The game meant everything to Louisville. A victory would make history for the Cardinals by clinching a spot in the ACC Championship Game and also keeping alive hopes they might still reach the College Football Playoff.
The Miami Hurricanes showed how much the game meant to them, too. They were playing for respect and belief -- for the biggest tangible proof yet that the direction of the program is aimed right.
The No. 9-ranked Cardinals got what they wanted on Saturday.
The Hurricanes can only say they got a little bit closer ... but still aren’t there.
Louisville’s dramatic, back-and-forth 38-31 victory at Hard Rock Stadium lifts the Cardinals to face Florida State for the conference title on December 2.
But the result should lift the Canes, too, even in defeat.
After a 27-20 loss to FSU in Tallahassee, the Hurricanes on Saturday again showed how competitive they can be vs. top-10 teams, even as UM’s season record fell to an improved but still disappointing 6-5.
Miami had last played consecutive regular-season games vs. top-10 opponents in 1992.
Miami coach Mario Cristobal was narrowly denied what would have been his biggest victory in his two seasons back at The U, the first against a top-10 foe. It would have been the greatest affirmation yet of what’s he’s doing, and the progress.
To his credit, he wasn’t interested afterward in any consolation prize for close-counts.
“We’ve made so much progress, but we’ve got to have that breakthrough,” he said. “You don’t look for comfort in people telling you how close you are. That isn’t our DNA and never will be. Close isn’t good enough.”
UM quarterback Tyler Van Dyke was denied his redemption in his first start since being benched in favor of true freshman Emory Williams, who’d been injured late in the FSU game. Van Dyke played well and avoided the interceptions that have lately plagued him, but it was not enough.
“I was seeing a lot of things a lot better today,” he said.
Cristobal said Van Dyke was “very determined to play well for his teammates, and he did that.”
Miami had tied the game 31-31 on Andy Borregales’ 51-yard field goal, but the defense could not hold up.
Louisville QB Jack Plummer’s pass to Kevin Coleman became a 58-yard touchdown with 4:17 to play as Coleman eluded Kam Kinchens, Miami’s best defensive player, and sprinted home along the sideline in front of his cheering bench.
Van Dyke completed a pass for 48 yards on the next series as the crowd of 44,996 roared, but the drive expired with an incompletion from the Louisville 3-yard line.
UM had one last chance after forcing a punt, but Van Dyke’s last-second Hail Mary pass, though complete, was short of the goalline.
A couple of late personal fouls against Brashard Smith and Jacolby George hurt Miami’s last-ditch effort to tie or win.
Cristobal wasn’t having it, his frustration showing.
“I’m over that crap,” he said of the penalties. “Complete, unacceptable immaturity.”
Van Dyke had said before the game, “I’ve proven I can be one of the top quarterbacks in the country when I’m at my best. I’ve also proven when I’m not at my best I can not be in the conversation at all. At the end of the day playing quarterback you’ve got to be consistent.”
He was solid Saturday, and aided by a big ground game led by 126 yards from freshman Mark Fletcher.
“He’s going to be a great one,” said Crisdtobal.
Said defensive tackle Branson Deen of Fletcher: “You think he wants to run through you and then he makes a qwuick cut. ‘Whoa. Where’d he go!?’”
The Canes led 21-20 after the first half.
Miami overcame an early hole to tie it 7-7 on Mark Fletcher’s 21-yard run in a series highlighted by Van Dyke’s 43-yard laser completion down the middle to Jacolby George.
It was 14-7, The U, on Van Dyke’s 15-yard scoring pass to Xavier Restrepo set up by an earlier 30-yard pass play to the same receiver.
After Louisville responded again, so did Miami, retaking the lead at 21-14 on Brashard Smith’s reverse-play run for a 34-yard touchdown.
The 21-20 halftime lead was courtesy the fingertip of UM’s Jared Harrison-Hunt, who partially blocked the Cardinals’ would-be tying PAT.
There was a lot else going on.
It was Senior Day marking UM’s final home game of the season.
Gino Torretta’s name was added to the stadium Ring of Honor in a ceremony honoring the Heisman Trophy-winning Canes quarterback of yore.
And a new trophy named for Howard Schnellenberger went to the winning team. The old coach led UM’s first national championship in 1983, of course, and also led Louisville to its first-ever 10-win season in 1990. (The trophy is a pair of cowboy boots. Better it should have depicted a giant mustache with a pipe underneath.)
In the second half Louisville regained the lead with a field goal but Miami then led 27-23 when Fletcher scored from the one after his 54-yard run got him there.
Louisville went back up 31-28 before Borregales tied it brieflly, until the Cardinals’ late scored sent them on to the ACC Championship Game and left the Canes -- for the second straight game -- to try to find optimism even in defeat.
“We’re close. We’re knocking on the ceiling,” said Deen, the defensive tackle. “We’ll break through.”