For the majority of the season, Miami hadn’t played with fire as much as it had deftly avoided it. Five halftime deficits resulted in five successful second-half comebacks. But on Friday, the undefeated second-ranked Hurricanes walked right into the blaze brought by the Pittsburgh Panthers, losing 24-14.
The result spoiled what would have been Miami’s first undefeated regular season since 2002.
The Hurricanes’ offense looked out of rhythm throughout the contest as quarterback Malik Rosier missed receivers repeatedly and the team racked up penalties. Pittsburgh, now 5-7, dominated the time of possession by a whopping 13 minutes, while Miami never established the run, which Rosier thrives off. In the end, the rough offensive performances the team had overcome in the past finally came back to bite it.
In the first half, Miami—which had the highest turnover margin in the country entering Friday—brought out the Turnover Chain twice, allowing the team to keep the score close despite its offensive struggles. In the second half, Pitt’s time-eating vortex of an offense grounded and pounded its way to putting the game out of reach. The Canes couldn’t force another turnover when it mattered most.
Rosier’s poor play caused Richt to go away from his starting quarterback, inserting sophomore Evan Shirreffs in the fourth quarter with the Hurricanes down 10. It turned out to be a questionable move: Shirreffs nearly threw a pick and was sacked as Miami went three-and-out. It was a wasted drive that left Rosier on the sideline in search of a spark that didn’t come. Miami struck late as Rosier hit Braxton Berrios for a long touchdown with just under three minutes left. The Hurricanes recovered the ensuing onside kick, but Miami's last chance fell short as Pitt senior Avonte Maddox strip-sacked Rosier and the Panthers recovered.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi spoke the result into existence at halftime:
Narduzzi called it at halftime. pic.twitter.com/wV0c2C1u6Z— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) November 24, 2017
And Maddox himself took the chance to bring some gaudy accessories of his own to the postgame interview:
Avonte Maddox, who forced the final Miami fumble, is really wearing this chain pic.twitter.com/go7UefBIDg— Brian Batko (@BrianBatko) November 24, 2017
The U was never supposed to be here: at the doorstep of an undefeated season and just below Alabama in the College Football Playoff rankings. The season was an ahead-of-schedule jump for the project Mark Richt took over from Al Golden in the 2016 season. Richt and Co. hit their first checkpoints by winning their division and reaching the ACC title game. But Miami’s ability to stay undefeated—even while struggling against sub-.500 ACC teams—while getting up at home for big games against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame placed the team in the playoff conversation. Whether the Hurricanes’ season merited a spot in the top four didn’t matter because by avoiding a loss, they had earned their ranking.
Next week, the Canes will face no. 3 Clemson in the ACC championship game. The Tigers also lost their undefeated season late last year to Pittsburgh and still made the playoff, ultimately winning the national title. A Miami win over Clemson—should the Tigers prevail this weekend at South Carolina—would likely still net the Hurricanes a spot in the final four, which Clemson is also vying for. But thanks to the Canes’ favorable schedule and the untimely bad loss on Friday, Miami’s playoff worthiness can now be questioned. The perfect record had made them impervious to critique. Now, that’s no longer the case.