MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- For the first time in three years, No. 7 Miami took the field Saturday without an NCAA investigation lording over the program.
Yet even still, Al Golden worried, given all the emotion spent throughout the week. “I was hoping we would have enough in the tank,” the Hurricanes' coach said. “Just because of how emotional it was to have that ordeal over.”
Miami did have enough in the end Saturday, rallying to beat Wake Forest 24-21 behind another terrific performance from Duke Johnson. But what happened Saturday cannot be blamed on the distractions presented during the week, nor the distractions that loom in the week ahead.
Especially since the NCAA investigation was never mentioned internally after athletic director Blake James broke the news to the team at 9:05 a.m. Tuesday.
Especially since Miami canceled all media availability, intending to keep players focused only on Wake Forest.
Especially since Golden said afterward he spent every moment over the previous 72 hours keeping his players on Wake Forest. Given all that, how could Miami be thinking about anything else once the game kicked off?
What we saw out of Miami on Saturday is what we have seen out of Miami the past three weeks. Slow starts that have severely handicapped the Hurricanes, forcing a mad scramble to pull out a come-from-behind win. Essentially, Miami has been placed on #upsetalert at some point throughout each of its last three games.
Most recently, it happened last week on the road against a one-win North Carolina team. It happened again this week, against an improved Wake Forest team that held the lead until the very end. “They played their butts off,” defensive end Anthony Chickillo said. “We kind of got punched in the face and we had to respond.”
Miami gave up 14 quick points, but the offense could not find a rhythm until late. After Miami took a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter, Wake Forest scored on its ensuing drive when Tanner Price threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Dominique Gibson to take back a 21-17 lead.
All Wake Forest needed was a defensive stop to win. Instead, Johnson ended up scoring the game-winning touchdown with 53 seconds remaining -- his second TD of the quarter.
The relief was palpable. Indeed, relief should be the word of the week in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes remain unbeaten at 7-0, but provided more fodder for critics who believe their record is a mirage. Miami has not played like a top-10 team over the past two weeks, rising up the rankings at the expense of other teams that have lost.
None of that is Miami’s fault. And Miami does deserve credit for finding ways to win these games. Two years ago, the Hurricanes would have lost. Golden and players readily admit that. No doubt there are signs of growth.
But here is the bottom line: Miami cannot afford to play from behind against No. 2 Florida State next week in Tallahassee. Not the way the Noles are playing. While Johnson gave his postgame remarks in an interview room in Sun Life Stadium, Florida State led NC State 28-0.
In the first quarter.
Last week, Clemson fell behind Florida State early and could never recover, losing 51-14. Pulling out games in the fourth quarter is all well and good, but Miami cannot play mismatched halves. Not against the No. 2 team in the nation.
The slow starts should be a concern moving forward.
“It’s all a concern,” Golden said. “Every game is its own chessboard and you have to make adjustments. We all know what this week is about coming up. We’ll regroup here tonight, tomorrow get healed up and get ready to go. I don’t think there will be any carry-over.”
There has been carry-over, though. We are not talking about a one-game sample size. Three games in a row, Miami has sleepwalked through the first half. Against North Carolina and Wake Forest, the sleepwalking continued until the third quarter. Yes, coaches have made adjustments at the half, but at this point, the biggest adjustment that needs to be made is the way Miami comes out of the gate.
“It’s like we get going in the second half and start figuring opponents out,” cornerback Tracy Howard said. “We have to do a better job with that. We’ll get it fixed.”
Miami faces its two toughest tests in consecutive weeks. After Florida State, the Hurricanes host Virginia Tech in a game that could determine the Coastal winner. Everybody in Miami agrees improvement must be made.
“We found a way to scratch and claw and win our seventh,” Golden said. “You can’t take any of the previous wins with you to Tallahassee next week. That’s over. We have to get better at the things we need to get better at, and we need some kids to step up.”
Or it could be a long night.