MIAMI GARDENS — No. 11 Miami's first Orange Bowl appearance since 2003 summed up the Hurricanes' season.
There was the promising start, fueled by speedy athletes and the turnover chain.
And then there was the fall — an ugly descent that made Wisconsin's up-and-down quarterback look like a star and left mild-mannered coach Mark Richt fuming on the sideline.
The Hurricanes' third consecutive double-digit loss, Saturday's 34-24 defeat, ended up as an affirmation of what their first two showed. Yes, Miami is better, but the 'Canes aren't yet back among the sport's elite.
"We know we're hungry for more," Richt said.
To get there, Miami (10-3) will have to keep playing the way it did through the first 10 games and the first 15 minutes Saturday night.
Defensive back Dee Delaney recovered a fumble on Wisconsin's fourth play from scrimmage to bring out the famed turnover chain and fire up a mostly home crowd of 65,032 at Hard Rock Stadium. Running back Travis Homer powered in for an early score, and blazing freshman DeeJay Dallas rushed for another as a wildcat quarterback to go up by 11.
The Hurricanes looked like the team that started 10-0, won their first ACC Coastal Division title and rose to No. 2 in the country.
Until they didn't.
Wisconsin (13-1) began to dominate a Miami defense that spent most of the season among the best in the country. Running back Jonathan Taylor pounded his way to 130 yards, passing former Oklahoma phenom Adrian Peterson for most rushing yards by a freshman in Division I-A history. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook picked apart the secondary with slants.
"He was dead on all night," Miami safety Jaquan Johnson said.
The 'Canes weren't. They reverted to the sloppiness they showed in their last two losses, to Pitt and Clemson. Miami mustered only eight plays and seven yards in a disastrous second quarter that began with the Hurricanes holding a 14-3 lead and ended with them trailing 24-14.
Things devolved to the point where Richt — widely regarded as one of the nicest coaches in the game — erupted in the closing minutes of the second quarter. Apparently upset over a holding no-call on one of Wisconsin's six first-half third-down conversions, he ranted at officials and grabbed one of them, somehow avoiding ejection.
"Not particularly proud of myself there," Richt said. "I apologize to anybody who can read lips."
He should also apologize for what happened next: His unsportsmanlike conduct penalty set up Hornibrook's third touchdown pass of the quarter and put Miami in a hole it couldn't escape.
So how should the Hurricanes view this season? As a success, after beating rival Florida State and winning 10 games for the first time in 14 years? Or as a disappointment, for the way a promising season ended with three consecutive duds.
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"I think our program is definitely moving in the direction we want it to move," Richt said. "I think we definitely got better."
For them to keep going, the Hurricanes have to fix the persistent problems that doomed them again Saturday.
Quarterback Malik Rosier broke Vinny Testaverde's 31-year-old school record with his 31st total touchdown of the season, a 38-yard pass to Lawrence Cager. But he followed that with an interception in the end zone – a fitting sequence for his hot-and-cold redshirt junior season.
Miami ended the regular season No. 125 in the country on third-down (29.4 percent). It failed on its first five Saturday and finished 2-of-9.
Only Wyoming forced more turnovers than the Hurricanes, but Miami was middle-of-the-pack nationally in scoring off of those takeaways. It was shut out Saturday, while Wisconsin had 10 points off Miami's miscues.
Although the Hurricanes rushed for more yards (174) on Wisconsin than any team but Ohio State, a passing attack that finished 11-of-26 with three interceptions left them unable to rally against one of the country's best teams.
Miami might be on its way to earning back that title, perhaps as soon as next season, considering the incoming top-10 recruiting class.
But Saturday was another reminder that, despite the strong starts, the Hurricanes aren't there yet.