MIAMI — There were moments the Hurricanes looked like the struggling team it has been during the course of a well-documented, much-lamented three-game losing streak that knocked them from the BCS rankings and out of the Associated Press top 10.
But against a reeling Virginia team that came in on a seven-game losing streak, Miami made enough of the right kind of plays to pick up a dose of confidence and a 45-26 win over the Cavaliers in an ACC Coastal Division matchup in the home finale at Sun Life Stadium.
Saturday's victory means UM's hopes for a berth in next month's conference title game are still alive, though the Hurricanes (8-3, 4-3 ACC) need to win at Pittsburgh on Friday and need both Virginia Tech and Duke to lose their respective games next week.
Miami's maligned defense which had given up more than 500 yards and 40 points in each of its past three games, again put up ugly numbers with Virginia gaining 483 yards, including 203 rushing in the first half. But UM forced four takeaways and produced a pair of touchdowns, including a 19-yard interception return by defensive back Tracy Howard on the Cavaliers' first play from scrimmage.
Howard's score was followed by defensive end David Gilbert recovering a fumble by Virginia (2-9, 0-7) and returning it 72 yards for a touchdown for a 45-20 lead with 5:10 left.
"I'm sure they did. I hope they did," UM coach Al Golden said when asked if his defense had taken much of its recent criticism personally. "But it's not really a function of what's being said outside. It's those guys that go to work every day and their standard of what's acceptable and what's not."
The defense wasn't helped by the Hurricanes offense, which had multiple drives stall and mustered just 90 rushing yards.
Quarterback Stephen Morris struggled early with several of his passes hitting the ground in front of receivers. He was picked off by safety Anthony Harris, who has interceptions in five straight games.
"Virginia has a great defense, and they definitely took the challenge of stuffing the run and doing a great job in the secondary," Morris said. "Overall, we played okay. It's just … we have to overcome adversity."
Morris tossed a 26-yard touchdown to Allen Hurns with 25 seconds left in the third quarter that gave UM a 31-13 lead. He completed 13 of 26 for 214 yards.
The game ended on a somber note as Miami cornerback Ladarius Gunter was injured and taken off on a stretcher. He was airlifted to an area hospital for observation, though Golden said later that Gunter did not lose consciousness and was moving his extremities.