Despite upset victory, ‘Canes still with much to prove

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. — The Miami Hurricanes spent most of Saturday afternoon leading a football game they seemed destined to lose.

The Hurricanes were ahead of Florida 14-6 at halftime despite trailing in the time-of-possession battle 21:36 to 8:24.

For the game, the Gators had more first downs (22-10), more rushing yards (122-50) and more total yards (413-212).

But when it was over, the Hurricanes prevailed 21-16 in the last scheduled meeting between the intrastate rivals. Bragging rights never felt better.

Is Miami back? Well, yes and no.

The win easily was the biggest under third-year cache Al Golden. It’s a victory that indicated the Hurricanes are headed in the right direction. They’re certain to be ranked next week and, looking at the schedule, could move upward until a Nov. 2 date at Florida State.

Major improvements in various areas remain, however, to get where Golden, the UM program and all Hurricanes fans want to be — back in the hunt for national titles.

Here are a few things we learned about the Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon.

1. They showed the ability to step up in the “Orange” zone.

OK, usually it’s called the red zone. But Florida scored twice on six trips within the Miami 20 thanks in large part to four turnovers.

The Hurricanes defense was on the field for 38:20, which is one reason it surrendered so many yards. But make no mistake, Mark D’Onofrio’s unit is why Miami won.

Three first-half “Orange” zone trips by the Gators ended with no points thanks to two turnovers (a fumble and interception) and a stop on fourth-and-1.

A bend-but-don’t break defense over the course of a season gives its fans many cardiac moments. To come in the season’s second game, though, offers signs that the unit has something on which to build.

2. That doesn’t mean the defense is a finished product.

Too many times on Saturday the Gators faced third-and-short, which is why they were 6 of 15 in third-down situations.

Last week vs. FAU, the Hurricanes’ pass rush seemed to be much better from 2012, and Saturday verified that. Miami had two sacks for 17 yards and pressured Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel at several key times.

Still, the defense needs to do a better job forcing third-and-long.

Miami’s young cornerbacks Antonio Crawford and Tracy Howard showed inexperience at times, but they’re sure to get better.

3. Surprisingly, the Hurricanes offense has a way to go.

An experienced unit let by quarterback Stephen Morris and running back Duke Johnson had been expected to pick up where it left off last season when it averaged 31.4 points per game.

A quality line and upgrades at tight end seemed to mean more fireworks under new coordinator James Coley.

Sure, Miami scored 34 points in its opener against a much weaker opponent in Florida Atlantic. That was despite the passing game not being in sync.

Morris (12 of 25, 162 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) and his receivers continued to struggle against Florida, though going against the Gators defense definitely offered a major challenge.

Running for 50 yards overall (1.8 yards per carry) won’t get it done if Miami wants to capture the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title.

4. Punter Pat O’Donell’s importance should not be underestimated.

O’Donnell is a fifth-year senior who transferred from Cincinnati after being second team All-Big East last year. A look at his performance Saturday, and it’s hard to imagine anyone better.

He punted eight times for a 49.0 average, but that included a block in the first quarter. He also produced a 50-yarder, a 54-yarder, a 55-yarder, a 60-yarder. O’Donnell also pinned UF at its own 14 and had another punt that should have been downed at the 1 but went into the end zone.

Having a quality punter who can flip the field is something that can make the difference between a good team and a great team.

5. The Hurricanes might be bigger and stronger in 2013, but they’ll need to be more physical and show more speed.

Miami had no first downs from late in the first quarter until late in the third quarter. Florida simply looked faster and more physical during much of that time.

The ACC is not the Southeastern Conference, which is a good thing for this year’s Hurricanes.

Miami did show the maturity Golden had been raving about in taking less penalties (five for 58 yards) than Florida (10 for 70) and walking away from a couple of trash-talking moments that former teams might have escalated.

Charlie McCarthy can be reached at or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas.