By Will Brown
ORLANDO, Fla — Skyler Howard ran to his right and was met by a tempest in football cleats. The West Virginia quarterback fumbled the football on a play that was the first of many statements the University of Miami defense delivered during a 31-14 victory in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
After holding the Mountaineers to a pair of red zone penetrations, 11 first downs and 229 offensive yards and the first-quarter fumble, West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen was effusive in his evaluation of the Miami defense.
“That’s the best defense we’ve faced all year,” Holgorsen said. “Those guys came off the ball. They have a solid front, their linebackers got better and better, their safeties were rangy, could run and could cover. They are a good football team. That’s the best defense we’ve faced all year. I would expect that trend will continue and they will get better and better.”
The West Virginia coach added the Hurricanes will only get better because they have good coaching that was led by his counterpart Mark Richt.
Richt completed his first year at his alma mater with a 9-4 record. A large reason why was because of a linebacker corps that was littered with true freshmen. Shaquille Quarterman, Zach McCloud and Michael Pinckney entered Wednesday’s game with 18 tackles for loss and five sacks.
On Howard’s fumble, the quarterback was forced to tuck the ball and run because Pinckney covered up the running back who flared out of the backfield and was the safety valve on the play. Sophomore Kendrick Norton was the beneficiary as he corralled the first fumble recovery of his collegiate career.
Later in the first quarter, the threat of Quarterman and Pinckney blitzing up the A-gap forced West Virginia center Tyler Orlovsky to deliver a low snap on third and long. Howard was able to collect the football, but not before his knee hit the ground, a play that resulted in a Mountaineers punt.
“They have been great all season. Linebackers are the quarterback of the defense and for them to do what they did was definitely special,” said Miami safety Corn Elder. “They showed up tonight. They played very well. (Michael) Pinckney, unfortunately, he didn’t get to finish with the targeting call. While he was in, he was definitely making an impact.”
The defensive performance was even more important because the Hurricanes failed to produce a first down on its first five possessions. While the passing game was able to get on track, the rushing attack was held to 81 yards — which may not have bode well for the Hurricanes considering in each of their previous three games with less than 100 yards rushing they lost.
“You know, the defense could have started pointing fingers and getting mad and all that kind of thing,” Richt said. “We just don’t do that here. It starts with the coaches and the players follow suit.”
The Miami coach added Ahmmon Richards’ 51-yard touchdown reception midway through the second quarter energized the entire team, not just the offense.
West Virginia (10-3) was held to season lows in points and offensive yards. Miami also sacked Howard four times and produced nine tackles for a loss. Elder led the way with seven tackles.
Elder, who was an injured spectator when Miami lost to Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl after the 2013 season, said it was exciting to end his collegiate career on a high note. The season was up and down, as evidenced by four straight losses in October, but he was grateful to see his teammates continue to fight.
“To snap a (10-year) bowl losing streak, it’s special,” Elder said. “It’s something that is going to get those guys going for next year.”