Miami’s comeback is not enough as Canes turn page on 2020

Miami running back Donald Chaney Jr. (2) leaps for extra yardage under OK State safety Tre Sterling (3) during the Cheez-It Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Tuesday, December 29, 2020. Photo credit: Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel
Miami running back Donald Chaney Jr. (2) leaps for extra yardage under OK State safety Tre Sterling (3) during the Cheez-It Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Tuesday, December 29, 2020.
Miami running back Donald Chaney Jr. (2) leaps for extra yardage under OK State safety Tre Sterling (3) during the Cheez-It Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Tuesday, December 29, 2020. Photo credit: Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel

An unprecedented campaign concluded for the Miami Hurricanes as they walked out of Camping World Stadium in Orlando Tuesday evening. They faced a daunting experiment alongside 14 other Atlantic Coast Conference teams and 129 peer institutions competing in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision this year.

“On the brink” of being stopped in its tracks all season long by the coronavirus pandemic, UM would inevitably be drowned by the viral pathogen both on and off the field. They never made excuses.

2020 was a difficult year many times for the Canes (8-3, 7-2 ACC), mirroring the experiences of so many outside the confines of the Hecht Athletic Center and the world of college football.

Miami fans looking for a renaissance of the program’s heyday will be left to wait yet another autumn. Moments like the Hurricanes’ loss at preeminent power Clemson displayed the level of patience needed to will ‘The U’ back into national prominence.

There were bright spots, including a fourth consecutive win over rival FSU and an 8-1 start to the season. But there were some heavy low points as well.

This season’s pains continued into the bowl game. Miami fell behind 21-0 early and lost star quarterback D’Eriq King just as they fought to make dents into the deficit. The Hurricanes did continue to chip away at the Cowboy lead, but they couldn’t complete the comeback under backup signal caller N’Kosi Perry. The season-ending 37-34 loss will put a sour taste in the team’s mouth, but they must regroup for a new year and a new chapter towards the program’s long-term goals.

“Very disappointed in the fact we didn’t come away with a win, but I’m also very humble to be a part of this team,” said tight end Brevin Jordan. “I mean, these guys did not — they never quit.”

Just as millions in South Florida and beyond look forward to better days in 2021, UM continues to turn its focus into gradually building itself toward where it wants to be. Tuesday provided a blueprint as to what the Canes can and can’t do if they are to eventually reach expectations beyond this season.

For fans bemoaning the level of progression the Canes achieved this year, it must be recalled that the season was in jeopardy of being lost in its entirety at points this past summer. Through all the triumphs and disappointments of the 2020 slate, head coach Manny Diaz will have no paucity of teaching and growing moments to dwell upon as UM moves onto hopefully brighter pastures.

Slow start plagues Canes again

The Canes appeared to have no answers for the Cowboys early. Less than two weeks removed from a 62-point defensive debacle against North Carolina, UM surrendered three touchdowns on Oklahoma State’s trio of opening possessions. The high-powered Miami offense was also slow to arrive, punting on their opening drive and being stopped on 4th down a possession later.

“I think we were a little caught off guard on how pass-heavy compared to what their normal MO had been,” said head coach Manny Diaz. “Just took us a while to settle down and finally got a stop. Then we relaxed and started playing.”

They say it’s not how you start, but how you finish. While Miami’s response to early-game blues was commendable, sometimes initial holes are too deep to escape from. Fast starts to contests must be a point of emphasis for the team in 2021.

Energy adjustment changes game

Sometimes, a team won’t fix its issues by sophisticated looks at game film or by making strategic adjustments. It often takes a gear change in raw effort and energy level. After five quarters of being outscored by a combined 83-26, Miami looked different in the second quarter onward against Oklahoma State.

UM won the second quarter 10-0, got two three-and-outs on defense, scored points on two offensive drives and looked engaged. Positive plays also induced a visible juice from the Hurricane sidelines, something that was a no-show in the regular season finale.

Unfortunately, this momentum swing came with a price, as King went down while attempting to reach the end zone with his feet and had to be helped off the field.

But Miami’s surge continued well past the second quarter even without King. Playing just 22 miles from Disney’s Magic Kingdom, it looked like a magic moment was developing for UM as they embarked on a 34-16 scoring run that got them within a field goal. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, the clock struck midnight before making it to the ball.

“The whole game, the team, was acting like we had the lead the entire game,” said Perry. “I think we’re really building something here and it’s going to be really great for us next season.”

“At no point did I think we would lose that game, and I don’t think our team did, either, until it hit triple-zeros. The way we battled, the way we fought, the way we played for each other was inspiring,” said Diaz.

Points left on field

As Perry was taking his first major snaps of 2020, his receivers didn’t do him any favors as he led Miami back into the game.

Late in the first half, Perry slightly under threw wideout Dee Wiggins but connected with the junior, only for Wiggins to drop the pass in Cowboy territory. After halftime, Perry looked to have dropped a dime to junior Mark Pope only for him too to drop the throw. Wiggins again dropped a catch in the third quarter after initially hauling in a wide open screen pass with an escort to the end zone in front of him.

Perry himself would commit a miscue later in the third quarter when fumbling on an attempted zone read. Oklahoma State dived on the loose ball and scored on their ensuing drive, extending the margin again to multiple scores.

But the most agonizing would-be moment came in the final three minutes, when Pope dropped another deep pass in tight coverage that would have put the Canes in the red zone down just three. This would be the final nail in the coffin as the Hurricanes turned the ball over on downs just three plays later before the clock expired.

“We just made too many mistakes to win a football game,” said Diaz.

It was that kind of night for the Hurricanes. In many ways, it was that kind of year. But it must be full steam ahead from this setback.

“We basically told our team they have 24 hours to feel bad about this, and even though you won’t be back on campus until end of January, it’s time to get to work,” Diaz said.