Mark Richt’s Miami honeymoon is over.
It was inevitable. He’s not a miracle worker.
But it happened sooner rather than later in his homecoming season with a pallid performance against the University of North Carolina. Richt’s Hurricanes took a step backward in the 20-13 loss on Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium, where jaded, sodden fans expressed their disappointment with boos.
Suddenly, at midseason, with the quality of competition cranking up, things don’t appear nearly as rosy as they did two weeks ago.
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The Hurricanes’ prospects of winning the ACC Coastal Division title they have not been able to capture in 12 years — repeat, 12 years — turned as gray as the sky that dumped rain in the fourth quarter.
For the second week in a row, UM lost a game within its grasp.
For the second week in a row, UM lost to a lower-ranked opponent.
For the second week in a row, UM lost at home.
Now it gets tougher. UM has four days to prepare for 17th-ranked Coastal contender Virginia Tech, which was upset by Syracuse on Saturday. The Canes play the Hokies in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Thursday night.
After losing a 20-19 heartbreaker to archrival Florida State last week on a blocked extra-point attempt, UM vowed to move on, refocus and “control its destiny” against division rival UNC.
Yet UM was the opposite of sharp in every phase of the game: error-prone on special teams, tardy on defense, malfunctioning on offense.
UM did not look like the team we watched in its first five games. It looked more like the team we got really tired of watching the past few seasons under Al Golden.
Richt had it right when he previewed the game. He said UM had a smart plan but worried about his team’s ability to carry it out. He was also right weeks ago that his freshmen linebacker phenoms would hit a wall when their youth caught up to them. It did on Saturday against the resourceful Tar Heels.
Unranked UNC (5-2, 3-1 ACC) overcame its mistakes. No. 16 UM (4-2, 1-2) compounded its mistakes — and they began accumulating immediately, when Malcolm Lewis botched the opening kickoff by taking it out of bounds at UM’s 3-yard line.
Miami fell behind early, 10-0, after having another Michael Badgley kick blocked when the offensive line allowed penetration — just like at the end of the FSU game, but this time a field-goal attempt that would have tied the score.
The running game couldn’t get traction in the first half. The defense that had been so aggressive reverted to lethargy and poor tackling.
On the same day that quarterback Brad Kaaya surpassed Gino Torretta in career yards, he again threw too many passes low, high or dangerously close to defensive backs, finishing 16-of-31 for 224 yards, and was outplayed by a more versatile, rugged Mitch Trubisky, who hit 33 of 46 for 299 yards and two touchdowns plus rushed for 47 yards. Kaaya did not connect with any of his wide receivers until the third quarter. In the rain, a few throws squirted out of wet hands.
When UM had a final chance at a comeback with less than two minutes to go, Kaaya fumbled as UNC’s Malik Carney got around Trevor Darling, grabbed him around the waist and knocked the ball out of his hands. Jeremiah Clarke recovered.
UM not only blew the field-goal attempt but also squandered a possible touchdown when Stacy Coley was called for offensive pass interference and another possible score when Kaaya’s fourth-down pass to Ahmmon Richards was off target — and almost intercepted. David Njoku was out of bounds on another possible touchdown, and UM had to settle for a field goal.
Most telling were the numbers on third-down conversions. UNC was 14-of-23. UM was 4-of-15.
“Certainly the biggest disappointment of the game was our third-down defense,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “I thought that was decisive in determining the outcome because too often we could not get the offense the football on short fields.”
There were signs of excellent combativeness, especially on the goal-line stand at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth, when UM stopped UNC on four consecutive plays from the 1-yard line, with Courtel Jenkins and Kendrick Norton stuffing Trubisky on fourth down.
Justin Vogel saved UM on several punts and helped neutralize Ryan Switzer on returns.
“The football schedule doesn’t really care about what happened to us the last two weeks,” Richt said. “You want to put yourself in position in case something breaks your way. It can come around.”
At halftime, UM honored its 2001 championship team, arguably the best college football team ever assembled — by Butch Davis and his staff. The 2016 team might not have that level of talent, but they can emulate the heart of those Hurricanes.
There’s half a season left. There’s a lot to be learned from these two losses. UM can still take steps forward.