One loss, absorbed in dismal fashion at Pittsburgh last week, isn’t enough to prevent the Miami Hurricanes from shifting back into high gear and making a run at the national title.
One takeaway against Clemson on Saturday night, which is right on average for the Tigers’ opponents, and it’s the end of the road.
Hey, it’s not rocket science figuring out where Miami’s offense gets its boost, even at a time of year when touchdown-makers like Mark Walton, Ahmmon Richards and Christopher Herndon are missing due to injury.
When that Turnover Chain is getting passed up and down the Hurricanes’ sidelines in response to multiple interceptions and fumble recoveries by Manny Diaz’s defense, Miami seemingly can’t help but win.
Those monstrous victories over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, won by a combined score of 69-18, are the perfect demonstration. Each game featured four takeaways by the Miami defense, turning sudden-change opportunities over to quarterback Malik Rosier and turning Hard Rock Stadium into a time machine set to an era when all those former Hurricane giants walked the earth.
Meanwhile, the scariest victories of the season, 24-20 over FSU on a Darrell Langham touchdown catch with six seconds remaining and 25-24 over Georgia Tech on a late field-goal drive, featured a total of just three Miami takeaways between them.
That’s how simple the ACC Championship game is to me, anyway.
Clemson, in case anyone has forgotten, is the defending national champion. Dabo Swinney’s guys took Alabama down last January on a touchdown pass with one second remaining, which is as MacGyver as it gets. What’s more, Clemson has a fan base that is as large and as loony as any in the SEC, and the Tigers’ campus is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
This is no time, then, to plan on grinding out an upset win with Rosier’s passing and Travis Homer’s running as the keys to long and efficient Miami scoring drives. Clemson allows just 13.6 points per game and limited South Carolina to 10 first downs in last week’s easy 34-10 tuneup win.
So it’s steal the ball, repeatedly, or watch Rosier struggle, as he did at Pitt, completing just 44 percent of his passes and getting benched for a series when coach Mark Richt, if only briefly, reached for the panic button.
Swinney had a similar moment back in October, on Friday the 13th. The Tigers lost quarterback Kelly Bryant to a concussion and couldn’t rally behind his freshman backup in a 27-24 loss at Syracuse.
Bryant is back now, and has been for weeks, leading a Clemson offense that averages 11 first downs passing, 10 first downs rushing and more than 35 points per game. That’s brawny balance, the most lethal kind.
“They’re a very patient offense,” said Miami linebacker Shaq Quarterman. “They will run the same plays that gets them 4 yards every time…That’s why they have the numbers they have. They work down the field quite well. That’s one thing that really sticks out to me, is their poise, their patience, as far as their playcalling is concerned.”
Poking a hole in that poise is Miami’s way to advance to the College Football Playoff, but it will take more than tackles for loss and third-down stops. Takeaways have to come, too, and in bunches.
Look at Louisville, a team that averages 39 points per game and has Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Clemson’s offense never turned it over against the Cardinals and won a 47-21 laugher at Papa John’s Stadium in September.
And how about Auburn, No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings and as much a national title contender as Clemson and Miami are? Also back in September, Auburn recovered a couple of Clemson fumbles to keep the game close but probably needed at least one more in a 14-6 loss at Death Valley.
“You know, defenses score points sometimes, and special teams points happen,” Richt said. “It’s just so hard to say what’ll happen in a game like this, but I know it’s going to be tough sledding for us offensively against their defense.”
Altogether, it’s a lot to ask of the Turnover Chain gang, but then again defense is where Miami separated itself from the crowd during the five national championship seasons. The 1989, 1991 and 2001 teams ranked first in the nation in fewest points allowed and none of them ranked lower than third.
Today’s Hurricanes, for all their resourcefulness and big-game boldness, rank 15th at 18.3 points per game.
It makes for a smaller margin of error, and it makes for one screamer of a Saturday night.