Three and Out: No. 10 Miami escapes North Carolina to remain unbeaten
On a night when nothing seemed to go right for Miami — injuries mounted early as both sides of the ball struggled to find a groove — all the 10th-ranked Hurricanes cared about in the end was getting out of Chapel Hill with a victory. Miami had unpleasant memories of the last time it ventured to take on North Carolina as a Top-10 team: in 2004, the Tar Heels upended the No. 4 Hurricanes 31-28, an upset that stands as UNC’s last victory over a Top-10 opponent. But this Miami team, which came in boasting an unblemished 5-0 record, might not have expected such a test from the host Tar Heels, who sported a 1-4 record and an 0-2 mark against ACC foes.
If that were the case, the Hurricanes were blindsided. After UNC built a 23-13 lead by early in the fourth quarter, Miami finally found the end zone to move within three points. After a defensive stand, it took a 13-play, 90-yard touchdown drive engineered by mistake-prone Stephen Morris and backup running back Dallas Crawford to punch in a three-yard score with 16 second left and lift Miami over upset-minded North Carolina 27-23 on Thursday night. With the win, Miami starts the season 6-0 for the first time since 2004.
Here are three thoughts from the Hurricanes’ wild win over the Tar Heels.
• Playing down: Despite the number next to its name, Miami hardly looked the part of a Top-10 team on either side of the ball against UNC. The offensive deficiencies were perhaps most glaring. The ‘Canes came into the night averaging just over 45 points per game, and their 488.6 yards of total offense per game ranked 28th in the country. Yet Morris and the offense shot themselves in the foot with miscues on several occasions, including four interceptions from the senior quarterback. Prior to Thursday night, Morris had thrown four picks all season and ranked ninth in the FBS with a 169.7 passing efficiency. Meanwhile, North Carolina had claimed a mere five takeaways this season prior to playing Miami.
Morris did complete three key passes on the team’s go-ahead drive in the final period, but his overall 54.3 completion percentage was a season-low, and he failed to find the end zone even once.
But the Miami offense suffered a couple of unexpected blows along the way, as well. Starting tailback Duke Johnson left in the first quarter after taking a knee to the head, and receiver Phillip Dorsett likewise left the game with an apparent knee injury. Neither would return, and though Crawford would eventually step up big in reserve duty at tailback, the absence of Johnson and Dorsett was felt as the Hurricanes failed to score an offensive touchdown until the 11:29 mark in the fourth quarter. Coming in, Miami had scored 28 offensive touchdowns this year.
The Hurricanes’ struggles were not relegated to the offense, of course. Miami’s defense surrendered a season-high 500 yards against Larry Fedora’s no-huddle attack, including 395 yards through the air from quarterbacks Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams. The ‘Canes came with the country’s best defense against the pass, allowing only 141.4 and two touchdowns, but Renner and Williams each found the end zone once through the air and completed 74 percent of their passes.
Miami has now managed to squeak by its only two ACC opponents thus far; it also had to overcome a 17-7 first-quarter deficit and four turnovers to slug out a 45-30 win over Georgia Tech on Oct. 5. Six of Morris’ eight picks have come in the last two games, and with a penchant for playing down to lesser opponents in the ACC, it’s hard to imagine these Hurricanes truly making a run at the Coastal Division crown without a more disciplined approach on both sides of the ball. This kind of performance won’t bode well against division-leading Virginia Tech in two weeks.
• Stepping up: One bright spot for the Hurricanes was the emergence of Crawford, who ran in Miami’s only two offensive touchdowns of the night, including the go-ahead score with 16 seconds left. When Johnson went down early in the first quarter, Morris had already thrown his first interception as the offense began to stall against the Tar Heels. Crawford managed 137 yards on 33 carries, surpassing his season totals in both categories. Prior to Thursday night, Crawford held season-highs of only 13 carries and 48 yards.
The Hurricanes called Crawford’s number on eight occasions on the go-ahead 13-play drive, including on the winning run. It’s unclear how severe Johnson’s injury is, but if the star tailback is forced to miss a significant amount of time, Crawford proved he has the mentality and talent to handle the job at running back if necessary.
• Building block: North Carolina’s record doesn’t show it, but the Tar Heels should have plenty to build on after this loss. Fedora is only one season removed from breaking several offensive records in his first stint in Chapel Hill, and that offense showed sights of life again on Thursday. In his first game back from injury, Renner was productive against a solid pass defense, and one of his favorite targets, tight end Eric Ebron, was sensational. Ebron hauled in 199 yards — a program record for a tight end — on only eight catches alongside a touchdown. The offense just needs to limit mistakes of its own; Renner and Williams each tossed an interception.
The defense, however, might have been the reason North Carolina held a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead. The unit’s four takeaways were easily a season-high as it pressured Morris into several mistakes. There’s certainly disappointment in Chapel Hill given the program’s 1-5 start, but the Tar Heels exhibited promise on both sides of the ball against a Top-10 conference foe. That’s a teaching experience for a program that lacked seasoned veterans coming into the season.