No. 9 Miami keeps ACC title hopes alive with comeback victory at Virginia Tech

Tom D'Angelo
Palm Beach Post

Just call them the comeback kids.

No. 9 Miami (Fla.) pulled off another comeback Saturday, this time rallying from an 11-point deficit late in the third quarter to defeat Virginia Tech 25-24 at Lane Stadium.

The Hurricanes (7-1, 6-1 ACC)  keep alive their hopes to play in the ACC championship game, though it still needs help, after topping the Hokies. 

D’Eriq King brought Miami back, just as he did a week ago when Miami overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in a 44-41 victory at North Carolina State.

King capped the drive with a 36-yard touchdown pass to Mark Pope with 5:59 remaining to give Miami its first lead of the game.

Miami wide receiver Mark Pope Jr. outruns Virginia Tech defensive back Dorian Strong on his way to the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.

After earning ACC player of the week honors a week ago with 430 passing yards, 105 rushing yards and five passing touchdowns, King’s stats were a bit more modest Saturday, throwing for 255 yards and one score while rushing for just 18.

The win came as Miami was also dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. The Hurricanes listed 13 players as unavailable, most because of the virus.

"What an effort," coach Manny Diaz said. "The resilience of this team week-in and week-out is special. Some of the things we encountered this week and some of the things we had to overcome this week just to get there, just to play, so proud of them."

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The Hurricanes' unavailability list started growing in recent weeks with several players missing the Virginia and N.C. State games. And that number increased Saturday. Included were three starters, linebacker Zach McCloud of Lantana, left tackle John Campbell and left guard Jakai Clark.

McCloud, a fifth-year senior, is a team leader. He has 22 tackles, including two sacks. Campbell and Clark are among four offensive linemen on the two-deep depth chart who missed the game. 

“We were on the brink,” Diaz said. “The players attitude was the most telling. They wanted to play. we were on the brink in some position groups to see if we could function as a team.”

Virginia Tech appeared to have all the momentum after pushing its lead to two scores in the third quarter. But the Hurricanes never wavered.

King led Miami on two touchdown scoring drives in the final 16½ minutes, the first ending on a 6-yard run by Cam’Ron Harris. A failed two-point attempt cut the deficit to 24-19.

On the game-winning drive, King completed all three of his passes for 53 yards. He finished 24 of 38 for the game.

“Any great team you got to find a way to win,” King said. “There was no doubt in the locker room. The defense stepped up really, really big and we made plays when we had to.

“It was a rough week for us. We found a way.”

The win kept the Hurricanes in a tie with Clemson for second place in the ACC. Because the Tigers won the game between the teams earlier this season, Miami likely will need another Clemson loss to play for the conference title.

The Hurricanes held Virginia Tech to 361 yards and saved their best for late in the game as they were clinging to the one-point lead.

Te’Coury Couch intercepted Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker on the first play of the series after Miami took the lead. UM then went three-and-out, giving the Hokies had one more chance. But Hooker was under pressure the entire series, which ended with Jaelen Phillips making the final tackle of the game on a desperation play by Virginia Tech. Striker Gilbert Frierson had a key sack on the drive as Miami held Virginia Tech scoreless the final 21:18.

Diaz singled out Phillips for his play once again. Phillips was an ACC player of the week for his 10-tackle performance a week ago at NC State.

"We made the plays in the fourth quarter when we felt like we would," Diaz said. "We've been strong in the fourth quarter all year. We felt like that would be telling and sure enough it was."

Virginia Tech entered the game averaging 277.4 yards on the ground, fourth best in the country. The Hokies got the running game going during the middle stages of the game after a slow start, but Miami’s run defense stiffened when it mattered most.

The Hokies finished with 160 rushing yards, including a 53-yard touchdown run by Hooker for the first score of the game. Hooker led Virginia Tech with 59 yards, 44 below his average. The Hurricanes appeared to be wearing down in the third quarter as Virginia Tech started to pound the ball, but Miami regrouped just in time.

"The way the game went defensively we had one poor drive where we didn’t tackle very well in the third quarter that led to a touchdown," Diaz said. "We did feel like we were winning the battle up front. We feel like our run defense is starting to improve the last few weeks."