With Tar Heels up next, Cristobal, Hurricanes push past puzzling loss

The Miami Hurricanes have long been a program steeped in tradition and elevated among the elite in college football.

And given this year’s 4-0 start — after a few seasons mired in mediocrity — it seemed Miami was well on its way back to the promised land.

But then Saturday happened. And now, a promising renaissance season sits in limbo.

Miami coach Mario Cristobal’s decision to not have his offense take a knee in “Victory Formation,” allowed Georgia Tech to pull off a miracle of miracles at Hard Rock Stadium last weekend. A Miami fumble — on a third-down play that should have been the last snap of the game — led to the Yellow Jackets’ stunning 23-20 victory, the Hurricanes’ first of the season, and perhaps the most embarrassing defeat of the program’s history.

A day later, Miami fell from No. 17 in the Associated Press Top 25, all the way to No. 25. And with their toughest test of the season next up on Saturday — No. 12 North Carolina on the road — all eyes are on Cristobal and how his improved club recovers.

“Not going to make an excuse for it, say we should’ve done this or that,” Cristobal said of his decision to not take a knee. “That’s it. We should’ve done it. Sometimes you get carried away with just, finish the game and run it. I should’ve stepped in and said, ‘Hey, just take a knee.'”

Before the humiliating loss — in a game that Miami closed as a 20-point favorite — the Hurricanes were regaining their swagger as well as their ability to put teams away. Indeed, through four games, it looked as if the Hurricanes were back to the level of play their tradition demands. The level that boasts a total of five national championships, including four over an eight-year span.

The team produced NFL talent like none other in college football history at one point. In fact, the 2001 Hurricanes had a total of 17 first-round picks alone. But the days of Ray Lewis and Michael Irvin are far in the past, and the coaches and players who helped build the legend around Miami football are long gone.

But Cristobal is a former player, having played for The U from 1989-1992. He won two national championships, and was an all-conference offensive tackle in Miami’s former league, The Big East.

So, he has the experience, he has the talent around him, and he knows the standard that the Hurricanes must live up to. So, why did Saturday happen?

“That’s one of the biggest coaching mistakes at this level that I have ever seen in my lifetime,” ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck said on the broadcast.

As the Hurricanes move forward, it’s important to note that they are still three games over .500, and on the fast track to bowl eligibility. And a win over the Tar Heels this weekend might make people forget Cristobal’s gaffe. But only time will tell.

In only his second year as coach, Cristobal certainly had Miami on the right track before Saturday. After finishing 5-7 last year, four consecutive wins to open this season brought buzz back to Coral Gables.

“Of course, you want to be better. You don’t make excuses for it. You don’t try to deny it. It wasn’t good,” Cristobal said during training camp about last season. “I think about it this way: Our program, nothing’s going to stop it from achieving national prominence again, but it didn’t get here overnight, so getting out of it isn’t going to happen overnight. You hire tough-minded, hard-nosed people to deal with getting out of the muddy parts, right? Well, last year was a significant step in that direction.”

Changes needed to be made last offseason and Cristobal delivered on that quickly. And it started with transfers.

The NCAA’s implementation of the transfer portal — allowing players the ability to move to a new school without sitting a year — had a major impact. The Hurricanes ranked No. 12 in the transfer portal rankings out of a total of 128 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. Miami brought in a total of 17 transfers.

The No. 25 Miami Hurricanes (4-1) have their toughest test of the season up next on Saturday night, when they travel to Kenan Memorial Stadium to take on the No. 12 North Carolina Tar Heels (5-0) at 7:30 p.m. on ABC. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

But Cristobal also watched 26 Hurricanes depart, via the portal, which freed up some room for him to rebuild. And he was OK with that, especially knowing that last year’s team, as constituted, didn’t qualify for a bowl.

“A parent is very free and welcome to pick up their son if they’re not happy with their playing time at the University of Miami,” Cristobal said in the offseason when announcing the amount of players headed out of the program. “I guess that’s my philosophy.”

But Miami also brought in 26 high-school recruits, which is tied for fourth most in the nation. The Hurricanes’ 2023 recruiting class finished as the seventh-best in the country.

“That’s always been the blueprint to success at the stops that we have had. We’ve got to build and develop to a point where you have legitimate winning and championship depth at every position,” Cristobal said. “And we have certainly gained a lot of ground towards that; we still have to gain more. At every position, we are looking for players.”

That continued on Sunday, when — despite the loss less than 24 hours before — Miami landed a verbal commitment from Ny Carr, an ESPN Top 300 receiver who originally committed to Georgia.

The Hurricanes also made changes on the coaching staff in the offseason, hiring Shannon Dawson as the offensive coordinator, and Lance Guidry as the defensive coordinator. The results have been impressive. Even with the loss to Georgia Tech, Miami has scored 195 points, and allowed just 73.

“They’re elite human beings. They’re great people, they’re high-level professionals and they connect well with our players,” Cristobal said of the new coaches. “They’ve made a tremendous impact already.”

And now the onus is on the staff and the players to regroup, refocus and rebound in time for the Tar Heels on Saturday.

“I feel like I know more and more why we were brought to Miami,” Cristobal said. “As a player and as a coach, we had an opportunity to win a lot of games and a lot of championships. And then it slowly slipped away a little bit. And that didn’t happen overnight. And we were brought back to get it back on the national prominence level.”

They can take a huge step toward that this weekend.

Zeth Leon is of Cuban descent. He is currently a Junior at FIU majoring in Digital Communications and Media with a concentration in digital broadcasting. After graduation, he plans to incorporate his love for sports into his work by becoming a play-by-play commentator or talk show host for a sports network.