By Will Brown
ORLANDO, Fla. — Mark Richt, pulled off what his predecessors Randy Shannon and Al Golden couldn’t: Lead the Hurricanes to a bowl victory.
Miami won its first bowl game in nearly 10 years on Wednesday night, a 31-14 victory over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Hurricanes’ first five-game winning streak in 15 years was punctuated by their first bowl victory since beating Nevada in the MPC Computers Bowl on New Year’s Eve 2006.
“It’s fun to win. It’s fun to celebrate,” Richt said. “After all these years of coaching, that is by far the most fun for me. To be in that locker room afterward and have them celebrate, there is nothing like it. …I’ve heard the term meaningless bowl games, it makes me mad when I hear that. I know how much it meant to us.”
West Virginia (10-3) had an opportunity to win 11 games for the second time in the program’s 125-year history, but the Hurricanes (9-4) took advantage of a Mountaineer miscue to overwhelm the Big XII team during the second and third quarters.
After going more than a quarter without picking up a first down, Miami moved the chains for the first time with 11:04 remaining in the first half when West Virginia was flagged for pass interference on third down.
“I feel bad for the kids. It was the same kid who made that play and had two picks,” West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said in reference to free safety Toyous Avery afterward. “I feel bad for him when he makes a play and they take it away from him. They were game-changing plays. I’m not going to sit here and critique what was going on. I feel bad for the kids.”
Miami didn’t score on that possession, but it did on its next five, to take control of the contest.
Miami freshman receiver Ahmmon Richards turned his first touch of the game into the game-tying touchdown with 6:30 remaining in the second quarter. Richards’ 51-yard reception tied the game at 7-all and was one of a number of impact plays from Hurricanes underclassmen.
Richards tweaked his hamstring less than a fortnight ago and Richt said his 51-yard hitch to the house was the first time the true freshman has run at full speed since his injury.
Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya said Richards’ touchdown sparked an offense that had not done much to that point. Kaaya was named the Russell Athletic Bowl MVP after tying a Miami bowl record with four touchdown passes.
“It goes to show how our offense functions,” Kaaya said. “It doesn’t really matter who is in there, I know Stacey (Coles) got banged up on one play and left the game and Braxton (Berrios) came in the slot and caught some good balls and made plays for us. It is essentially, the culmination of a lot of work they put in this year. Some of those plays that scored for us, those are routine plays that we practice every day. They don’t show up every game day, but when everyone does the right thing, it works for us.”
Berrios hauled in a 26-yard touchdown pass with 27 seconds remaining in the first half to give the Hurricanes a 21-7 advantage. It capped off a five-play 70-yard drive where Kaaya was a perfect 5-for-5 and he targeted Berrios, Coley and Malcolm Lewis.
The raw numbers will say Miami’s junior quarterback completed 70.5 percent of his passes (24-for-34), 282 yards and four touchdowns, but a closer look will reveal an offensive pilot who was converted on only one of his first eight third down opportunities, a pair of would-be interceptions called back because of pass interference penalties and a handful of other passes that were either late or high.
Kaaya tied a Miami bowl record with his fourth touchdown pass early in the third quarter. The quarterback’s fifth target in the direction of David Njoku resulted in a fifth completion. Njoku caught the ball in the flat, shedded a tackle and waltzed into the end zone to give Miami a 28-7 lead.
Kaaya has not determined whether he will declare for the NFL draft; however, if Wednesday was his final game as a Hurricane he leaves as the school leader in passing yards, attempts and completions.
“It was a great way to end our season, obviously. Regardless of whether I am here or not next year, I think this team is heading to greatness. I think there are a lot of good things going on. I think this team can be good regardless of what happens over the next few days.”
Miami enters the offseason with optimism, but so will West Virginia. Holgorsen said his team did not play well in the second quarter; but, the team’s 21 seniors, including quarterback Skyler Howard and leading receiver Daikiel Shorts Jr. played in three straight bowl games and won 10 games this year.
Howard was held to 17-of-26 passing for 134 passing yards and ran for another 63 rushing yards and a third quarter touchdown in his final collegiate game.
“We got beat by a good football team. I’m not going to allow it to be a negative,” Holgorsen said. “Tyler (Orlosky) said it just a minute ago. There are 21 seniors in there and their legacy is this was the best football team that West Virginia has had in the five years we’ve been in the Big XII, there is a lot to be proud of. Ten wins doesn’t happen very often, it’s rare. We’re disappointed we didn’t get to 11. Our fanbase is disappointed, our coaches are disappointed, our players are disappointed; but we’re going to hang our heads high.”