MIAMI — Any doubts over whether No. 9 Miami belongs in the College Football Playoff discussion disappeared Saturday night at an amped-up Hard Rock Stadium.
The Hurricanes dominated No. 13 Virginia Tech in a 28-10 victory that’s the biggest statement of the Mark Richt era.
The ’Canes extended the nation’s longest active winning streak to 13 games. And thanks to its first regular-season win over a ranked opponent since the last-play laterals at Duke in October 2015, Miami (8-0, 6-0 ACC) needs only one more conference win (or Virginia loss) to clinch its first Coastal Division title.
"A lot of people doubted us coming into the game," defensive lineman RJ McIntosh said. "I think our performance (Saturday) is going to change a couple thoughts."
This wasn’t a squeaker against injury-plagued North Carolina or uncharacteristically down Florida State. This was a double-digit marquee victory that erased the only weakness on UM’s Playoff resume, in front of a crowd of 63,932 that included former MLB star Alex Rodriguez and pop star Jennifer Lopez.
The Hokies (7-2, 3-2) have the country’s best freshman quarterback (Josh Jackson) and a well-regarded coach being whispered as a possible Gators candidate (Justin Fuente) to go with the ACC’s top scoring defense and No. 2 scoring offense. The ‘Canes handed them their worst loss of the season — worse, even than the 31-17 defeat to defending national champion Clemson in September.
"It was a great victory against a great team," Richt said. "We proved we could do it."
They did it by jumping ahead early with two second-quarter scores. The first was on an 8-yard pass from Malik Rosier to Braxton Berrios, and the second was Travis Homer’s career-long 64-yard sprint up the middle. The Hokies allowed only 355 yards in their previous two games; Miami posted 409 through the first 46 minutes.
And it could have been worse. Miami advanced to the Hokies 2 on its first drive but come away empty after four failed plays.
The fact that the stalled drive didn’t matter is a testament to a Hurricanes defense that was as impressive as the offense. On Jackson’s first six drop-backs, he was sacked twice and pressured three other times. The Hokies failed on five of their first six third-down attempts, and UM held them to a season-low 299 yards (4.0 per play).
"It’s almost magical when something like that happens," linebacker Shaq Quarterman said.
Virginia Tech had a chance to trim its 14-3 deficit late in the first half, but defensive back Jaquan Johnson forced a red-zone fumble that ended with McIntosh earning the famed turnover chain for his recovery.
Miami gave the ball away, too. One of Rosier’s three interceptions set up Jackson’s 1-yard touchdown rush.
But the ’Canes forced more turnovers and continued to capitalize on them. A Virginia Tech offense that turned the ball over once in its previous three games coughed it up four times Saturday, not including a turnover on downs that led to Christopher Herndon’s 43-yard catch and run.
The most impressive was Johnson’s one-handed interception late in the third quarter. That led to Rosier running 13 yards untouched into the end zone for an 18-point lead with 14:34 left. By then, the only questions were: How many more times would A-Rod and J-Lo be shown on the video scoreboard (once), and how high will UM climb in this week’s rankings after its first double-digit win since September?
"I feel like we keep making the same statement," Quarterman said. "It’s all about the win."
Another one Saturday isn’t enough to prove the ‘Canes are back, even if they are the best team in the state. UM needs more than an 8-0 start since 2002 to show that a program with five national championships has returned to glory.
But the ’Canes are clearly on the right track. Their first trip to the ACC title game (probably against No. 6 Clemson) has almost been clinched. No. 5 Notre Dame visits next week for a top-10, prime time showdown. ESPN’s College GameDay will be here, too, for the first time since November 2001.
"When you take the job, you dream of these moments," Richt said. "You dream of these games. You dream of these types of seasons. We’re having a really good one right now. Who knows how it ends up?"
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.