’Canes defense, Homer shine to avenge defeat that ended 15-game streak
On a day in which they wanted to honor their seniors and deal Pittsburgh some payback for how the Panthers snapped their 15-game win streak a year ago, the Hurricanes found themselves dealing with some of the same offensive issues that have plagued them during what has turned out to be a disappointing season.
Fortunately for Miami, though, its defense — and running back Travis Homer — came through for the Hurricanes, again.
While Miami's passing game was stagnant and the offense struggled to move the ball early in the regularseason finale against Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes defense was an absolute force and Homer rushed for a game-high 168 yards to lift Miami to a 24-3 win over the Panthers, who last week, clinched the ACC's Coastal Division crown.
Pittsburgh came to Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday afternoon riding a fourgame win streak and already knowing it was set to face Clemson in next week's ACC Championship Game. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, were struggling, having lost four of their last five.
A year ago to the day, the Hurricanes and Panthers roles were reversed.
Miami arrived at Heinz Field last November riding the momentum of that 15-game win streak. The Hurricanes were, at the time, ranked No. 2 in the College Football Playoff Rankings and were celebrating having clinched the first Coastal Division title in program history.
And Pittsburgh, which at the time had just four wins, stunned the Hurricanes, upsetting them, 24-14. That afternoon, the Panthers dealt Miami's championship hopes a blow and started what would ultimately be a four-game losing streak that included a loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship, a loss to Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl and a loss to LSU in this year's season opener in Arlington, Texas.
Some might say the Hurricanes (7-5, 4-4) haven't been quite the same since that day in Pittsburgh, with Miami struggling to beat most of its Power-5 opponents, especially on the road.
But on Saturday, that wasn't the focus for Miami's players and coaches, including coach Mark Richt, who has faced a firestorm of criticism after Miami endured a fourgame losing streak that spanned late October and early November.
“A year ago, we were the ones going to the Coastal and got upset at their house. They're the ones going to the Coastal this year and got upset at our house,” Richt said. “I think our guys rose to the occasion. It was very obvious that it was a dominating defensive performance and I thought it was an dominating special teams performance as well.”
While Homer's performance was among the best he's put together as a Hurricane, some of Miami's offensive woes were on full display against the Panthers, with quarterback N'Kosi Perry — who was making his third straight start and sixth start of the year — completing just 6-of-24 passes for 52 yards.
Perry's receivers — who were without the dismissed Jeff Thomas — didn't help him very much, dropping at least six passes Saturday.
But while the passing game struggled, Homer, a former Oxbridge Academy standout, helped key a solid rushing attack that found its stride in the second half.
With the Hurricanes up a touchdown after DeeJay Dallas scored on a 65-yard punt return early in the second quarter, Homer broke through the Pittsburgh defense to score on a 64-yard run that pushed Miami's lead to, 17-3, with 2:49 left in the third quarter.
Homer, who on Saturday passed Hurricanes great and Dolphins running back Frank Gore to move up to No. 12 on Miami's all-time rushing list, now needs just just 31 yards to reach 1,000 on the season and 21 yards to reach 2,000 in his Miami career.
He'll have the Hurricanes bowl game in which to hit those goals.
“It should be exciting,” Homer said. “But all credit goes to my offensive line. I can't do it without them. … I worked hard every day. On the practice field, I had good competition and in the running back room, to keep pushing us to keep going further and further. I know every running back in that room, and me as well, is getting better every day.”
Dallas would add a 3-yard touchdown run in the fourth to round out the scoring for Miami, whose defense did most of the heavy lifting.
The Hurricanes held the Panthers (7-5, 6-2) to 200 yards of total offense, including just 69 rushing yards. They sacked Pickett six times, held Pittsburgh to just 1 of 15 on third-down conversions and totaled 14 tackles for loss.
“That's something I'll remember for the rest of my life,” said defensive tackle Gerald Willis, who had four tackles and a sack. “We shut out Pitt except for the field goal, but we kept them out of the end zone. It was great for us. We focused on the run all week long and we did stop the run."