College football takeaways: Does Miami's marquee win mean it's back?

Pete Thamel
·17 mins read

Manny Diaz’s soaring coaching career took a detour through Ruston (Louisiana Tech) and Starkville (Mississippi State) after Mack Brown fired him at Texas in early September of 2013.

Rhett Lashlee’s career arc as one of college football’s hot young coordinators got sidetracked when he got run out of Auburn by his mentor, Gus Malzahn, in 2016 and then served a season in college football Siberia at UConn.

D’Eriq King dominated college football with 36 touchdown passes in 2018 and then a 1-3 start last year led to his decision to redshirt and later transfer.

Essentially, Miami’s second-year coach, new coordinator and star transfer quarterback have all experienced the searing glory of the ascent to stardom and the humility inherent to a sudden exit from college football’s fast lane.

And so far in 2020, the mutual convergence of Diaz, Lashlee and King has helped changed the trajectory of a program that’s endured a similar detour from the sport’s hierarchy. Miami hasn’t won a marquee bowl game since 2003, but after a surgical 47-34 evisceration of Louisville on the road on Saturday night, the drumbeat of Miami’s return to the national spotlight is going to grow louder.

King threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns, Cam’Ron Harris ran for 134 yards and a marauding Miami defense finished with 10 TFLs and lured the sanitized Turnover Chain out of hiding three times. (Even Miami’s kicker has flare, as transfer Jose Borregales went 4-for-4 on field goals, including a 57-yard moonshot that left Diaz wondering in the postgame if it’d landed yet.)

The best way to explain how Miami is back, however, transcends the bling and flash so often tied to Miami’s program. The soul of this Miami rebirth is rooted in the collective comebacks of three of the program’s central figures – the coach who re-routed his career to his dream job, the coordinator who found his own identity away from his mentor and the quarterback who chose to leave his hometown for a chance to revive an iconic brand.

“There’s something definitely to that,” Diaz said when asked about the circuitous paths. “I think you really have to figure out who you are.”

Louisville's Malik Cunningham runs with the ball while defended by Quincy Roche #2 of the Miami Hurricanes at Cardinal Stadium on September 19, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Louisville's Malik Cunningham runs with the ball while defended by Quincy Roche #2 of the Miami Hurricanes at Cardinal Stadium on September 19, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Miami is 2-0, but perhaps most important is that we know exactly who they are. Miami has been a programs whose identity for most of the past two decades has been rooted in nostalgia, where every blip of national attention has a plea for the swashbuckling, trash-talking and dominating Hurricanes that lorded over the sport in the 1990s and 2000s.

Diaz and second-year DC Blake Baker have done a great job branding this Miami defense as a ball-hawking and aggressive unit. After all, even a few squirts of Purell can’t hurt the Turnover Chain.

But the difference with this iteration of Miami compared to the one we last left getting shut out by Louisiana Tech in Shreveport last December is they have quickly coalesced on offense. Diaz fired Dan Enos and courted Lashlee away from his Southwestern sweet spot at SMU. That led to King’s transfer, as he’d seen first-hand in the AAC just how devastating Lashlee’s scheme could be.

It’s quickly becoming a reality at Miami, which had an offensive jailbreak on Saturday night with touchdowns of 75 yards (pass), 75 yards (run) and 47 (yards). “Y’all have no clue,” said Brevin Jordan, the tight end who caught the 47-yard touchdown. “Y’all have no clue. This is just the beginning.”

Both Diaz and Jordan pointed out that Miami’s big-hitter scores were designed that way, which is impressive this early in the season when the types of looks a defensive will give is still in flux.

As much as Lashlee’s multi-formation and tempo-based scheme has meshed perfectly with King’s dual-threat ability, Jordan pointed to an influx of confidence that Lashlee injected upon arriving. Lashlee told the players, “We’re going to score points. It’s going to feel natural.”

Jordan showed a burst of that old Miami bravado by showcasing his coordinator as a soothsayer. “It’s starting to feel real natural,” he said. “It feels real natural. Let’s go do it again.”

In January of 2014, Lashlee was the coordinator in Auburn’s national title game appearance against Florida State. His awkward exit and subsequent career revival coincided with Diaz’s. And while Diaz didn’t want to speak for Lashlee, he distilled one of the simple lessons of his own comeback.

“More than anything, you want to be surrounded by like-minded people,” Diaz said. “That’s how you win.”

The collective comeback of three careers has helped revive one of the game’s best brands. And with Miami at the epicenter of the sport for the second straight week, we’re all delighted to be coming back for more. In fact, it feels real natural.

COACHING MALPRACTICE

It was just a few years ago that Art Briles’ coaching tree and scheme were viewed as the next wave of college football. Philip Montgomery emerged as one of the most coveted young coaches in the sport after leading Tulsa to a 10-3 season in 2016. The year before, Dino Babers led Bowling Green to a 10-3 season and got wooed away by Syracuse.

The offense was viewed as cutting edge, relentless and nearly impossible to defend. The wide splits, breakneck tempo and eye-popping yardage totals led to plenty of fawning and imitation.

On Saturday, that vaunted Baylor offense continued its regression from football mainstream. Five years after taking the sport by storm, both Montgomery and Babers are going nowhere fast.

We’ll start with Montgomery, who pulled off a rare coaching daily double on Saturday. Out of both of Tulsa’s second-half timeouts used on offense, the Golden Hurricane committed dead-ball penalties. On Tulsa’s final drive in the game's waning minutes, with a chance to win the game trailing 13-7, they committed a false start, a hold and a delay of game on third-and-19.

In a sequence that summed up a slopfest of a game, Oklahoma State had 12 men on the field and took a timeout on third-and-24 that appeared to save Tulsa, which was on the cusp of another delay penalty.

Here are the plays that will haunt Montgomery: Leading the game 7-3 in with 6:49 remaining in the third quarter, Tulsa faced a third-and-2. After calling a timeout, Tulsa managed to get a delay of game penalty. Tulsa finished the day 0-for-12 on third down, and this penalty proved particularly punitive as quarterback Zach Smith rushed for six yards on third-and-7. Tulsa punted.

Trailing 10-7 early in the fourth quarter, Tulsa squandered a first-and-goal from the Oklahoma State 4-yard line. On third-and-goal from the 3, Tulsa committed a false start out of the timeout. Pushed back five yards, Smith threw an incompletion on third-and-goal and Tyler Tipton missed a 26-yard field goal to tie the game.

After the game, Montgomery said he’s not one to make excuses. His team endured a nine-day pause in practice from COVID and Smith had to sit out for a stretch. He said they only scrimmaged once, and usually would have three times.

In total, 10 of Tulsa’s 15 penalties were on offense. Six of the 10 were pre-snap – four false starts and two delays of game. Tulsa’s defense held Oklahoma State to 287 yards, 3.0 yards per rush and forced two turnovers. Its offense, led by the most basic of sideline failures, is now only regarded as innovative in its ability to self-destruct.

RUNNING INTO THE GROUND

That same once-vaunted Baylor offense fell flat again for Syracuse, as the Orange have just one touchdown in two games. (That came from backup quarterback Rex Culpepper, a cool moment in his comeback from cancer.)

That was one of the few bright spots. Syracuse is 0-2 to start the year, and Babers is headed toward his fourth losing season in five years at Syracuse. The most puzzling part is the complete absence of hope on offense, as Syracuse gained just 171 yards on 58 plays, a meager average of 2.9 yards per play and 1.5 yards per rush.

Syracuse’s offensive line remains the program’s glaring weakness, as it moved fullback/tight end Chris Elmore to left guard in the preseason, where he’s the starter. That’s something out of a jayvee high school playbook. (The inability of Florida transfer Chris Bleich to get a waiver led to the desperation move.)

Two of Syracuse’s top tailbacks opted out and their offensive line is projecting to somehow be worse than last season after giving up seven sacks for 40 yards against Pitt. That’s hard to do after ranking No. 126 in sack rate in 2019 according to Football Outsiders. That’s meant that their tempo has been used against Syracuse and stresses the team’s defense and special teams.

“The tempo thing is really overrated,” said a veteran defensive coordinator. “People are used to it, now. If you don’t have really elite players, just going fast anymore doesn’t cause the issues that it once did.”

And that’s one reason Syracuse has major issues and appears to be running tempo to the bottom of the ACC standings.

SPARKLING DEBUT

Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley is about to order more than 100 game balls. In the wake of his revelatory head coach debut – a 26-6 thrashing of Duke in Durham – Hafley told Yahoo Sports he wanted to give everyone in the program a memento. That includes all players, staff and support staff.

“I want this to be on all of their shelves 10 years from now,” he said. “To remember COVID and all the crap we went through and all the hard times. No one can ever take this away from us. This was so much more than a normal win.”

The biggest compliment to Hafley’s early BC tenure came from the program’s ability to thrive amid COVID, as BC football has had just one positive test in the football program in the more than 2,500 tests conducted since June. “They played like they’ve lived the last 3 months,” Hafley said. “They sacrificed and haven’t flinched and bought into everything that we’ve told them.”

Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley, left, talks to defensive back Josh DeBerry during a game against Duke on Saturday. (Nell Redmond-Pool/Getty Images)
Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley, left, talks to defensive back Josh DeBerry during a game against Duke on Saturday. (Nell Redmond-Pool/Getty Images)

BC’s authoritative win stood out on the defensive end. The Eagles finished No. 125 in total defense (478.7) last season and No. 101 in scoring defense (32.2). They forced five turnovers on Saturday and held Duke to seven less points than Notre Dame the week before.

Hafley’s roster management should be credited, as three transfers started on defense – FS Deon Jones (Maryland), NT Chibueze Onwuka (Buffalo) and DT Luc Bequette (Cal). The defensive line at BC was the program’s clear weakness, and the upgrades showed for first-year DC Tem Lukabu’s unit. Onwuka forced Duke tailback Deon Jackson to fumble at the 3-yard line in the second quarter, the game’s biggest defensive play.

“It’s energy,” Hafley said. “If anyone watched the game, we played so many guys. Right now, we are who we are. We never quit. We leaned on each other. We bent a little, but we didn’t break.”

BC’s offense found new life under transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who was seemingly dared to pass by the Duke defense and delighted in doing so. He finished 17-for-23 with 300 yards and two touchdown passes. Sophomore Zay Flowers broke out with 162 receiving yards and a touchdown and tight end Hunter Long caught seven more balls for 93 yards and a touchdown.

And after the game, Halfey broke into a huge smile when his players doused him with a cooler of yellow Gatorade.

“The first time getting Gatorade dumped on you is something you never think about until it happens,” Hafley said with a laugh. “I remember watching that happen to Bill Parcells as a Giants fan growing up. That’s a cool moment.”

And it’s one that will be remembered for everyone around the BC program every time they peek on their shelf and see the game ball.

ANOTHER COMEBACK

The day’s most exciting finish saw Louisiana Tech win at Southern Miss, 31-30, on an overturned call on a fourth-down touchdown catch with 14 seconds remaining. Redshirt junior receiver Griffin Hebert’s heel landed a few grass blades inside the end zone, completing a four-yard touchdown and improbable win for Louisiana Tech.

Tech was down six starters and 20 players from their two-deep, most of which were tied to a COVID-19 outbreak that led to the postponement of Tech’s game at Baylor last week. The outbreak of more than 35 players was tied to Hurricane Laura, which killed power in the area for days and left players scrambling for a living situation with air conditioning. It also led to gaps of missed practice and massive disruption once it returned, leaving Holtz juggling uncertainties the past two weeks.

So it was only fitting that Tech found itself down 17 points in the third quarter, another obstacle in a season filled with them. “That’s part of the reward,” Holtz said from the caravan of six buses headed back for the three-and-a-half hour ride on I-20. “What makes it so rewarding is what they overcame to get here.”

Holtz pointed out a slew of special performances, like true freshman linebacker Tyler Grubbs thrust into a starting role and finishing with 16 tackles.

In the end, on fourth-and-goal from the four, quarterback Luke Anthony scrambled around and appeared to have a wide open path to run into the end zone. Instead, he whizzed the ball under the goal post to Hebert, who somehow manipulated his foot to make the catch.

Holtz had no idea if Hebert caught it from his vantage point on the sideline. But confirmation soon came roaring through the headset – “He’s in! He’s in!” – to help deliver one of the most improbable victories of his 16-year coaching career. “We’ll look back one day and this will be one of the great wins any of us have been a part of because of what we had to go through to get it,” Holtz told Yahoo. As the buses headed West to Ruston, they were scheduled to arrive at 3 a.m. No doubt, the ride will be going by a little faster after that ending.

AAC BETTER THAN BIG 12?

Can the AAC crash the playoff is one of those talking points that occasionally gathers steam during the season but rarely intersects with reality. The chaos so far in 2020 could change that.

The AAC has three teams in the top 16, a number destined to change when Big Ten teams begin to reappear in the poll. Cincinnati is No. 13 and has the best chances of those teams, something that will be aided by a game against No. 22 Army next week.

“I do think so,” Fickell told Yahoo Sports on Saturday night when asked if the weirdness of 2020 offers opportunity for the league. “You know me, I don’t worry about it that much. But I do think so, you have to start somewhere. If you’re not up there to start with or at some point and time, it’s hard to get there.”

Cincinnati rolled over Austin Peay, 55-20, to open its season on Saturday. While it’s hard to glean too much from an FCS blowout, Fickell said he’s pleased with the leap that Desmond Ridder, his third-year starter at quarterback, has taken. He finished 13-for-19 for 196 yards and two touchdowns, but has impressed more with his presence the past few months.

“All through camp and since we’ve been back, he’s been more commanding, more confident,” Fickell said, adding that Ridder had a bit of a sophomore slump. “He’s more under control. Sometimes I’d try and tell him last year, ‘We don’t need Kyler Murray, I just want you. You are good enough.’”

Gerrid Doaks scored four touchdowns for UC. Fickell came away impressed with the Bearcats tight ends – Josh Whyle, Leonard Taylor and Bruno Labelle – who combined for eight catches.

Coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons, Fickell hasn’t been shy about saying this is the best Cincinnati team on paper. And the Bearcats showed that today through their ability to stay motivated and engaged in an empty stadium. “I think I may have over-evaluated not having spring and not having fans,” he said. “Our kids, I don’t think they were impacted by it at all. I was making a bigger deal of it than they did. I give them credit. Shows great maturity.

“They were more grateful to play and excited to play. I overanalyzed some of the things that may have been issues.”

GOOD KNIGHT

UCF gave the AAC one of the day’s biggest wins for intra-conference bragging rights. The Knights rolled Georgia Tech in Atlanta, 49-21, behind four touchdown passes from Dillon Gabriel. It was an important win for both No. 14 UCF and the AAC, as the opportunity for marquee non-conference wins are few this season.

ABC color analyst Greg McElroy brought up an interesting point after the Knights win. “You can make a very strong argument on behalf of the American as the third- or fourth-best league in college football right now,” he said near the conclusion of the ABC broadcast.

With the Big 12 looking dreadful to start the season, McElroy asked at the end of the broadcast if the AAC can make an argument for being deeper. McElroy acknowledged that Oklahoma and Texas are both excellent. But the middle class of the Big 12 has really struggled, with ugly losses by Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas last weekend. Oklahoma State lost credibility the way it barely outlasted a dreadful Tulsa team on Saturday, as the offensive line yielded six sacks.

(The only potential good news for Oklahoma State was that coach Mike Gundy said after the game that quarterback Spencer Sanders “doesn’t have a serious injury” after he left with what appeared to be an ankle injury in the first quarter.)

Predicting anything in this wacky COVID-shrouded season seems foolish. But with the Pac-12 struggling to figure out their return and the AAC having perhaps its best complement of high-end teams – assuming No. 16 Memphis plays again soon, as they now have two postponed games – an undefeated AAC team could loom as a factor in the CFP conversation.

That’s a collision of the unpredictability of this wacky season and the AAC’s rise.

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