MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — One play and 6 seconds into the game, Virginia was trailing.
For a team that hasn’t won in two months, fighting uphill all day proved too difficult a challenge to overcome.
Virginia turned the ball over four times, including giving up an interception for a touchdown on the game’s first snap, and the Cavaliers saw their losing streak reach eight games with a 45-26 loss to the Hurricanes on Saturday. Each turnover was turned into a Miami touchdown, that four-pack of freebies rendering a slew of impressive Virginia offensive numbers moot.
“You can’t have that,” Virginia coach Mike London said.
The numbers would suggest a far different outcome: The Cavaliers (2-9, 0-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) outgained Miami 483-304, had 28 first downs to Miami’s 11, converted 11 of 20 third-down opportunities, held a 243-90 edge in rushing yards and held the ball for nearly 38 minutes in which they ran 91 plays to Miami’s 52.
But when opportunity knocked, Miami answered.
“That’s a good Miami team,” London said. “They played well and they capitalized when they needed to and we didn’t.”
Tracy Howard returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown a mere 6 seconds after kickoff for the Hurricanes (8-3, 4-3), who remained alive in the ACC’s Coastal Division race.
Howard knew Virginia’s David Watford was throwing a screen pass. He made Watford pay, too, and the ‘Canes went on to snap a three-game slide.
David Gilbert had a 72-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown, and interceptions set up two drives that Dallas Crawford capped with touchdown runs for Miami.
Stephen Morris passed for 214 yards and two touchdowns in Miami’s home finale. Allen Hurns had 126 receiving yards and a score and Stacy Coley had a 62-yard touchdown grab for Miami, which got a big momentum shift late in the half when Ladarius Gunter had an interception in the Miami red zone. Gunter returned the ball 81 yards to the Miami 3, the Hurricanes took a 21-13 lead three plays later, and weren’t in trouble again.
“Defense, I thought, really played their tails off,” Miami coach Al Golden said.
Added Morris, on the defense: “They were dominant.”
Taquan Mizzell caught a touchdown pass and ran for another, while Kevin Parks ran for 130 yards and a touchdown for Virginia, which lost to Miami for the first time in four years. Watford completed 10 of 25 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted three times.
“It’s very frustrating,” Parks said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated right now. But we’ve got to make more plays and be positive.”
Gunter was carted off with an undisclosed injury with 2:02 remaining. He had a helmet-to-helmet collision with Mizzell on a play where the Cavaliers freshman ran into the end zone from 7 yards out, remained on his feet for a few seconds, then fell to the ground.
A university spokesman said Gunter was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami in an abundance of caution and for evaluation of an upper-body injury. Golden said Gunter was moving his extremities and alert, and teammates said he was talking and joking with them while he was down on the turf, even as they kneeled around him.
“I told him he’s still ugly,” Rodgers said. “Something to joke around, to make sure he laughed.”
Miami’s win means the ACC Coastal Division race, and the right to play Atlantic Division champion Florida State in the conference title game, won’t be decided until the season’s final weekend.
For Miami to win the Coastal, it needs three outcomes next week: A win at Pittsburgh, a Duke loss at North Carolina and a Virginia Tech loss at Virginia.
“We just have to worry about the Pitt game,” Golden said.
Howard’s pick-six gave Miami a 7-0 lead — “I knew it was coming,” Howard said — and turnovers kept ensuring that the Hurricanes stayed on top.
Miami’s lead was 14-13 and Virginia was driving deep into Hurricanes territory with less than 2 minutes before intermission, when Gunter intercepted a pass from Watford. And with Virginia within 31-20 in the fourth, after Mizzell caught a 10-yard TD pass, Rodgers had an interception that set Miami up at the Cavaliers 16. Crawford finished off that drive two plays later.
“If it wasn’t for the turnovers, it’s a whole different game,” Watford said.