A week removed from a primetime loss to Clemson, it would’ve been easy for the No. 13 Miami Hurricanes to come out flat against the Pittsburgh Panthers in a home noon kickoff.
To an extent, that’s exactly what happened. Both sides of the ball had their struggles, with the offense especially waiting the whole day to get in sync. But the Canes did enough to race to a two-possession lead in the fourth quarter and not look back in a 31-19 win.
“That was a very difficult game, which we suspected it would be going in,” head coach Manny Diaz said. “Pitt, they make everything hard.”
In front of 9,000 fans, Miami took care of what mattered most and kept hope alive to make it to the ACC Championship Game. But the Canes (4-1, 3-1 ACC) have items to take care of before taking the field next.
Before kickoff, it was announced that Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett would miss the game with a shoulder issue. Redshirt freshman Joey Yellen got the nod from head coach Pat Narduzzi to start, and while the Arizona State transfer looked good at times, dealing with Miami’s pressure was a burden.
The Canes defense allowed exactly 300 yards of offense to Pitt, recorded nine tackles for loss and three sacks, while also getting to Yellen an additional six times. They were most impressive on the ground, where they surrendered just 22 total yards and 0.8 yards per carry.
“I thought the defense played outstanding. We challenged them to be the best defense in the stadium today, and I thought they were. If you look at the rush defense, 26 carries for 22 yards. That’s phenomenal. I thought our defensive front got after them pretty good,” Diaz said.
Still, things were far from perfect for defensive coordinator Blake Baker’s side of the ball. Yellen’s first Atlantic Coast Conference start was productive, with him completing 22 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown. The pocket passer from California was much more likely to be limited by UM’s pass rush than its pass coverage.
King and static offense
D’Eriq King did not approve of his performance against Clemson last week. While Saturday’s was better, much room for improvement remains.
In spite of the fanfare he has brought on offense, King came into the afternoon completing just 44 percent of his passes beyond the line of scrimmage. He struggled in the first half, going just 6-15 with an interception.
The second half didn’t start much better either. King led a touchdown drive on the first possession of the half but threw an uninspiring interception on the second, leading to a one-yard Panther touchdown. Overall, he finished 16-31 while completing 222 yards and throwing for four scores, with the two interceptions mixed in.
“Pitt has one of the best defenses in the country,” King said. “But we knew we had a tough challenge back-to-back weeks and I think we did enough to win today. Always room for improvement, though.”
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s offense moved the ball through a chosen few explosive plays. But the consistent, faced-paced offense seen in the first three contests wasn’t present at Hard Rock Stadium against the Panther defense. UM logged a paltry -3 yards rushing in the third quarter, and the trio of Cam’Ron Harris, Jaylan Knighton and Don Chaney Jr. combined for just 67 rushing yards.
Canes struggle on third downs
Miami’s offense had its best game of the season against Florida State, when they scored 52 points. What could’ve made an offense so static just three weeks after obliterating their rivals?Third downs were a major reason.
UM converted just four of its 13 third downs Saturday. In comparison to its 11-16 performance against the Seminoles, Pitt made the Canes look very ordinary on money downs. It was one of the biggest factors Saturday for the malaise offensive.
Chunk play surplus
Miami outgained the Panthers by just 31 yards, lost the turnover battle 2-1 and had a three-minute time of possession deficit. So how was this game not closer on the scoreboard?
Miami was able to squeeze more points, even on a mediocre offensive day, by cashing in on a robust amount of chunk plays. Defined as a 10+ yard run or a 15+ yard pass, the Canes had 10 of those plays, including four on the ground and six through the air.
“You’ll hit big plays like that if you do it exactly how you’re taught,” tight end Will Mallory said, who caught two touchdowns Saturday. “And so that’s a credit to our coaches and it’s a credit to the players for executing it like that.”
While the Panthers did have six chuck-passing plays of their own, they were held to just one by rush. By keeping Pittsburgh one dimensional, UM was able to win even on a day the offense didn’t play outstanding.
Red zone success
At the 11:20 mark of the third quarter, both teams had three scores each, but the Canes held a 21-9 lead.
That was a result of Miami scoring touchdowns in the red zone, while forcing Pitt to settle for field goals. This payed off later in the game, when the flow of the matchup appeared to favor the visitors. Even when getting outgained and seemingly outplayed in portions of the contest, Miami had enough of a cushion to keep its lead relatively safe through most of the second half.
“Red zone defense is a mentality, and to me, that’s where it gets into the culture that you have in your defensive room,” said Diaz. “I’m really, really proud of the way that they went down there and never panicked when they hit some plays and made them kick field goals.”
“Everybody is buying in,” said cornerback Te’Cory Couch. “Everyone came in with this goal of not wanting to give up a touchdown at all, so that was our mindset coming into this game.”
Also of note is that nine of Pitt’s 10 total scoring plays against the Hurricanes dating back to 2018 have been field goals instead of touchdowns. That is a recipe for wins.
Discipline much improved
After an undisciplined game at Clemson, Miami started the day with much to be desired on penalties.
Twice in the first half, the Canes were called for roughing the passer fouls. Both times, it gave the Panthers a free first down. Miami was also called for offsides on a punt return, allowing the Pitt offense to retake the field with the fresh set of downs.
The second half was much cleaner, with UM being called for just a single infraction in the final two quarters. Overall, Miami gave up just 55 yards on five penalties, a gigantic improvement from the 135 yards surrendered at Clemson.
“It appears as though we don’t have an issue with effort, and it appears we don’t have an issue with attitude,” Diaz said. “We had an issue last week with discipline. We had an issue with guys trying to do more than the game required, which is something that can happen in that environment. So, to come back and you look at penalties and we had five and they had 10, that was a big point of emphasis this week, just to not help the other team.”
Staying disciplined isn’t necessarily the sexiest aspect of a good football team, but it’s a highly important factor and a reason Miami won Saturday.
Overall, Saturday was a good day for Miami, as is any day ending with a win. The road to the conference championship remains a long one, but the Canes are one step closer after beating Pitt.
UM will remain in South Florida to face the Virginia Cavaliers next week, with a kickoff time set for 8 p.m. on ACC Network. The Hurricanes—who scored just 17 points in a win over the University of Virginia in 2019—will look to get back into an offensive groove against last year’s ACC Coastal Division champions.