CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A late takeaway against North Carolina swung the game, and Miami held on to win. It propelled the Hurricanes to a 7-0 start, kept them in the AP poll top 10 for a third straight week (the first time that’s happened since 2005) and set up a game this week against Virginia Tech that could be the final hurdle before there’s some acceptance that, yes, Miami is back.
When Saturday's game was all over, a reporter wanted to know what the locker room scene was like. The implication wasn’t that Miami had celebrated. Rather, in the wake of yet another narrow escape, weren’t the Hurricanes getting worried?
This was, after all, a shaky win against woeful North Carolina. The Tar Heels, playing with a backup running back, a third-string quarterback and a host of bench-warmers thrust into action in the wake of 21 injured players missing the game, had hung with the No. 9 team in the land for the entirety. That has to be cause for concern.
“We celebrated like we always do,” offensive lineman KC McDermottt said. “We’re going to celebrate wins.”
There have been celebrations after each game, several of which Miami survived by the slimmest of margins. A touchdown pass with six seconds left upended Florida State. A field goal with four seconds remaining beat Georgia Tech a week later. A Shaq Quarterman sack helped stop a Syracuse drive at midfield in the final minutes of another one-possession win a week after that. And then the North Carolina game, the one Miami was favored to win by three touchdowns, ended with another near-miracle.
It’s easy to wonder how many miracles one team can summon. The answer is complicated.
On one hand, Miami’s escape acts aren’t entirely unique. Just a year ago, Clemson won a national championship while winning seven games by eight points or less. It wasn’t an indictment of the Tigers, but rather a badge of honor. They did all the little things to survive.
But this is Miami, a program besieged by setbacks for more than a decade, a team that has never played for an ACC title. Clemson had the pedigree. Miami has a burden.
“I tell the guys all the time, someday Miami is going to win the Coastal Division,” head coach Mark Richt said. “Will this be the team? I don’t know.”
That’s the thing. No one knows quite what to make of Miami.
Is quarterback Malik Rosier, who injured his shoulder against North Carolina, a burgeoning star? He has averaged nearly 300 passing yards per game, thrown 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions and engineered two game-winning drives in the final minutes. Or is he the guy who has struggled to move the offense for the first three quarters of action again and again?
Is the defense good enough to carry a team, or is it a unit that will eventually collapse under the weight of its inept offense?
Are the Hurricanes a work in progress, still figuring out how the pieces fit, or is it a team that simply doesn’t have the right pieces?
A look at two of ESPN’s advanced metrics underscore the dilemma. Miami’s strength of record, which measures the likelihood that another top-25 team would be as successful against the same schedule, suggests Miami is the second-best team in the country. Its game-control metric, on the other hand, ranks Miami 21st. The Canes are winning, but they’re winning ugly.
“This is game seven. It’s not a group growing together,” receiver Braxton Berrios said. “A lot of us have been together for years. We see it in practice. I don’t know. If we knew what it was, we’d fix it.”
Perhaps, Berrios said, the answer is that Miami is simply too worried about all the questions and the team just needs to relax and enjoy the ride.
Or, he adds, perhaps it’s something that needs to be addressed more within the locker room, with a vocal leader riding his teammates until they start functioning at a more consistent level.
If it sounds like Berrios is hedging his bets in both directions, it’s because he is. This is the dilemma of a team that hasn’t had success before. The answers aren’t readily at hand; the leaders don’t have speeches prepared. These Canes are in uncharted waters.
Still, off in the distance, is safe harbor. It lies just beyond this weekend’s game against Virginia Tech.
For Miami fans, no worries about close wins can overshadow the opportunity at hand. They’ve endured the taunts for years. When the Canes joined the ACC in 2004, it was with the understanding that a power brand would help raise the conference’s profile. Instead, Miami hasn’t finished with fewer than three league losses in a season since 2005.
But if Georgia Tech beats Virginia on Saturday afternoon and Miami defeats Virginia Tech that night, the streak will be over. The Canes will have won the Coastal. The playoff talk will go from wishful thinking to stunning reality.
Miami is both a team struggling to find its footing and intoxicatingly close to reaching new heights.
“A lot of good things happened, but it’s not clean enough for me,” Richt said after the win over UNC. “We’ve got to iron things out and get ready for the next one. It’s certainly going to be big.”
It will be big enough to overshadow the lack of style points should Miami pull off the win. It will be big enough to shift the label from a team in need of answers to a team of destiny. It will be big enough to largely erase a decade of dismal history in favor of a brave new future.
In other words, Berrios’ first thoughts may be the right ones. What’s the point in worrying about what has happened before or what the expectations are for the future? The point is that Miami is here, on the precipice. With another win, how the Canes got here will be but a footnote.
“When we needed points, we got points. When we needed a stop, we got a stop,” Berrios said. “We’re still undefeated. We’re still where we need to be. We survive.”