Damond: Miami proved its not the same old Hurricanes with victory over Texas A&M

Junior wide receiver Jacolby George celebrates with his teammates after his second fourth-quarter touchdown during Miami's game against Texas A&M at Hard Rock Stadium on Sept. 9, 2023. Photo credit: Alexandra Fisher

What a difference a year makes.

After a disheartening loss to Texas A&M last season, the Miami Hurricanes secured their biggest win of the Mario Cristobal era on Saturday night with a 48-33 payback victory over the No. 23 Aggies at Hard Rock Stadium.

But the win was far from easy, and a disastrous first half left fans wondering if Miami had made any progress following last year’s disappointing 5-7 season. That question was quickly answered as the Hurricanes overcame an early 17-7 deficit and registered a double-digit victory.

Sure, Miami looked dominant in a 35-point victory over Miami (OH) the week before, but that was a game it was supposed to win.

Texas A&M was the real litmus test — a ranked team from arguably the best conference in all of football, the SEC. And while the Aggies fell short of expectations in 2022, they still comfortably beat Miami 17-9 last year, jumpstarting a three-game Hurricanes losing streak that ended up derailing their season.

That game featured several careless mistakes, including dropped passes, a blocked field goal and a muffed punt. Saturday initially seemed like Déjà vu.

Because before quarterback Tyler Van Dyke passed for a career-high five touchdowns, before wide receiver Xavier Restrepo had a career-high 126 receiving yards, and before Miami dropped 48 points on an SEC foe, it looked like the same old Hurricanes.

Restrepo dropped a first down catch on Miami’s opening possession, forcing a Hurricanes’ punt that Texas A&M blocked and recovered deep in Miami territory. Three plays later, less than three minutes into the game, the Aggies scored a touchdown.

When Miami finally got on the board late in the first quarter and stopped Texas A&M on its next possession, the momentum had shifted — but it didn’t last long.

Wide receiver Jacolby George muffed the punt return. The Aggies recovered and had their second touchdown of the game two plays later. But George rebounded, finishing with three touchdowns and 94 receiving yards, and the Hurricanes did, too, outscoring Texas A&M 41-16 the rest of the way.

The most encouraging part of the game, more than the individual stats and big plays, was how Miami responded as a team. The Hurricanes looked disjointed last year, and as a result, early deficits ballooned into blowout losses — just look at Miami’s 45-31 loss to Middle Tennessee for proof.

“I think last year we would have quit,” Van Dyke said following the win. “We’re a totally different team. The leaders stepped up; the players stepped up. We held each other accountable the entire offseason.”

Saturday’s win was proof of an improved team culture, which Restrepo said was “at an all-time high.”

After George made a costly mistake, no one pointed fingers. Instead, he said his teammates brought him back up. And after so many early special teams mistakes, wide receiver Brashard Smith gave the unit confidence after a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

The difference between this year and last? Restrepo says it all has to do with the players.

“Last year the coaches had more energy than the players, and this year we all sat down the first day of spring training camp and were like, ‘This is our team. This is not the coaches’ team. The coaches tell us what to do, but this is our team,’” he said. “A lot of the guys gathered up and we just took account [of] ourselves, and it worked.”

‘Canes fans wanted to see progress in Cristobal’s second year as head coach, and the program knew things needed to change. So Cristobal hired two new coordinators — Shannon Dawson and Lance Guidry — and recruited several new players who would make an impact both on the field and in the locker room.

On Saturday, Miami showed its resilience and proved it learned from last season’s mistakes. The Hurricanes even cracked this week’s AP ranking, coming in at No. 22. But there’s still a long way to go, and Cristobal knows it.

“We are nowhere near where we want to be, but today was a big step in the direction we want to go and I’m extremely proud of everyone in that locker room,” he said postgame.

And Cristobal, normally serious and matter-of-fact, turned to his team after the win and roared, “How bout them Hurricanes!” as the locker room erupted. That scene would have been unfathomable a season ago, but then again, these aren’t the same old Hurricanes.