Halfway through the 2021 regular season, the Miami Hurricanes are in dire need of a victory.
Not that they didn’t have plenty of life in a 25-point second-half Saturday against North Carolina at Kenan Stadium. But as hard as the Hurricanes fought to overcome a dismal first half to get within three points with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels defeated the Hurricanes 45-42.
The game ended with UM driving from its own 28-yard line with 2:46 left and getting to the UNC 16 before quarterback Tyler Van Dyke’s third-down pass was broken up by linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel, bounced off Tar Heel defensive lineman Jahvaree Ritzie and was intercepted by Cedric Gray. It was all over when UNC took a knee one play later.
“It’s heartbreaking,’’ UM coach Manny Diaz said. “We are what our record says we are. I understand that.’’
But Diaz indicated he firmly believes that good things will eventually come to a team that fights as hard as the Hurricanes — despite killing itself with poor play in the first half.
“Everybody on our sideline knew we were going to win the game on the final drive, but somehow it didn’t come off,’’ Diaz said.
The Hurricanes fell to 2-4 overall (and 0-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) for the first time since 1997, when UM ended 5-6 and felt the brunt of NCAA sanctions that encompassed a loss of 31 scholarships over three years. But at that point coach Butch Davis was already rebuilding the Hurricanes for their eventual fifth national championship in 2001 — unlike what the Canes are now experiencing.
Miami has lost six of its past eight games dating to 2020, and its last six games against opponents in Power 5 conferences. UM’s last win over an opponent in a Power 5 conference was Dec. 5 against Duke. Its last win against a non-ACC Power 5 opponent was Nov. 11, 2017, against No. 3 Notre Dame. The Canes have yet to string together back-to-back victories in 2021.
Diaz, in his third season as head coach, is 16-14.
North Carolina, also in the Coastal Division, rose to 4-3 and 3-3.
Van Dyke finished 20 of 45 for 264 yards, a touchdown and the three picks. He was sacked three times. Yet at halftime, Van Dyke was only 5 of 15 for 59 yards and two interceptions.
The Canes, almost unbelievably, ended with 421 yards to UNC’s 382 — after amassing only 12 yards to UNC’s 176 after one quarter; and 80 to UNC’s 275 at halftime.
“We were a couple plays from winning,’’ Van Dyke said, insisting that his teammates would be “tighter than ever” after this game. “We all love each other. We’re all brothers. This team will keep fighting. We just have to start faster.’’
Canes running back Jaylan Knighton had 17 carries for 92 yards and two touchdowns. He added 73 yards and a touchdown on two catches.
UNC standout quarterback Sam Howell was 17 of 26 for 154 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He rushed 17 times for 98 yards and two scores.
Down 31-17 at the half, UM woke up with third-quarter touchdowns by Cody Brown (3-yard run) and Knighton (60-yard reception from Van Dyke), a 42-yard, third-quarter field goal by Andres Borregales and a 4-yard rushing score by Knighton with 3:08 left — capped by a two-point conversion for the 3-point deficit.
UM did plenty wrong to hurt itself in the first half, despite the Canes’ defense scoring its first touchdown since 2018 when end Jahfari Harvey picked off Howell and ran it back 33 yards to make it 7-7 at 10:56 of the opening quarter and get as close as the Hurricanes would get to the Tar Heels.
But the defense struggled nonetheless, missing key tackles, including cornerback Te’Cory Couch’s on UNC’s first 51-yard touchdown early in the first quarter. Safety Gurvan Hall allowed Josh Downs’ 45-yard touchdown catch on single coverage that gave UNC the 14-7 lead about four minutes later. And key defensive penalties helped UNC even more.
Hurricanes second-year freshman quarterback Van Dyke threw two of his three interceptions in the second quarter to kill any momentum UM might have mustered.
Van Dyke’s first pick, with 9:56 left in the half, was deflected by Tony Grimes and returned 21 yards to the UM 21. Miami forced a 29-yard field goal, but safety James Williams roughed the kicker and the Tar Heels instead had first down on the UM 6 and scored two plays later to make it 28-10.
After Knighton’s 2-yard UM touchdown rush to culminate a seven-play, 75-yard drive, the Canes narrowed UNC’s lead to 28-17 with 4:33 left in the first half.
Van Dyke’s next interception came after UNC kicked a 52-yard field-goal attempt wide right, giving the Hurricanes yet another shot to score with 1:05 left. But on second down, Van Dyke threw it into the arms of Tar Heel Cam’Ron Kelly. UNC took over and kicked a 48-yard field goal to go up 31-17 as the first half ended.
The Hurricanes will attempt to get back on track at home at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 23 against the No. 22 North Carolina State Wolfpack (4-1, 1-0), set to play at Boston College at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.