Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya has repeatedly said he would make a decision about his future after the Russell Athletic Bowl against West Virginia.
Decision time has come, and Kaaya did his best to impress NFL scouts, overcoming a slow first quarter to help the Hurricanes beat the No. 16 Mountaineers 31-14 on Wednesday and win their first bowl game since 2006. After starting 5-of-13, Kaaya went 19-of-21 with four touchdown passes to blow open a game West Virginia led early.
It took more than a quarter for the Hurricanes to get a first down. But once they got rolling, it was hard to stop them, and that allowed Miami (9-4) to break an ugly bowl losing streak that had been a constant reminder over the past decade.
Before Wednesday, Larry Coker was the last Miami coach to win a bowl game. In between, two head coaches and two interim coaches had come and gone, all without a bowl victory. So for those who believe bowl games might not matter all that much, there is an entire sideline filled with Miami coaches and players who disagree. How can a program start to climb back to national prominence without bowl victories?
Granted, this was not a New Year's Six game nor a playoff game, but Miami has to start somewhere. The last time the Hurricanes played in the Russell Athletic Bowl, they were not competitive in a blowout loss to Louisville in 2013. It didn't look promising at the beginning of this one, as West Virginia pressured Kaaya and rattled him early, forcing him to throw high far too often.
The Mountaineers had their own point to prove, hoping to get to 11 wins for the first time since 2007. But they could never get any consistency going against a tough, physical Miami defense that won the line of scrimmage and limited quarterback Skyler Howard's effectiveness while shutting down the run game.
Miami's defense has been the more consistent unit throughout the course of the season. But once Kaaya got going, it was hard for West Virginia (10-3) to contain the speed and athleticism Miami has on offense, from true freshman receiver Ahmmon Richards to tight end David Njoku (who also has a decision to make about his NFL future) to running back Mark Walton.
Kaaya finished Wednesday with 282 yards and four touchdowns and has made his case for the NFL over the past three years. He has the Miami career passing record and has thrown for 3,000 yards in each of his three seasons. But he has shown inconsistencies throughout his career, so the question becomes whether another year at Miami would improve his draft stock.
First-year coach Mark Richt would obviously love to have Kaaya back, but regardless of that decision, the bowl victory does give Miami momentum headed into the offseason. There is plenty of young talent returning, and Richt is putting together a solid recruiting class that should be ranked among the best in the ACC come February.
West Virginia ended up with a season-low 229 yards of offense after averaging better than 500, not exactly the way Howard wanted to go out in his final game for the Mountaineers. Though the end was disappointing, the Mountaineers did have the breakthrough season they wanted in the Big 12; now they have to find a way to build on that headed into 2017.