The Miami Hurricanes were prolific for swaths of Thursday’s season-opening win over the Alabama-Birmingham Blazers at Hard Rock Stadium.
That is indicative by the 31-14 final score.
But head coach Manny Diaz is still looking at plenty of room to improve after Miami’s lone non-conference matchup of the 2020 regular season. Be it a slow start, or pandemic rustiness, but the Canes (1-0) found themselves up just 17-14 with six minutes left in the third quarter.
However, simply getting back onto the field, as well as the win column, are things fans couldn’t take for granted, whether five weeks or five minutes before kickoff. But lessons will still be taken away from UM’s 14th consecutive home-opening win.
Explosive and consistent running back Cam’Ron Harris opened scoring for Miami with a 66-yard touchdown on a play that was the early turning point of the contest. A fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line, Diaz kept the offense on the field rather than punt despite already down 7-0. Harris’ scamper certainly relieved a lot of Canes fans’ nerves in the first quarter but was far from the only key moment on the ground.
“Shoutout to the [offensive] line,” said Harris. “I just had to be patient. I saw a crease, I hit it and I was gone.”
Miami rushed for a total of 337 yards off 9.1 yards per carry. UM’s two freshmen backs also impressed in their first games. Jaylan Knighton had 59 of those yards and Don Chaney had 52.
“We wanted to pound the rock,” Diaz said.
Harris, Knighton and Chaney will look to be a three-headed monster throughout the season.
King begins his reign in Orange and Green
D’Eriq King was finally on public display after his hyped arrival in Coral Gables. His premiere went exactly as planned. Fans could easily see why he’ll be such an impact this fall.
King went 15-23 for 141 yards passing and a touchdown through the air to tight end Brevin Jordan. On the ground, the transfer from Houston logged 83 yards and another score. His elusiveness will drive crazy opposing defensive coordinators, who will have to study his two scrambles in third and long situations, one for 10 yards in the second quarter and 25 yards in the third quarter.
“You saw how special he was today running on foot,” Harris said on his quarterback. “That guy is amazing. Coming into the game, he was being a great leader. He didn’t have many mistakes and was just being a smart quarterback and I think that is what we need.”
“With his running ability on some of those scrambles [and on] the touchdown, there’s always the threat of the explosive play,” Diaz said.
Defense doesn’t miss beat
Miami allowed UAB 285 yards of offense Thursday evening, with 66 yards coming in the fourth quarter when the contest was all but decided. UM also forced five three-and-outs.
More importantly, the Hurricane defense had control of the line of scrimmage for all 60 minutes. UAB rushed for just 80 yards and the Canes registered six tackles for loss. Even when they didn’t record a sack, the front seven affected Blazer quarterback Tyler Johnston’s passes. Johnston still had some good throws against the Canes defense when the pocket was clean, completing 15 of his 24 pass attempts for 150 yards and a touchdown in the opening quarter.
The hallmark of Diaz’s defenses has been the ability to invade the backfield and blow up plays before they develop. And UM lived rent-free in the Blazer backfield Thursday night.
“I think it just shows what Coach Diaz, Coach Stroud and Coach Baker preached to us all week about playing our targets, shooting our targets and making sure that we hit our stops,” defensive tackle Nesta Jade Silvera said. “Making sure that we don’t play side-to-side but play vertical.”
“I thought we set the tone early,” Diaz said. “I thought our guys really looked relentless. There are some things, again, we have to correct, but I thought those three-and-outs in the first half allowed our offense to get the ball back and those snaps just start wearing down on the opposition.”
Discipline rules for much of game
Entering the final quarter, the Hurricanes had been penalized just twice for 20 yards. They finished with three penalties for 27 yards, including a pair of fouls that were declined.
In comparison to the 11 penalties UAB recorded, Miami stayed disciplined.
Still, even a single penalty can undo a drive. Dee Wiggins was called for a 15-yard personal foul in the first half after a play, stalling a first half drive and keeping the score as close as one possession at halftime.
And in the third quarter, Quincy Roche was called for jumping offsides on a fourth-and-4 in the red zone. The call was questionable, and the 8,153 socially distanced fans at Hard Rock made their dismay heard. But it was still called, and UAB scored on the next play.
Miami will continue to need to be disciplined—especially in situational moments—to have a successful 2020.
Special teams does its job
Kicker Jose Borregales and punter Lou Hedley did their jobs in Thursday’s win. Borregales, a graduate transfer from FIU, made all four extra points as well as a 25-yard field goal in his UM debut. Hedley meanwhile averaged 47.5 yards per punt. It wasn’t sexy, but both Hurricane specialists did everything they were asked, and will both be assets if they continue this level of production.
The Canes did experience one special teams disaster though.
Miscues keep game closer
Mark Pope fumbled a punt return in the first quarter, giving UAB a very short field to work with before they drew initial blood and took a 7-0 lead. UM got away with this against the Blazers, but it can’t happen in ACC competition.
A third quarter blown coverage gave UAB 29 yards on a third down, and obviously a couple of penalties came at inopportune times. While these mistakes weren’t absolute backbreakers, they will be something to avoid repeating in conference action. When observers ask why the game was as close as it was, these slip-ups are the answer.
Miami won the 2020 offseason
2020 has been, well, 2020. Nobody knew if there would be a season, and even if college football was lucky enough to play in spite of the virus threat, UM still had to overcome the football threat posed by UAB.
After losing two games to Conference USA teams in the final three outings a season ago, beating a team from that same league Thursday was no given. But the Canes came out and took care of business in Week 1 against the Blazers, albeit with some things to correct. It’ll be on Diaz to take care of these fixes, because there will be no more non-conference tune-ups. It’s all ACC play from here on.