MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Miami coach Mark Richt offered these prescient words to his team during the week as it prepared to play Virginia:
“I’m not going to sit here and ignore the fact there’s a lot of great things happening here … but we are the same team that started this season grinding and fighting and trying to find ways to win games. And if we forget that, then we are going to find ourselves in trouble.”
Well, No. 3 Miami (10-0) found itself in trouble all right, unable to muster the same intensity or defensive relentlessness that buoyed them to prime-time victories over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame the previous two weeks.
Perhaps it was the early Saturday afternoon start; perhaps it was a natural letdown. Either way, Miami at times Saturday looked like the team that struggled to eke out wins against North Carolina, Syracuse and Georgia Tech.
Virginia (6-5) happens to be better than those three schools, a team that has experienced its own renaissance this season under Bronco Mendenhall. The Cavaliers already are bowl-eligible and have a quarterback in Kurt Benkert who is capable of making big plays with his arm.
That is how the game unfolded in the first half and through the early portions of the third quarter. Then, momentum shifted on one crucial play — Benkert threw his worst pass of the game. Jaquan Johnson was there to intercept it, a 30-yard pick-six that allowed Miami to come from behind to beat Virginia 44-28. Miami (11-0) scored 30 unanswered points to finish the game.
Miami stays undefeated headed into the regular-season finale at Pitt next Friday, its College Football Playoff hopes completely intact. A loss could have derailed them, even with an ACC championship game victory over Clemson on Dec. 2.
That scenario could have become the subject of much debate. But in the end, there was no need to discuss the possibility after yet another win.
It wasn’t easy, but nobody expected it to be despite the betting line that favored Miami by 19½ points when the game began. Virginia clearly targeted the weakest part of the Miami defense, its secondary. With cleverly designed rollouts and quick passes, Benkert threw one completion after another — opening the game with 12 straight.
At halftime, Benkert was 17-of-18 with three touchdown passes, and Virginia had a 21-14 lead, sending nervous Miami fans into “here we go again” mode. Not only had Miami played close games against underdogs, Virginia had pulled several upsets in this series’ recent history.
Then the third quarter began. Miami had a punt blocked and Benkert threw a 26-yard pass to Daniel Hamm to extend the lead to 28-14. The crowd inside Hard Rock Stadium looked on, virtually silent. But something changed on the Miami sideline. Malik Rosier threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Lawrence Cager, then Johnson scored on a pick-six on the next possession.
Johnson has come to embody the turnover chain on defense, especially at crucial moments in games during the past month. Johnson is tied for the team lead with five takeaways this season, and that interception was a badly needed momentum-changer as Benkert had been having his way all day with the Miami defense.
From there, Miami ended up with a 44-yard field goal from Michael Badgley and came up with multiple fourth-down stops on defense, bringing the crowd to its feet. After Trent Harris made his second sack, Rosier and Travis Homer came up with big fourth-quarter touchdown runs.
It might not have been the perfect performance, but Miami does remain perfect. And at this stage in the season, what more could anyone ask?