Miami hopes to turn corner on Tobacco Road against struggling North Carolina

Running back Cam'Ron Harris leaps over the pile to score a touchdown against Virginia on Sept. 30, 2021 at Hard Rock Stadium.
Running back Cam'Ron Harris leaps over the pile to score a touchdown against Virginia on Sept. 30, 2021 at Hard Rock Stadium. Photo credit: Josh Halper

The last time Miami and North Carolina stepped on the same turf, almost nothing went right for the Hurricanes.

On a cooler, mid-December afternoon in Miami Gardens, graduate quarterback D’Eriq King and the then No. 10 Miami football team took the first snap without a loss at Hard Rock Stadium in 2020.

But approximately 40 minutes later, the Hurricanes’ visions of a return to the Orange Bowl stage snapped. A Mack Brown-led Tar Heels attack changed the entire complexion of the day UM had circled on its calendar for over a year.

“It’s only natural when you have a game like a year ago that’s going to leave a [bad] taste in everybody’s mouth,” said Miami head coach Manny Diaz, who has yet to collect a win against North Carolina as head coach at UM. “Anybody who was around that day has to remember the pain that we felt in our performance in what happened that day.”

Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell orchestrated a North Carolina running game of a jaw-dropping 554 rushing yards, culminating in scoring drives on the team’s first six possessions. Former North Carolina running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, now each competing professionally in the NFL, combined for all but 10 of those yards, setting a new Football Bowl Subdivision record.

For Diaz, the afternoon will always be thought of as “humiliating.”

As 10 months have elapsed since the Tar Heels’ 778-yard explosion, Miami (2-3, 0-1 ACC) has since attempted to improve physicality at the defensive line to limit opponents’ explosive plays at points of attack. Starters, including King and offensive linemen Corey Gaynor and Jalen Rivers, have been sidelined to season-ending injuries ahead of UM’s rematch with North Carolina (3-3, 2-3 ACC) inside Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Saturday.

After starting its 2021 campaign ranked 10th in the country, the Tar Heels, similar to the Hurricanes, only won two of its first four games. An upstart Virginia Tech team gave the preseason Coastal Division favorite a rude 17-10 awakening and Florida State dismantled North Carolina’s defense behind three touchdown passes and two rushing touchdowns from quarterback Jordan Travis on Saturday.

Aside from the Tar Heels’ recent inconsistencies, Diaz’s defense knows not containing Howell will likely lead to disaster, let alone a third straight loss to its Coastal Division foe. Howell, who possesses the third-most passing yards, threw for 321 yards without an interception in North Carolina’s blowout win over Duke on Oct. 2. The 6-foot-1 native of Indian Trail, North Carolina, then rushed for 108 yards versus Florida State Saturday.

“What he’s doing right now with his legs is really creating a problem,” Diaz said. “First of all, you’ve got to cover up what they’re trying to do. To me, he’s always been phenomenal throwing the deep ball, he’s got such great command of the RPO game. Now if you try to take it all away and get him off his first look and have the play break down, he’s running for first downs, which keeps them on schedule.”

“He’s the complete guy. He’s the reason why he was the player in our league, and I don’t think he’s done anything this year to suggest that he’s not,” Diaz continued.

Besides facing six sacks against Virginia Tech and eight from Georgia Tech, Howell has yet to shy away from launching the ball to wide receiver Josh Downs. The 5-foot-10 sophomore totaled 119 receiving yards last season and has since elevated his yardage to over 450 through four games.

“He’s very patient off the line of scrimmage, he’s got a lot of ‘mess around’ before he declares his routes,” Miami defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson said. “He’s a really talented guy, and the thing that we got to do a really good job of is tackling which we had issues with against Virginia…This guy can cut back across your defense and make you look crazy.”

UM’s offense, on the other hand, has sputtered out of the gates, most recently exhibiting a three-point loss to Virginia on Sept. 30. The Hurricanes’ rushing attack simmered in the second half behind freshman quarterback Tyler Van Dyke’s 24-yard rushing score and junior running back Cam’Ron Harris’ 57-yard rushing touchdown, until Miami fell short on a missed 33-yard field goal.

Aside from everything that folded early, Van Dyke receives the starting nod once again. This time, however, another first awaits the quarterback who offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said played “lights out in the second half,” against Virginia.

“Honestly, it is like playing on Greentree every day,” Van Dyke said on his first ACC start on the road. “It is 11-on-11 and I have a lot of confidence in our guys. It is going to be a different atmosphere in front of their fans, but it is just football.”

Van Dyke stressed the importance of trusting receivers’ abilities against North Carolina after settling into the ACC landscape in his second college start.

“Giving guys chances to make catches because we have great outside receivers, great inside receivers, great tight ends,” Van Dyke said. “My teammates were there for me when I was down on the sidelines, so I really feel like that vamped me up going into the second half.”

The lackluster drives have only remained a small part of the Hurricanes’ shortcomings. As many times as late heroics have failed to remedy their slow starts, lapses in tackling and interceptions have remained far more glaring.

“We’re playing good football for the majority of the time, it’s just explosive plays that we’re giving up that’s creating a problem within the defense,” Robinson said. “Why do you have explosive plays? Lack of communication would probably be the number one thing. And then for us, the thing that has been for the most part this year is the leveraging on the football and doing things right on the perimeter. Whether it’s setting the edge of a defense or whether it’s attacking the proper leverage and not waiting on a guy to cut back or anticipate where he’s going and actually going where the ball is at. I think that’s one of the things that we emphasized this bye week.”

Robinson added that UM’s cornerbacks and safeties watched an immense amount of film on the explosive plays relinquished against Virginia in order to identify the causes and prevention strategies against what he noted as “a big-time running football team.” Miami will hence maintain a sharp balance between man-to-man and zone coverage.

The loss stung Miami’s chances of attaining improved postseason success in a conference with multiple teams underperforming on both sides of the field. A player’s only meeting was hosted after a fight broke out during practice amidst the team’s bye week, and Diaz knows a turning point may arise in the most painful yet critical point of its 2021 campaign.

“I think the most encouraging thing was last week, every day was designed to make them do a lot of things that they didn’t like doing and that they wouldn’t like doing,” Diaz said. “To see whether they would persevere through it, when some guys wouldn’t be able to handle it and I think the most pleasing thing is that how everybody sort of came together and they fought through all the stuff we put them through.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. Miami will wear its all-white uniforms.