MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Miami’s feared teams of decades past claimed that they played with “swagger.”
Virginia coach Mike London pointed out recently that “kids now just say swag.”
Modern times call for a modern coach, and London is making his case for the job. He emptied his bag of tricks Thursday night, and his Cavaliers squeaked out a 28-21 victory against the Hurricanes.
It was two parts fundamentals, one part imagination.
Michael Rocco picked apart the Hurricanes blitz, LaRoy Reynolds made a key fourth-down stop, and, among other things, running back Perry Jones threw the ball 45 yards in the air with pinpoint accuracy for a touchdown.
London made no secret about his desire to make a statement in a nationally televised game.
Now the team that stumbled to losses against Southern Miss and N.C. State can boast a pair of high-profile victories against Georgia Tech and Miami.
The bigger the game, the better the Wahoos.
Jones, a junior who rarely draws the spotlight, finished off a big day with a 78-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter just as Miami was building momentum.
Reynolds forced a turnover minutes later with a fourth-and-1 stop deep in U.Va. territory.
The Cavaliers (5-3, 2-2 ACC) used a bruising rushing attack to set the tone in the third quarter, with true freshman Clifton Richardson finding a more regular spot in the rotation alongside Jones and Kevin Parks.
Miami (4-4, 2-3) did not go quietly, though. After self-destructing with embarrassing penalties all day, an injured Jacory Harris turned in a gutsy fourth-quarter touchdown drive to start a comeback attempt.
It made U.Va. regret two red-zone appearances in the third quarter that turned into just three points.
All of a sudden, a game that looked forgettable earlier in the week had turned into must-see TV, a boisterous battle between two teams looking to forge an identity.
The Hurricanes had the ball, down by a touchdown, with 7 minutes to play in the game. They drove to the Virginia 14, including a fourth-down conversion, by winning battles on the offensive line.
When they needed a win the most, though, Reynolds broke the line on a second fourth-down attempt, pushing back Miami and forcing a turnover with 2:10 remaining.
“They called a blitz play, we had worked on it all week,” Reynolds said. “I just shot the gap as soon as the ball was snapped, and it was a great play by the defensive line crashing down. The fullback missed me and I was able to hit the running back.”
Miami got the ball back, and after Harris took a hard knock, sophomore QB Stephen Morris played the last two snaps of the game. He advanced the ball to Virginia’s 9, but the clock expired, and the early lead was just enough to hold up, as it has been so often under London.
“I’ll tell you what, that’s the third play where it ended on the last play of the game. I’m done with that,” London joked. “This team has tremendous resolve, guts, grits, whatever it is — there’s something in these guys.”
That early lead was created when offensive coordinator Bill Lazor got Rocco in the groove early, throwing a variety of screen passes that exploited the Hurricanes’ plans to blitz.
Facing a third-down blitz early, Rocco quickly dumped the ball to true freshman Darius Jennings, who sprinted 53 yards for a touchdown — showing off the speed that London has been boasting about all year.
Meanwhile defensive coordinator Jim Reid had his line ready to go, and Cam Johnson found his way through the line on nearly every play, as well as generating two false start penalties.
But it was coach London’s imagination that provided the extra spark. The coach hadn’t been running too many trick plays this year, which is unusual for him, but he was just saving them for a special occasion.
He started with a fake field goal that saw holder Jacob Hodges scamper down the sideline for 20 yards. That was followed up by Jones, who threw a 37-yard strike to Tim Smith for a touchdown.
Miami cornerback Mike Williams completely bit on the run, but he can’t be blamed, because Jones had never attempted anything of the sort, or given any indication he even could throw a football 45 yards.
Fans in Miami have been lamenting the Hurricanes’ fall from relevance, and on a national stage, they instead watched another coach with a big vision march all over the field.
“We like everybody doubting us,” cornerback Chase Minnifield said. “We’d rather have the doubt than the support. We just kept fighting, that’s the bottom line.”
While their losses show that the Wahoos aren’t yet a powerhouse program, they’ve also proven that given enough time and imagination, they can hang with anybody.
• Read Michael Phillips’ blog at: https://www2.timesdispatch.com/list/sports-college-uva/