MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Jaquan Johnson has in many respects, become the face of the turnover chain. He has worn it in five straight games. And just about every time he has put it on, he has made a game-changing play.
So who came through when Miami needed a massive momentum-shifter Saturday against Virginia? Johnson, of course.
With Miami trailing 28-21 and Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert on a roll with precision passes, the Hurricanes desperately needed a stop. Not just any stop, but one that would serve to rally a team that had played uninspired football for over one half, against an opponent it was favored to beat by double digits.
“We were just talking about it on the sideline, that we needed a turnover, we needed a stop, we needed to get some momentum going,” Johnson said.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz made a specific playcall with Johnson in mind.
“The quarterback was doing a great job moving out of the pocket, and keeping his eyes down the field and delivering a perfect ball on the run,” Johnson said. “The defense that was called, we were able to corral him and keep him in the pocket and disguise to make it seem like something was open, and that’s what we did. Once he threw it, I was able to break underneath the route.”
Offensive lineman KC McDermott had a front-row seat — from the bench with his fellow offensive linemen. The play happened right in front of them, so he was able to watch in real time.
His first thought?
“He’s gone,” McDermott said. “It was awesome.”
Johnson took the ball and saw open field, running 30 yards for the score to tie the game at 28. Virginia never scored again, as No. 3 Miami reeled off 30 unanswered points to win 44-28 and stay undefeated.
“As soon as he caught it, the only guy who could have tackled him stumbled, and you knew it was gonna be a house call,” Miami coach Mark Richt said. “It was beautiful. Anytime you get an interception for a touchdown or a turnover, that ignites everybody.”
For Johnson and the defense, it became a huge play because they finally were able to find a way to slow Benkert down.
Benkert went 17-of-18 for 262 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter. Then he threw a fourth touchdown pass in the third quarter to give Virginia a 28-14 lead. All of those touchdown passes came outside the pocket, the most in a game by a Power 5 quarterback this season.
So that is why Miami had to try something different on defense. As soon as the Hurricanes began closing up the pocket and taking away opportunities for rollouts, everything changed. Benkert threw for 96 yards the rest of the game. Four of Miami’s five total sacks came after that interception.
For everyone who has watched Johnson grow and develop this season, seeing him make a big play has become somewhat routine.
It started with an interception last month against Syracuse, his first this season. Then against North Carolina, he had a crucial fumble recovery late in the game that allowed Miami to seal a 24-19 victory. Against Virginia Tech, his interception in the third quarter led to a touchdown that put their victory out of reach.
And last week against Notre Dame, Johnson had an interception early on Brandon Wimbush, helping set the tone early in what became a 41-8 victory.
Johnson has worn the turnover chain five times, tied with Michael Jackson for the most this season.
“He has to be one of the toughest guys I know,” defensive tackle RJ McIntosh said about Johnson. “Especially playing safety. You know, they take the game very serious. All day, every day, throughout the week he tries to tell all the other safeties — everyone — that if the ball is in the air you need to come down with it. Him making that play, it was normal for us. We see it all day, every week. The player he is now, he has become, I’m excited for him. I’m excited to see what the future holds for him.”
Asked how he has become a go-to player on the defense, Johnson answered quietly: “It’s the guys believing in me, me believing in myself, the coaching staff believing in me, and me being able to answer the phone when my number’s called. That’s really it. Everything else, everybody works hard in practice, we’ve been working since the spring. Nothing’s changed in that aspect. It’s just games now on Saturday, so everybody can see it.”
Quarterman put it more succinctly: “Jaquan is the guy. He does spectacular things.”