM is staring straight at a ripe opportunity to reverse that trend when North Carolina visits Hard Rock Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

The No. 16-ranked Hurricanes dropped six spots in the AP Poll after last week’s painful 20-19 defeat by the Seminoles that ended with a blocked extra point attempt. But the Coastal Division title that has proved so elusive is still there for the taking — if UM can avenge the 59-21 abomination from last year in Chapel Hill, then make a quick turnaround and beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, next Thursday night.

Coach Mark Richt did not pass his first big-game test at UM (4-1, 1-1), but the upcoming stretch could ultimately be more meaningful.

“We’re practically in the driver’s seat of the Coastal if we beat North Carolina,” Braxton Berrios said, echoing his teammates’ words about attainable goals.

“We can’t mope because we can control our own destiny,” said Demetrius Jackson.

Added Nick Linder: “There can’t be any hangover. We’ve got to run the table.”

So a new season of sorts starts with UNC, which leads the series 10-9 and has notched some dramatic wins, the first in ACC play in 2004 when Connor Barth kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired and the No. 4 Hurricanes lost, 31-28.

UNC (4-2, 2-1), which beat then-No. 12 Florida State and lost to then-No. 25 Virginia Tech last week in the drenching remnants of Hurricane Matthew, bears a striking resemblance to FSU in that its varied offense likes to operate fast and its mediocre defense allows lots of points.

“They throw a lot of stuff at you, show you a lot of eye candy,” Kendrick Norton said.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is fifth in the nation in completion percentage (70.2) and averages 295 passing yards per game. He gets to choose from a talented group of receivers, including Ryan Switzer, who is also “one of the best return men in the country,” Richt said.

UM’s much-improved defense, which controlled much of the FSU game, will have to be hyper-focused to recognize UNC’s rapidly changing formations, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said.

“The biggest challenge is their tempo,” he said. “A lot of their plays have three options. That puts stress all over your defense.”

Already it’s obvious Richt’s team is better prepared than Al Golden’s teams were. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher made shrewd counterattack adjustments last week, but the Hurricanes never looked as confused and hesitant as they did under Golden and ex-defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio.

“The stage wasn’t too big for them,” Diaz said of his players. “They continued to play fast and physical even if they didn’t do everything right.”

Richt intends to return to the run-first philosophy that he inexplicably abandoned against FSU, and that should help quarterback Brad Kaaya, who appears fully recovered from a slight shoulder injury. Let Mark Walton and Joe Yearby soften up the Tar Heels’ defense and Kaaya hit Stacy Coley for a couple more touchdowns.

UM’s offensive line must do a better job of protecting Kaaya, who got slammed on three sacks vs. FSU. UM can’t afford any more injuries on its shallow roster.

“Overall, we’re thin,” Richt admitted.

And what a breakthrough it would be if UM could get its penalty yardage gift to the opponent under 100 yards.

The Hurricanes say they’ve put the FSU loss — the seventh in a row — behind them. But they haven’t. Not until they prove they can recover, regroup, rebound and reload.

Since 2006 UM has usually tripped then crawled to the finish line. Richt and his energetic staff are trying to teach players how to get up and sprint.

Great teams are resilient. Forgettable ones melt the way a sand castle succumbs to a wave.

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