Seniors stand tall in final home game

efore the game begins, the team gathers in a huddle, part of their ritual to get ready to play. Cayla Nimmo // Photo Editor
Freshman Tracy Howard (3) huddles up with senior Darius Smith (98) and the rest of the Hurricanes before Miami’s Senior Day blowout of USF this past Saturday. Cayla Nimmo // Photo Editor

When Miami and South Florida met last year, the Canes fought their way to a 6-3 victory over the Bulls to become bowl eligible in coach Al Golden’s first year with the team.

At least they were, until Miami decided to self-impose a bowl ban due to an impending NCAA investigation.

One year later, the Hurricanes find themselves in a remarkably similar situation.

Starting quarterback Stephen Morris threw for 413 yards and the Miami defense did not let up. The Canes (6-5, 4-3 ACC) overpowered South Florida 40-9 in front of 38,869 fans on Senior Day.

The previous two contests against South Florida (3-7, 1-4 Big East) went down to the wire, but Miami came out firing on a breezy Saturday at Sun Life Stadium and didn’t look back.

“We knew they were going to bring a lot of energy. This game means a lot to both teams,” Golden said. “I was very pleased with the effort, and obviously the amount of kids that stepped up – most particularly at wideout – to answer the call because we had some injuries at the spot.”

Morris became the second quarterback in program history to throw for 400 yards at least three times in his career, joining former Heisman winner Gino Torreta.

Three Hurricane receivers also went off for at least 100 yards receiving apiece, the first time that has happened since at least 1981.

“I guess we were,” Morris said about being short-handed at receiver. “But my guys stepped up and made great plays. It’s a credit to the offensive line. They brought a lot of blitzes, but the receivers stepped up.”

After being held to three points in the first quarter, Miami hit back-to-back field goals in the second to extend its lead to 9-0. The Canes found the end zone when Morris hit Kendal Thompkins for the first of his three passing touchdowns. Thompkins hauled in three catches for 80 yards, including his first score of the season.

“For it to be my senior game, it means a lot the way I came out and played,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been waiting on. I had an opportunity and I think I was able to make the most of it.”

The Bulls hit a field goal in the waning seconds of the first half to go into the locker rooms down 16-3. But an eight-yard run by Duke Johnson and a long 87-yard catch-and-run score by freshman receiver Herb Waters gave Miami a commanding 30-3 lead after three quarters.

Waters enjoyed a breakout performance of his own, catching four passes for 130 yards. Morris said after the game that he had been expecting this kind of game from his freshman receiver.

“I was waiting for him to have a breakout game,” he said. “Throughout practice this week, I was telling him he was going to have a big game, to just get his mind right and stay focused.”

Golden had nothing but praise for his receiving corps after the game as well.

“Obviously we really believe Herb [Waters] is going to be a really good player for us,” he said. “Phillip [Dorsett] grew up tonight. I was so proud of Kendal [Thompkins], the plays he made, the blocks he made, the unselfishness he showed out there. He really deserved to go out that way.”

The Bulls hit two field goals of their own in the fourth quarter, but a 65-yard touchdown reception by tight end Clive Walford and a 33-yard kick by Wieclaw put the game away for Miami.

Though Miami earned bowl eligibility, it remains to be seen whether the university will choose to self-impose another bowl ban. UM is awaiting sanctions from an NCAA investigation of allegations that former booster Nevin Shapiro provided illicit benefits to former players.

Miami chose to self-impose last season following its sixth win against the Bulls, but there is significantly more at stake this time around. Last year, the Hurricanes would have gone to a lower-tier bowl game.

A win against Duke next week would put the Canes in their first ACC Championship game since transferring from the Big East in 2004. The Blue Devils lost to Georgia Tech 42-24 on Saturday afternoon to end their chance at a spot in the championship game. It now comes down to Miami and Georgia Tech.

“It’s critical for our seniors to weather what they have weathered and to be able to have an opportunity to go out like that,” Golden said of the possibility of making it to the championship game. “If you look at it all the way down the line, if you’re a freshman, and you’re playing for that your freshman year, you become accustomed. You change the culture.”

While no decision has been made regarding any potential postseason ban, Golden said he’s not involved in the process, but trusts President Donna E. Shalala and athletic director Blake James to make the right call.

“I have complete confidence [Shalala] can handle this one,” he said. “I’m just happy for the guys, happy for the win today. I’m happy for the opportunity to go to Durham next week and play for the Coastal.”

The NCAA investigation has been a looming factor over this Hurricanes squad since the very beginning of the 2011 season. While it has been exhausting for the team to deal with, Golden remains adamant that it will all be taken care of.

“I’m here to coach the team and make them better. I’m here to move the program forward and move the team forward,” he said. “These kids who have stuck it out, who have stayed here, who have never gone one week in two years without hearing this nonsense, don’t blame them. I appreciate all those kids that not only stayed here, but those guys that answered the bell, that answered the call to fix this. We will get it fixed.”