Cane Caterpillar Conquers Clemson

The Miami Hurricanes have finally ended a 4 game losing streak and a 5 out of the last 6 losing stretch to Clemson that extended back to a heartbreaking loss at home in overtime in 2009. I was at that game, I will never forget my jaw dropping as Jacory Harris fought through adversity and CJ Spiller went crazy on us. It has been loss after loss to Dabo Swinney and most of the score lines have not even been close. One of the scorelines (58-0) in 2015, which started the 4 game losing streak, was enough to get Al Golden summarily and immediately dismissed from the program. Miami’s sole appearance at the ACC Championship game in 2017 was a 38-3 beatdown at the hands of the Tigers in Charlotte. The history has been troubling.

The matchup with Clemson in Mario’s inaugural season last year ended up in a 40-10 thrashing where Miami had the dubious distinction of failing to obtain 100 yards of total offense and Clemson memorably put another score on the board with only 16 seconds to go in a game that was clearly already decided. The all-time record between the two programs is an even 7-7, but that has largely been buttressed by the fact that Miami has been able to avoid playing Clemson during their decade of dominance in the Atlantic division while Miami has struggled to win games in the Coastal. In fact, Miami is only 2-6 against Clemson since joining the ACC in 2004 and have never beaten Clemson in Miami in my lifetime, until Saturday night at Hard Rock. The last time Miami beat Clemson at home, Dwight Eisenhower was still the president running for re-election and Elvis Presley burst onto the scene with the release of “Heartbreak Hotel.” It has definitely been a while.

Suffice it to say, Miami and Mario had some monkeys that they needed to get off of their backs to start some cathartic healing on the road to recovery from almost two decades of mediocrity and irrelevance. Mario Cristobal was brought to Miami to bring the program back to national prominence and one of the boogiemen in his way is Dabo Swinney. The Clemson Tigers under Swinney’s leadership in recent history have been a hurdle that the Hurricanes just couldn’t elevate themselves enough to scale. So the news that dropped right before game time that Tyler Van Dyke would not be playing on Saturday night due to a leg injury and Emory Williams would be getting his first start, landed like a bit of a gut punch.

I know a large segment of the fanbase is down on TVD right now, but looking at this season in a vacuum, Tyler Van Dyke at this moment still gives the Hurricanes the best chance to win. Has Van Dyke struggled with reading zone coverages and turned the ball over too much lately? Absolutely! Has it been frustrating to watch him “Van Dymes” try to force the ball into Xavier Restrepo when he is bracketed in triple coverage? Without a doubt. However, Tyler has played a lot of football and has a mastery of this offense that Emory Williams simply does not have right now and it showed in the game Saturday night.

First Half Struggles

Experience is the cruelest teacher ever known to man because she first gives the test and then she teaches you the lesson. You almost always fail initially because you often learn that when you don’t have experience, you have a lot more to learn than you initially thought you did. That first half at Hard Rock was an extremely tough hike for young Emory Williams to get through. The kid must have felt like he was climbing Mt. Everest with a two ton backpack. It was clear that the moment had his nerves in a torture chamber. Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson were in the building being added to the Ring of Honor. The fans were going crazy and the building was extremely noisy all night despite not being filled to capacity. The cacophonous sounds of the fans booing the terrible ACC officiating all night must have rattled him to the core. He struggled to hear the calls in his headset and there were a few times when he was peeking at the cheat sheet play chart on his wristband right before the snap just to make sure he was executing the right call.

Four of Emory’s first five passes were either deflected or batted down at the line of scrimmage, which was very surprising for a 6’5” towering presence like Emory Williams. What was happening was that he was processing things a beat slowly and then he was thinking instead of playing when it was time to react. That led to his mechanical release being delayed after his windup and it allowed the Clemson defensive line time to get their hands up at the correct moment. To compound those issues our young trigger man was having, Williams had issues with accuracy early, which limited guys getting first downs or yards after the catch. If you looked at his feet before each snap and during his hitch to throw, you could see a lot of his nervousness manifesting as fear when the Clemson defensive line was pressuring him. His footwork looked like Bambi on Ice. You could tell the kid had not taken a hit in a while because a few of those hits rattled him early. Emory needed to settle down and Shannon Dawson knew it. So we went into the bunker and leaned on the running game and threw bubble screens to our receivers while we were waiting for our young Cane caterpillar to go into his pupa phase and come out of his cocoon metamorphosed into a fire breathing butterfly in the 2nd half.

Miami has been missing that home run hitting running back since the departure of Jaylan “The Rooster” Knighton, who left for SMU in the portal after last season. We have a great running back room with guys who run hard between the tackles, but none of them are a major threat to break one and take it to the house after busting through the line with the exception of true freshman Chris Johnson, who has track speed but almost never plays. Hence, it was a smart move by Dawson to make use of Brashard Smith’s background as a running back from his high school days and get him involved in the game early with a screen pass that got the first drive going and then on our second drive, Brashard took a handoff from Emory at the 20 yard line and took it to the house for an 80 yard touchdown run. Unfortunately, Brashard fumbled right before crossing the goal line, but was saved by the inexhaustible hustle of Jacolby George, who recovered the ball in the end zone to preserve the touchdown. It was an unbelievable sequence because Will Shipley did the exact same thing on Clemson’s prior drive by fumbling at the goal line, but thankfully for the Canes, James Williams recovered it to deny the Tigers the score. This would prove to be pivotal because our young QB1 played with a lead for a large part of the game while he was working on finding his footing.

Second Half Comeback

In the second half, young Emory came alive and started spinning it. He went 10/14 for 150 yards and a touchdown. You could tell his confidence was growing with every snap and his accuracy was improving with every in game rep. He started building some synergy with Colbie Young and our running game started pounding on the Clemson defense, which made the offense very balanced and harder to defend than they were in the first half. As a result, the Hurricanes were able to run for 211 yards against a defense that is notoriously stingy against the running game. Ironically, the Canes started feeling themselves in a moment where it seemed like all could be lost. Clemson went up 17-7 towards the tail end of the 3rd quarter and it felt like Miami just might not have enough to respond with a score of their own. Instead of packing it in, the Cardiac Canes fought back and went on a 15-play 75-yard drive that featured multiple third down conversions and capped it off with an 11 yard touchdown pass on 3rd and 3 from Emory to Colbie. Just like that we were back in the game and the crowd was going crazy. The momentum pendulum was swinging in our direction and our defense started dominating again.

The Miami defense kept us in the game all night. They had some rough moments defending the passing game where guys like Briningstool were making spectacular catches and beating us deep. However, the Miami defensive line was absolutely dominant all night. The Tigers were held to a measly 31 yards rushing in the game and Kade Klubnick was harassed incessantly, including getting sacked 5 times. The constant pressure and hits Klubnick was taking led to a fumble and an interception thrown. These turnovers helped to limit Clemson on the score sheet. Reuben Bain was an absolute menace. Klubnick will wake up every day for the rest of this season drenched in a cold sweat after having yet another nightmare about #44, the orange flash, being all up in his grill again and again. Bain had 8 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, and the unseen impact of the pain Bain was bringing to Klubnick for all 60 minutes plus. Have a night young man! This pain led to errant throws and bad decisions for Clemson. For all of the young defensive linemen out there who think darkness is their ally, Bain was clearly born in it and molded by it.

While Klubnick was shrinking in the game under the constant pressure from Bain, Harrison-Hunte, and our constant blitzes; our QB1 was growing and finally spreading his wings! The throws he made in our penultimate drive in regulation were on the money tight window throws and once again he repeatedly came up big on third downs. The Canes went from being terrible on third downs in the first half to 9 for 18 on the night. A dramatic turnaround. Colbie Young was a big difference maker as well. There was some frustration with Coach Cristobal’s decision to not try to go for the win on the final drive in regulation with a minute and twenty seconds to go and a timeout that would go unused, but honestly it was in line with the conservative strategy that Cristobal and Dawson had employed all night. They were not going to put their true freshman quarterback in a position to make a mistake to cost them the game. The coaches were content to go into overtime and lean on our defense that had been consistently making big plays.

Cristobal was proven correct as the Hurricanes’ defense absolutely shut down the Tigers in the first overtime and had an amazing goal line stand in the second overtime for the win. Clemson tried to respond to the Miami offense scoring a touchdown and converting the two point try courtesy of Ajay Allen but they were emphatically denied. Corey Flagg made the play of the game by taking down Klubnick by his shirt on tackle for a loss on 4th and goal. You could tell by the way Flagg and his teammates were celebrating how much it meant to him and the group at large. Mario Cristobal pumped his fists at the jubilant crowd and held up the U with his damaged hands and crooked fingers, bent by years of pass blocking and hand fighting to get the team he now coaches to glory. It felt like a seminal moment in the trajectory of the program but only time will tell if they can build on this win because next week they host a Virginia program that has frequently given Miami trouble as underdogs. Virginia will be brimming with confidence after defeating #10 North Carolina on the road this weekend but so will the Canes after their caterpillar turned into a badass butterfly and finally beat Clemson. Go Canes!

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