Pitt upsets Miami: Hurricanes playoff case shows flaws

Miami was 10–0. It was playing its final game of the regular season at noon the day after Thanksgiving. Its opponent wasn’t good enough to qualify for a bowl game. The outcome wouldn’t necessarily put its biggest goals out of reach. Friday’s meeting between the No. 2 Hurricanes and Pittsburgh at Heinz Field had all the trappings of a trap game.

Miami did not survive it, instead suffering the outcome Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi predicted in an interview played at halftime of the ABC broadcast. The Hurricanes fell to the Panthers, 24–14, for their first loss in 391 days. (Miami’s most recent defeat before Saturday came at Notre Dame on Oct. 29 of last season.)

Like last week’s home meeting against a different, inferior conference opponent (Virginia), the Hurricanes failed to seize control early on. They punted twice, managed only 108 yards to Pittsburgh’s 175, rushed 1.9 yards per attempt, converted two of six third downs and produced one scoring drive to go into halftime down 10–7.

Miami couldn’t get its offense going after the break. All four of the Hurricanes’ drives that began in the third quarter ended in punts, and the Panthers extended their lead to 17–7 with about two minutes left in the frame by delivering a nine-play, 65-yard drive, capped by a five-yard touchdown pass to running back Qadree Ollison.

With starting quarterback Malik Rosier having completed only 12 of his 30 pass attempts for 129 yards, Miami brought in redshirt sophomore backup Evan Shirreffs early in the fourth quarter. The Hurricanes went three-and-out on Shirreffs’s first series, and after gaining possession, Pitt capitalized on the chance to churn out a clock-eating drive.

By the time the Hurricanes saw the ball again, it was too late. Rosier re-entered to connect with senior Braxton Berrios on a pair of passes, the second of which went for a 39-yard touchdown, and Miami kept alive whatever faint possibility of a last-gasp win existed by recovering the ensuing onside kick. But a strip-sack of Rosier crushed the Hurricanes’ comeback bid.

The most concerning aspect of this loss was Miami’s utter inability to consistently move the ball. The Panthers entered Saturday ranked 83rd defensively, according to Football Outsiders S&P+ rankings, and they yielded 34 and 20 points in losses to North Carolina and Virginia Tech, respectively, the previous two weeks.

Rosier played arguably his worst game of the season, and Miami couldn’t offset its ineffectiveness through the air on the ground: The Hurricanes totaled only 45 rushing yards. They repeatedly went nowhere against a subpar defense on Friday; it’s alarming to consider Miami trying to mount drives against Clemson’s D in the ACC championship game next weekend in Charlotte.

Miami’s College Football Playoff to-do list remains the same as it was before Saturday. It needs to topple the No. 3 Tigers, which plays at rival South Carolina on Saturday, in the league title bout on Dec. 2. There’s still a lot left to be sorted out in the chase for national semifinal berths, but that conference’s champion should be a lock.

Friday’s loss did not eliminate the Hurricanes from consideration for the playoff, but it does raise the stakes for the conference championship bout. There is no room in the final four for a two-loss team that does not win its conference. If the Hurricanes fall to Clemson, they almost definitely are not getting in, irrespective of how the Tigers fare in Columbia tomorrow.

Miami has proven it can beat quality foes: It smashed then-No. 3 Notre Dame and then-No. 13 Virginia Tech earlier in November. At their best, the Hurricanes can hang with the reigning national champions, too. It’s more likely that Saturday’s loss was an ill-timed manifestation of their penchant for playing down to competition than an accurate reflection of their ability.

Maybe the urgency of the occasion will move Miami to summon its A-Game against the Tigers. It will need it to stay in contention for a place in the playoff.

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