Hurricanes’ keys to victory over Cardinals
Time: Saturday, 6:45 p.m.
Lamar Miller didn’t play the last time the Miami Hurricanes visited the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando for the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl.
Miller, then a redshirt freshman and now the starting running back for the Miami Dolphins, watched as Sam Shields returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown (only to have it called back) and Graig Cooper tore his ACL in the second quarter of a 20-14 loss to Wisconsin.
Four years later, the Hurricanes (9-3) are back for the Russell Athletic Bowl to face No. 18 Louisville (11-1).
"I’ve been following the team throughout this whole season and I think they’ve been doing a good job," Miller said. "I think they’re still young. I think (Al) Golden’s done a good job just getting guys in the right position to make plays.
"I think they should finish this season strong and just come back next year and keep composure and everything going."
After a two-season absence from the postseason because of self-imposed sanctions, Miami can achieve its first 10-win season in a decade and first bowl victory since 2006.
Olivier Vernon wished his former UM teammates the best as well. Vernon, a second-year defensive lineman with the Dolphins, was suspended six games and had to repay $1,200 in so-called illegal benefits in 2011.
"It happens. It is what it is. It’s the past," Vernon said. "I hope those guys get the win, enjoy themselves up there in Orlando and have a good time."
Dolphins offensive lineman Bryant McKinnie sees a bright future for the program, recalling how the team went 9-3 his first year at Miami before going 11-1 and then undefeated for its fifth national title.
"I see potential as long as they keep growing," McKinnie said. "(Golden’s) doing a great job. He did a great thing by bringing back Art Kehoe. I think that was a great move. I think he’s doing a good job getting things back on track."
Here are three keys to a late holiday present for Hurricanes fans.
1. Good Morris shows up.
Senior quarterback Stephen Morris entered 2013 with lofty expectations.
Morris closed out the previous season tossing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions over the final four games and then wowed scouts at the Manning Passing Academy.
After opening with 626 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions through the first four games, an ankle injury in late September messed with his mechanics.
His decision-making almost cost his team in consecutive weeks — two and four picks, respectively, in comeback victories against Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
And yet, Morris’ big arm has been on display: He is the only FBS quarterback to complete 50-plus-yard passes in nine games. He has 2,868 yards and 21 touchdowns through parts of 12 games.
Senior Allen Hurns is just 19 yards shy of the single-season receiving yards mark. Freshman Stacy Coley is the only player to record a touchdown via a catch, rush, kickoff return and punt return. Junior Phillip Dorsett expects to be 100 percent in his return, but sophomore Herb Waters is out.
"I think this season started off really well, and then we hit some speed bumps in the road," Morris said. "We have to just find our track a little bit, and we want to finish the season off right and how we always said we would finish."
On Saturday, Morris will get the chance to prove himself against junior Teddy Bridgewater, considered one of the top players in the upcoming NFL Draft. Morris will also compete in the Reese’s Senior Bowl next month, hoping to improve his stock.
The third-team All-ACC choice ranks third all-time in Miami history with 7,736 passing yards and 49 passing touchdowns. He needs 132 yards to become the second UM passer with multiple 3,000-yard seasons.
"My whole career here at Miami — it’s been fun," Morris said. "I’m glad I’m a Hurricane. I’m so happy to be here, and hopefully when I leave people still remember me."
2. Find a way to get stops.
During the three-game losing skid that plummeted the Hurricanes from No. 7 to unranked, the defense allowed a staggering 1,609 yards and 131 points.
A major reason for the struggle was opponent’s third-down conversion rate. Florida State, Virginia Tech and Duke combined for a 57-percent clip (27-of-42). Louisville converts 56 percent of its third downs.
That, in turn, greatly affected Miami’s time of possession, which the Hurricanes trailed in nine of 12 games. The Cardinals enter Saturday’s matchup with a seven-minute advantage.
Miami has been a team that has thrived on takeaways with a bend don’t break attitude this season. The Hurricanes have forced 27 turnovers — five more than last season — by 15 players.
Bridgewater, however, has only been intercepted four times on 382 attempts with 28 touchdowns and 3,523 yards. His completion percentage is a spectacular 70.2. The Cardinals turnover margin per game is second in the country at 1.3.
Senior linebacker Jimmy Gaines said the unit must find a way to pressure Bridgewater, who has been sacked 25 times (two times more than Morris). Miami has recorded 28 — 15 more than last season.
"He has all the tools," Gaines said. "He has everything to be a great quarterback. He’s accurate. He’s mobile when he needs to be. He’s a great player."
3. Something’s got to give.
The future Atlantic Coast Conference rivals have more than a bowl victory on the line.
Louisville has 26 South Florida players on its roster, including Bridgewater, who was originally committed to Miami. The Cardinals have done a good job recruiting in the Hurricanes’ backyard.
Several key statistical categories will be on display.
Miami scores 35.9 points per game (24th in the nation), while Louisville surrenders just 12.4 (third). The Hurricanes will look to get off to a fast start — all three losses came after trailing at halftime.
"Great challenge for us," head coach Al Golden said. "Obviously they’re a team that’s been to multiple bowl games, and we’ve had to sit out. It’s a team that knows how to win, a team that executes really well, gets after you."
But for Miami, it’s a welcome return to the postseason after a two-year hiatus and a chance to continue with its process and progress.
"It would mean a lot," Golden said. "Clearly these guys have fought through. They’ve given up a lot to get to this point, and it would mean an opportunity to break through and keep building momentum."