In the Five Things to Watch article on Friday, #5 was ‘Can the Canes start strong this week?’ Answer: yes. Miami found the end zone on the opening drive after going for it on fourth down, and then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Jacory Harris found Tommy Streeter one play later for the 27-yard touchdown. Just like that it was 14-0 Miami, who went on to beat North Carolina 30-24.
This afternoon was the strong start that Miami has been missing most of the year, and kept the Canes from playing catch-up after the first quarter. That’s been a problem for most of the season. Miami was the first to find the end zone only once this year before this afternoon when Harris found Allen Hurns on the first drive against Ohio State.
Last weekend in Blacksburg, a failed fake field goal attempt proved the difference in the Hokies’ three-point win, and when the Canes lined up to go for it on fourth down on the opening drive today I’d bet there were more than a few Canes fans holding their breath. But it made sense to go for it last week, and it did this week, too.
The defense is struggling. A three-point lead after a strong opening drive is a push. Points are points, but the reward outweighed the risk last week, as it did this week. It was the difference in the final score against Virginia Tech, but it wasn’t the reason for the loss. Miami’s porous defense combined with a slow all-around start was to blame.
Considering only the points and ignoring the momentum after the opening drive, if the Canes go for the field goal instead of trying to convert the fourth down today, they’re up 26-24 at the end of the game with Carolina in possession of the football at the Miami 37. That’s a helluva field goal for the win, but think back to 2004 when Tar Heels kicker Connor Barth hit a 42-yarder to down the fourth-ranked Hurricanes.
Just as there is no telling if Miami would have held onto the early momentum had it went for three instead of trying to convert on fourth down, there’s no telling how that final drive would have been orchestrated if Carolina needed just the field goal to grab the win.
Saturday saw its share of problems, but thanks to the big start Miami was able to hold on to grab a much-needed ACC road win.
The Tar Heels defense zeroed in on Lamar Miller—who failed to record 100 rushing yards for the first time this season—forcing Harris to beat them without the aid of a dominant ground game. He did. Harris finished with 267 yards on 20 of 30 passing with three touchdown passes. He was interception-free for the third straight game and has thrown only three picks on the year.
Don’t hand all of the credit to Harris, though; Streeter, Hurns and Travis Benjamin proved a reliable trio once again. Between the three of them, they came up with nine receptions of double-digit yardage. And give credit to the offensive line that gave Harris time to find his receivers. Most of the positives came in the first half, though.
The UNC defense got it going in the second half, forcing punts on five consecutive Miami possessions to allow the Tar Heels offense to get back in it in the fourth quarter. But it wasn’t enough.
The Hurricanes defense played much better this afternoon and came up with big plays. They sacked UNC quarterback Bryn Renner four times, one of which forced a fumble that was recovered by Jordan Futch to halt a North Carolina drive. Linebacker Sean Spence‘s sack on the final drive proved big, too. The defense stopped the Tar Heels on two big fourth downs in the final quarter, and came up big on the final possession after the Tar Heels recovered an onside kick. Today was also the first time this year that the Canes held an opponent to fewer than 150 yards on the ground.
The issues on defense persisted for the Hurricanes, though. Carolina outgained Miami 412-311, and the UNC offense got back the Tar Heels back in it in the final quarter. Tar Heels running back Giovani Bernard rushed for 110 yards, coming up with a few key runs in the fourth; Renner was 20/22 in the second half. But the early start kept Miami from playing catch-up in the second half, and the defense held on to keep the Tar Heels out of the end zone on the final possession. That’s a big win for a defense in need of a confidence boost.