Miami 24, Wake Forest 21: Takeaways & observations

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — It wasn’t pretty.

Seventh-ranked Miami didn’t take its first lead until 5:36 remained in Saturday’s 24-21 comeback victory over Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons (4-4, 2-3 ACC), eyeing their first upset of a top-10 team since 1946, spread the Hurricanes’ defense with five wideout sets from the onset. They held the Hurricanes to 10 points through three quarters.

Yet when it mattered most, Miami (7-0, 3-0 ACC) relied on sophomore running back Duke Johnson, who scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, to pull out the victory.

Here are a few thoughts and observations on an afternoon when the Hurricanes again avoided an upset to remain unbeaten.

1. Third-down defense.

Wake Forest entered the game tied for 98th in the country with a 33 percent third-down conversion rate, while Miami ranked sixth in third-down defense (28.3 percent).

Naturally, the Demon Deacons made all four of their third downs — all four times through the air — on their opening 16-play, 79-yard drive.

The possession, which lasted 8:34, culminated on redshirt senior Josh Harris’ 12-yard touchdown run, setting the tone early.

When Wake Forest grabbed a 14-3 lead with 7:09 left before halftime, it was more of the same. The Demon Deacons converted a pair of third downs, including a 56-yard pass to freshman wideout Tyree Harris on third-and-9 coming off a timeout.

Miami improved over the course of the game after giving up six of nine first downs, permitting just eight out of 16 chances.

2. Morris struggled

Earlier in the week during his weekly radio show, head coach Al Golden spoke about senior quarterback Stephen Morris’ inconsistency.

Playing through an ankle injury sustained during the South Florida game in late September, Golden said that it had affected everything from Morris’ mechanics to his practice routine.

Saturday proved to be no different, despite Morris’ absence from the game’s injury report.

Groans could be heard around the stadium when Morris missed an open Malcolm Lewis on third-and-8 from the Wake Forest 17. Miami had to settle for a 34-yard field goal and cut the deficit to 7-3.

There was a brief glimmer of hope during the final drive before halftime.

Prior to completing all three of his passes, Morris was just 3 for 6 with 18 yards. Junior tight end Clive Walford snared a one-handed grab on third-and-3 for 20 yards. Morris then aired out a perfect throw to sophomore wide receiver Herb Waters for a 35-yard touchdown strike on the next play.

The Hurricanes started the second half with consecutive catches, but the next four fell incomplete as the drive stalled. Miami’s offense quickly switched to a run-heavy attack.

Morris finished 17 of 28 for 191 yards and one touchdown.

3. On the ground.

Perhaps because of Morris’ early struggles, the Hurricanes tried to establish the run, beginning on their first — and only drive — of the quarter.

Johnson, who exited the Oct. 17 game at North Carolina for precautionary reasons after taking a knee to the helmet on a block, shouldered most of the load.

He carried the ball seven times for 20 yards over the first two drives. Sophomore Dallas Crawford rushed twice for 20 yards, including an 18-yarder on third-and-2. Nine of the first 13 plays came on the ground.

Taking over from their own 49 with 9:41 left in the game, Miami rushed on all eight plays — six by Johnson — on its touchdown drive. Johnson, who scored on a 4-yard run, found the end zone again from 1 yard out with less than a minute to go.

Johnson collected 168 yards on 30 carries, recording his third 100-yard game of the season and seventh of his career.

4. Need for improvement.

The offense drove down the field on its first two drives of the second half but had no points to show for it.

Starting from its own 7, Miami got to the Wake 23 before the drive stalled. Sophomore Matt Goudis missed a 40-yard field goal, putting him 5-for-8 on kicks this season.

On the ensuing possession facing a fourth-and-1 from the Demon Deacons’ 9, the Hurricanes elected to go for it. Wake Forest stopped Crawford for no gain.

At the time, an already inefficient red-zone offense dropped to 22-for-36 (61 percent) on touchdowns inside the 20. Entering Saturday, Miami ranked 93rd in red-zone scores.