Michelle Kaufman

Honeymoon continues for Mark Richt, Miami Hurricanes

UM quarterback Brad Kaaya gives a handoff to running back Joseph Yearby in the second quarter against FAU.
UM quarterback Brad Kaaya gives a handoff to running back Joseph Yearby in the second quarter against FAU. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

OK, so it wasn’t as easy to beat Florida Atlantic as it was to beat Florida A&M. Turns out Owls are more clever and tenacious than Rattlers.

No 70 points for the University of Miami this time. No 67-point winning margin. No scoring on the first series. No trio of 100-yard rushers. Nope.

This one required serious sweat, four touchdown runs by Mark Walton (best for a Cane since 2005), another impressive defensive performance and heady plays by true freshman linebacker Michael Pinckney, whose sack and game-leading nine tackles (six solo) belied his youth.

In the end, the Hurricanes remained undefeated in the Mark Richt Era with a 38-10 victory, and will surely keep a spot in the Top 25, but they were tested, frustrated and penalized more than they were during last week’s cakewalk.

Of course, we knew that going in, right? Anybody who watched last year’s UM-FAU game suspected this would be a much tougher test than the season opener. Last year, the teams were tied at 20 before the Canes reeled off 24 unanswered points to pull away.

Despite the struggles, the Hurricane Honeymoon continues for Richt.

For the second week in a row, Richt, his players, and their police escort waded through the sea of giddy fans lined up in the stadium parking lot for the pregame Hurricane Walk. The Hurricane faithful raised their cellphones to snap photos of the team in a scene befitting the arrival of a rock band, which seems apropos considering the Canes’ home is now called Hard Rock Stadium.

Richt is so beloved two weeks into the season he could probably work his way onto the ballot for the Miami-Dade mayoral runoff in November. Heck, at this pace, he might get more votes than Carlos Gimenez and Raquel Regalado combined.

It’s Great (pause) To Be (pause) A Miami Hurricane! It’s Great (pause) To Be (pause) A Miami Hurricane!

For years the orange and green clad UM fans have been chanting that phrase, and this football season, they really mean it. All the negativity, the mean-spirited airplane banners, the angry vitriol on sports talk radio, the feeling of frustration and disappointment, all of it is gone, poof!, vanished, just like all those orange neckties.

Fans are proud to have a “U” flag flapping from their cars again. A crowd of 57,123 filed into Hard Rock Stadium for Saturday’s game, proving last week’s similar-sized crowd was not just there to see the swank building renovations. That might have been part of the appeal, but they were there to support the Hurricanes.

Fans seem to understand that this team is a work in progress, not a finished product. Same goes for the much-ballyhooed stadium canopy, which eventually will keep 90 percent of the fans dry but is still unfinished, so thousands of fans got wet Saturday when a downpour arrived late in the third quarter.

They didn’t seem to mind. They’re excited about the renovated stadium and the rejuvenated Hurricane team. They like the speed and aggression on defense, under the command of fiery defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. The Canes allowed just 22 yards rushing against FAMU and 49 yards through three quarters against FAU. They also had recorded seven sacks heading into the final quarter on Saturday.

They like that Miami has a potent running game again. Three 100-yard rushers last week and four rushing touchdowns from Walton against the Owls. Even when quarterback Brad Kaaya struggled Saturday — he completed just 17 of 31 passes and had two first-half interceptions — there was hope in the ground game.

Harry Rothwell sees and feels a different vibe from UM fans this season, and he has a unique vantage point. He manages the AllCanes sporting goods store on the edge of campus.

“I’m like the neighborhood bartender,” Rothwell said. “The past few years, people would come in and complain to me about the Canes’ jerseys, their offense, their defense, their coaches, their players.

“Now, everyone’s got smiles on their faces. Everyone is really happy, drinking the Mark Richt Kool-Aid. The glass is more than half full right now. That means more business for our store, more fans at the stadium, and it’s just fun to be a Hurricane fan right now. But call me back when Richt loses his first game.”

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