Coming into the 2014 season, Hurricanes football fans had a million questions on their minds. There was a quarterback battle, a senior class, coaching controversies and, most of all, frustration.
Frustration over not having won a bowl game in eight years and over not winning an ACC Coastal division that looked like it was made for Miami to dominate when it was created. By the end of Thanksgiving weekend, the season had ridden like a roller coaster, records would be broken but ultimately there were more questions than answers.
After longtime starting quarterback Stephen Morris graduated, it was almost written in stone that fifth-year senior Ryan Williams would take the reins, until an ACL injury during an April scrimmage.
Then it was Kevin Olsen’s turn, but he would ultimately succumb to injury and would see the end of his Canes career come September after an underage DUI and possession of a fake ID (he was carrying six different IDs.) Finally, after weeks of deliberation, it was the true freshman from California, Brad Kaaya, who got the nod Labor Day night at Louisville.
It was an auspicious start; Kaaya carried the deer-in-headlights look the whole game, and offensive coordinator James Coley limited his play by electing a conservative gameplan rather than letting Kaaya air out a few throws.
Back-to-back home wins over Florida A&M and Arkansas State followed, and then Miami flew up to Lincoln for a duel with their old bowl-game rivals, Nebraska. The Canes actually showed a competitive fire in a tough Memorial Stadium atmosphere for three quarters, but the backbreaker was a Duke Johnson fumble that was returned for a touchdown late in the game.
The Canes would lose to the Huskers 41-31. The Duke had a slow start to the season, returning from a season-ending ankle injury at Florida State last year. His first 100-yard game came the next week in the biggest win of the year over undefeated Duke on a rainy Miami night. En route to a 22-10 win, Herb Waters made maybe the catch of the year on fourth and 19. With the wind and rain in Kaaya’s face, he threw to the endzone just before he would be sacked, and Waters made the catch in the back of the endzone, with a wet ball.
The seat of defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio grew hotter as they continued to lose to one-dimensional offenses like Nebraska and Georgia Tech, and even in a 21-point win over Cincinnati, the team itself was criticized for not being quite able to put the final stamp on a win.
Many writers and former Canes took to social media to complain that this team was too talented for their 4-3 record. After the Cincinnati game, the Canes took a week off and made huge defensive adjustments and strides.
They traveled to Blacksburg to play Virginia Tech and crushed the Hokies, who had problems of their own since upsetting Ohio State, 30-6, then followed that with a 47-20 win over North Carolina, which included a 90-yard touchdown run for Duke Johnson, his longest play from scrimmage.
The entire season, Duke kept passing legendary Canes at running back like Edgerrin James and and Willis McGahee, eventually to pass O.J. Anderson’s Canes record of 3,331 yards.
Finally third-ranked Florida State came to town, and after two weeks of hype leading up to an intense fight, the Noles edged the Canes once again, 30-26. The team would lose their last two against Virginia and Pittsburgh to finish the season 6-6, the only highlight being Duke Johnson attaining the all-time Canes rushing record of 3,387 yards against the Panthers.
Brad Kaaya also displayed a maturity and poise under center that is a rarity among true freshmen, earning the program’s second ACC Rookie of the Year award in three years, the other being Johnson in 2012.