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‘We’ve regressed’: Everything Miami used to do well (and Cristobal preached) has vanished

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 9/26/2022 David Wilson, Miami Herald
Miami Hurricanes head coach Mario Cristobal reacts after a call by the officials during game against the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders in the third quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, September 24, 2022. © Al Diaz/ Herald/Al Diaz/ Miami Hurricanes head coach Mario Cristobal reacts after a call by the officials during game against the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders in the third quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, September 24, 2022.

It only took Mario Cristobal four weeks to deliver the sort of inexplicable loss that have plagued a generation of Miami Hurricanes coaches.

There was Randy Shannon’s loss to the USF Bulls, Al Golden’s 58-point loss to the Clemson Tigers, Mark Richt’s 33-point loss to the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2018 Pinstripe, and Manny Diaz’s losses to the FIU Panthers and Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, and now there’s Cristobal’s 45-31 loss to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in only his fourth game as coach at Miami.

It was the sort of result the Hurricanes hoped they had moved past when they plucked Cristobal away from the Oregon Ducks last year and gave him a 10-year, $80 million contract, even if they knew it would take some time for him to turn Miami back into a national contender.

It turns out the Hurricanes are even further away than they thought.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Cristobal said Saturday. “I knew we had a long ways to go upon arrival, but the progress that we had made in some respects I feel like, certainly, we’ve regressed and we’ve got to do a better job.”

Miami Hurricanes fall apart, bench Tyler Van Dyke, in stunning loss to Middle Tennessee

It’s not just that Miami (2-2) lost or even that they spent much of the second half trailing Middle Tennessee by three touchdowns, but the Hurricanes’ supposed strengths all vanished this weekend in Miami Gardens and now they’re out of AP Top 25 after starting the year at No. 16.

Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, fresh off winning Atlantic Coast Conference Offensive Rookie of the Year and finishing his freshman season with a six-game run not seen in the Power 5 Conferences since Joe Burrow’s Heisman Trophy-winning campaign in 2019, is completing just 59.3% percent of his passes while averaging only 202.3 yards per game with a 4-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the Hurricanes benched him in the third quarter at Hard Rock Stadium. The rushing attack, transformed by Cristobal’s offensive line expertise and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ run-heavy scheme, put up just 1.6 yards per carry after Miami averaged 5.1 in the first three games. The Hurricanes also started slow in contrast with Cristobal’s no-nonsense demeanor, turning the ball over three times in perhaps the worst first quarter in modern program history.

“We started slow,’ Cristobal said, “about as bad a first quarter as you can have.”

What happened to Van Dyke?

Van Dyke’s massive regression is the most alarming development, mainly because this week wasn’t an outlier. His first throw of the game Saturday was an interception and so was his second, which the Blue Raiders ran back for a touchdown. The sophomore finished 16 of 32 for 138 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, and Miami replaced him with fellow quarterback Jake Garcia with 7:55 left in the third quarter.

Right now, he’s nothing like the player he was by the end of last season, when he finished the year with six straight games of at least 300 passing yards and three passing touchdowns. Former offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee parlayed the Hurricanes’ massive offensive success — they averaged 449.9 yards and 34.1 points per game — into a job as coach of the SMU Mustangs and Cristobal hired Gattis, the reigning Broyles Award winner, as his first coordinator and the passing offense has cratered.

Last year, Miami finished 10th in the nation with 321.2 yards per game. This year, the Hurricanes are 47th with just 270.3.

Van Dyke’s issues right now are clearly more than just schematic — his accuracy is off and a shorthanded group of wide receivers is dropping way too many passes — but the simple fact is Lashlee was getting much more out of Van Dyke than Gattis is.

“We’ve got to do a better job setting him up for success and moving things offensively that allow us to have a more successful, more productive passing game,” Cristobal said.

Although Cristobal declined to weigh in on the state of Van Dyke’s mindset and confidence, Jalen Rivers suggested he’s not quite himself right now.

“He just has to believe in himself and we just try to tell him every day like, Just get out your head, play your ball,” the offensive lineman said Saturday. “When we play our ball, we perform very well, so that’s the thing. We’ve just got to build that confidence back up.”

What happened to good stuff?

Van Dyke’s regression was excusable for the first three weeks of the season, though, because Miami found a different identity that worked. Its offense was still fine because it ran all over opponents, including the then-No. 24 Texas A&M Aggies on Sept. 17, and its defense bordering on elite by giving up just 12.3 points per game.

It was exactly the sort of old-school football Cristobal promised he’d bring to Coral Gables and it was working, until it all stopped in Week 4.

On one side of the ball, Middle Tennessee put an extra defender in the box and it stopped the Hurricanes’ offense in its tracks. On the other, Miami sat back in its man-to-man defense and the Blue Raiders unleashed their air raid offense to throw touchdowns of 69, 71 and 98 yards.

The Hurricanes gave up four plays of 40-plus yards on Saturday and have only one such play of their own all season.

“Our run game was nowhere near what it has been,” Cristobal said of the offense’s struggles.

Of the defense, he said, “There’s no sugar-coating it. We’ve got to obviously scheme it better or analyze matchups better. Right now, our players will be as successful as they can be. They got behind us, good throw, good catch, but they got behind us.”

Kamren Kinchens summed it up best.

“Everybody played horrible,” the safety said Saturday.

What about an attitude adjustment?

The ultimate problem with all these signature losses is they’re really only a small sampling of Hurricanes’ inexplicable failures. Miami is far more talented than Middle Tennessee, just like it was against FIU and Louisiana Tech.

It’s also, based on recruiting success, just about always the most talented team in the Coastal Division and yet the Hurricanes have only been to the ACC Championship Game once.

Miami’s issues have never been just about talent and Cristobal — with his insistence that “the U is back to work,” rather than just back — promised to get the Hurricanes away from complacency.

It took four games for those old, ugly habits to return.

“We looked at that team [like], Oh, we’re going to win this game, so we came in obviously unmotivated or kind of slow, and we had to ramp things back up when we got punched in the mouth,” Rivers admitted. “I just feel like we just came into the game like, Oh, we’re going to win, and you saw what happened.”

Miami was down 10-0 in less than five minutes and 17-3 by the start of the second quarter.

The stereotypical Hurricanes of recent years would fall apart after a loss like this. It’s exactly why Miami hired Cristobal — to go back to the glory days and erase the ugliness of the last decade — and now, with a bye week ahead and ACC play after it, he’ll have to pass a test so many other recent coaches have failed.

“You’ve really got to be a man about this stuff. You’ve got to be an adult about this stuff,” Cristobal said. “We should’ve played a lot better than what we did and in terms of leadership the expectation is for everyone to show up, everybody to get better, do their best and work hard because obviously what we have done is not good enough and isn’t enough.”

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