Growing Pains: Opportunity blows by Canes

Since 1984 a ten-point fourth quarter lead proved to be enough for Miami, but not against North Carolina this past weekend. Conservative playcalling, defensive breakdowns and musical chairs at QB and RB - as well as solid play from the Tar Heels - all attributed to the Canes most recent collapse. What has to change moving forward and can Miami rebound for Florida State this Saturday?

The growth process. Full of bumps and bruises. Ups and downs. Highs and lows. They say what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger and that you learn from your mistakes.

While that may ring true, it offers little consolation while the wounds are still fresh.

Had you zigged when you should've zagged, it might've resulted in a different outcome. Even if not, it'll eat at you for a while. You find yourself asking, "what if?" instead of basking in the glow of accomplishing the task at hand.

For the Miami Hurricanes, it'll be at least a week full of "what if?" type of questions after losing a 24-14 fourth quarter lead to North Carolina last Saturday; their first blown double-digit fourth quarter lead since 1984.

The Canes were firing on all cylinders out the gate. Robert Marve was on target, going 4-of-4 for 27 yards, including a nine-yard strike to Kayne Farquharson. Graig Cooper got in on the action with three straight rushes for a combined 60 yards, his longest of the drive a 31-yarder.

Miami's foot was on the gas and this looked to be a team on a mission. North Carolina's initial drive lasted six plays and amassed a total of 12 yards. A 41-yard punt resulted in a 37-yard return by speedster Travis Benjamin, while Hurricane special teamers decleated two Heels and sent a message that this wasn't last year's Canes.

The Canes ensuing drive stalled as Matt Bosher missing a 43-yard field goal attempt, but the Miami defense held steadfast, forcing a three and out and a muffed snap that set the Canes up on the Heels' 11-yard line. On 3rd and 10, Marve found Cooper out of the backfield for a nifty 11-yard touchdown and with just under a minute to play, Miami was sitting pretty with a 14-0 lead.

Who knew it'd be the only quarter of football the Canes would win on Saturday?

Down two touchdowns and getting no production out of freshman quarterback Mike Paulus, former Canes coach Butch Davis yanked his starting QB in favor of Cameron Sexton, a junior who threw one pass in 2007 and was yet to see the field this season.

For the second week in a row, a back up quarterback had it's way with a Miami defense. The Canes somehow kept Tim Tebow in check, yet was picked apart by aTm's Jerrod Johnson last week and Sexton seven days later.

For the second year in a row, the master bested the pupil, with Davis calling a better game than Randy Shannon. The Canes were forced to play the Davis' brand of football - keeping it close to eventually pull away and relying on a late specials teams play to make a difference.

2-2 sounds infinitely worse than 3-1 and a two-game win-streak entering Florida State week. There was momentum after aTm - especially after giving up the early score, going down 7-0 and then responding immediately. The post-game talk was that last year's team would've folded after an early score. How will this year's team respond after a heartbreaking, last-second loss?

There were several frustrating aspects to this recent setback, most notably another game where Miami was outwilled and outplayed in the fourth quarter.

For a program that once held up four fingers to signal dominance in the final fifteen minutes, Miami players raising their arms late is proving to be a sign of surrendering. The Heels outscored the Canes, 14-7 in the final quarter. At aTm it was 6-0, in favor of the home team and before that, a 9-3 fourth quarter deficit in Gainesville resulted in a 17-0 run by Florida in the final ten minutes of play.

Shannon may be preaching 'finish' to his squad, but it's falling on deaf ears and something has to give. Is it conditioning? Playcalling? A lack of effort due to back-to-back fourth quarter leads? Whatever the case, it's proving to be this team's Achilles' heel and will result in a few more losses if the curse isn't reversed.

It wouldn't be a post-game recap without mentioning the playcalling of oft-criticized offensive coordinator Patrick Nix. I've gotten Nix's back early this season, citing a tough road game with a young team at Florida as well as a strong game plan in the 41-23 win in College Station a week ago.

Nix isn't getting a free pass this week. If anything, I find myself on the side of the doubters until he proves otherwise.

Coaches can't coach scared. They have to call the shots, know when to roll the dice and let their players play. That was the case early, but sitting on a 17-7 halftime lead, Nix flinched and spent the rest of the afternoon being reactive instead of proactive. Miami's offense went into 'survival mode' while North Carolina fought on, their coaching staff trusted their players, their play dictated the momentum and they wore Canes down with a better brand of football.

Some would say it's easy to second-guess the playcalling after the fact, but you could first-guess Nix's second half game plan as it played out before your eyes.

After a 38-yard swing where the Tar Heels received the second half kickoff on the 40-yard line instead of the two, a ten-play drive took 5:22 off the clock and gave North Carolina the momentum, trailing 17-14.

Cooper had seven first quarter touches for 71 yards and a touchdown. Over the next two quarters, three touches -- 1st-and-10, 2nd-and-23 and 3rd-and-6. The workhorse who singlehandedly was wearing down North Carolina, quickly became a non-factor.

A power running game gave way to dinking and dunking with the passing game and an offensive game plan that resembled the timid play at Florida instead of the explosive playcalling at Texas A&M. No middle screens. No deep passes. Nothing to keep North Carolina on their toes.

Cooper was relied on midway through the fourth, where Miami went into bleed-the-clock mode, nursing a 24-21 lead with over nine minutes to play. After a defensive stand, Nix called three straight runs - the final on 3rd and 12, which resulted in a two-yard loss and eventually a semi-blocked punt.

Equally as frustrating as the conservative second half; the stubborn first-half mindset that Miami second-stringers would see the field.

No disrespect to Jacory Harris, but the true freshman is light years behind Marve and Shannon's insistence that he gets some meaningful first half snaps is killing the Canes offensive momentum.

Harris saw his first action with 12:49 left to play in the second quarter. He went 4-of-6 for 39 yards, rushed for a total of four yards and scrambled for three yards on a 3rd-and-5 when a first down would've set Miami up at the UNC 15-yard line in a then 14-7 ball game.

Harris took 7:42 to get 3 points. Marve needed a combined 8:48 to put 21 on the board. Had Farquharson reeled in the potential game winner, it'd have been 28 points in 9:24.

The Harris Experiment has to end here and now. He is a capable back up and a future sensation, but it's an injustice to this team and a momentum-killer to remove Marve and Cooper for Harris and Derron Thomas sitting on a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.

Marve had the hot hand and Cooper was smokin' the Heels' defense. Keep that burning. Push 14-7 to 17-7 - or even 21-7 - and see what Harris could do on the final possession of the second quarter.

Coaches have charts regarding two-point conversions. If Shannon is hellbent on meaningful playing time for Harris, I suggest a chart or system as well. Miami's field position. Time left in the half. A 10 to 14 point lead. Gauging the intangibles such as momentum or Marve's hot hand.

Last but not least, how did this defense wilt against a third-string quarterback, allowing Sexton to go 11-of-19 for 242 yards and two meaningful touchdowns? Where is the Bill Young defense Miami fans were teased with at Florida? It's now been missing for upwards of nine quarters.

Much blame falls directly on Miami's playmakers not making plays. The secondary got torched. The defensive line missed the presence of Marcus Forston, which shouldn't be the case. Playing a true freshman should be a luxury, not a necessity - proving that Miami's line is in serious need of bodies and fresh talent. Get this squad the shot in the arm that the Canes' receiving corps scored last Signing Day.

Young's defense set the tone in Gainesville and played with a sense of purpose, yet looked winded, reactive and one step behind in the second halves against North Carolina and Texas A&M. The Canes forced some turnovers last week at Kyle Field, yet couldn't force one against the Tar Heels and a washed up junior quarterback.

In all the negativity being spewed here, on some levels Miami earned yet another 'moral victory' against North Carolina. Mr. Marve is the real-deal and the Canes have found their most legitimate quarterback since the Ken Dorsey era. Aldarius Johnson showed incredible hands and and footwork. Benjamin is the kick returner Miami's been searching for since Roscoe Parrish left the building.

Even more impressive, the character of this team with 0:46 on the clock and playing from behind the first time in 59:14. The Canes of this past half-decade wouldn't have crossed midfield, let alone reached the red zone.

Marve looked more like a Favre, finding Farquharson for a 29-yard strike as well as the wherewithal to chuck it out of the end zone one 1st and 10 from the 20-yard line, instead of jamming it into crowded space and giving the game away.

The redshirt freshman in Marve sailed his final throw a few inches too high, but it gave hope that Marve v. 2009 or 2010 will make that throw when you need him to. While this game never should've come down to that final play or drive, Marve proved he is battle-tested and a gamer. Give him the rock and let him go to work.

The tragedy here is that Nix handcuffed the young gunslinger in the third quarter, after Shannon benched him in the second. Had either let the player play, who knows how many more times he might've found the end zone.

If there's one thing Nix must learn, it's that has has some serious gamers on his roster. The governor was off Marve early in the game and at full speed, the redshirt freshman shone like the star he is. When restricted in the middle portion of the contest and with Nix nursing a lead, Marve played tight. But in the end, down four with less than a minute to play, #9 played with the same loose nature his displayed early on when it was 0-0 and 7-0.

One final saving grace; seeing how Miami's freshman took this loss. You saw the pain on Marve's face. You saw Sean Spence making plays during the game, yet hanging his head and looking physically ill after the final interception.

When cameras panned to injured freshman receiver Tommy Streeter on the sidelines, a look that said he wanted to be in position to catch that game-winner.

Shannon's mentality of recruiting winning players from winning programs is going to pay off. These kids will not accept losing.

As of Sunday morning, Shannon spoke of a long Saturday night and a cell phone that didn't stop ringing as players called to discuss what went wrong. They knew the result was unacceptable. If Shannon's message to finish wasn't received before Saturday's loss, these kids heard it loud and clear when the clock his 0:00.

Shannon's players will learn from their mistakes. Winners find a way to win.

By season's end, I hope the same can be said for the coaches calling all the shots.


Canes Time Top Stories