It took 13 seconds for Miami to save its season. Last Saturday against NC State, the Hurricanes watched a 10-point fourth-quarter lead dissipate, with the Wolfpack tying the score with less than two minutes remaining. The teams were even, 37-37, when quarterback Stephen Morris settled under center with 32 seconds left in regulation.
Morris received the snap. He faked a handoff to running back Mike James, then rolled into the pocket. He sidestepped a would-be tackler, drifted right and looked downfield. Then he heaved. The perfect spiral dropped into the hands of receiver Phillip Dorsett for a touchdown. Final score: Miami 44, NC State 37.
The last-minute victory was the next step in Miami's unlikely 2012 resurgence. But was it a moment of fleeting triumph, or a sign of things to come? We may find out this weekend when 4-1 Miami takes on No. 9 Notre Dame Saturday in Chicago. Here's a look at the Hurricanes' chances of upending the favored Irish.
This season at Miami was supposed to be about rebuilding. The 'Canes were coming off a scandal-ridden 2011, and they were heavy on inexperience on both sides of the ball. Their leading passer (Jacory Harris), rusher (Lamar Miller), receiver (Tommy Streeter) and tackler (Sean Spence) all left for the NFL, leaving coach Al Golden with a group of fresh faces to mold into a contender.
In Week 2, it became evident just how raw the Hurricanes were. Kansas State steamrolled Miami, 52-13, in a game that seemingly exposed all of Miami's flaws. The 'Canes lacked defense, patience and leadership. Most analysts -- including one vehemently angry radio host -- were ready to give up on the team.
Only, then something strange happened. Seemingly overnight, the young 'Canes grew up. Over the last three weeks, Miami went 3-0 with victories over Bethune-Cookman, Georgia Tech and NC State. Though the competition has been admittedly weak, the team's potential has been obvious. After scoring just five offensive touchdowns in its first two games, Miami exploded for 15 in its last three.
But now comes the true test. The 'Canes face a Notre Dame defense led by dark horse Heisman candidate Manti Te'o. If they can stage a top-10 upset, they'll make one thing very clear: This might not be a rebuilding season after all. This group of upstarts could have its sights set on much loftier heights.
"We're young, but we're confident," said Dorsett. "We knew that we were gonna be able to have a great season if we listened to coach Golden and executed the plan."
The reasons for optimism begin under center, where Morris has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. In addition to throwing for an ACC-record 566 yards against NC State, he passed for 436 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia Tech, helping the 'Canes rally to an overtime victory. He's shown a particular knack for the deep ball. Morris has already uncorked four touchdown passes of 50 yards or longer -- one more than the team totaled all of last season.
Part of that is a product of his big arm -- "Having the opportunity to throw after practice with my guys, I've thrown a couple 60 [yards], I've thrown a couple 70," Morris told a teleconference of reporters Tuesday -- but part of it stems from familiarity. Over the summer, Morris met with the receivers for weekly Saturday workouts, establishing rapports that have carried into the season.
"We got extra throws in that you're seeing a lot right now," said Morris. "We did a lot of fade routes, we did a lot of go routes. We did different situations that were game-like to say that we've been there before and get our chemistry down."
Morris has also benefited from a stable of playmakers. James and freshman Duke Johnson have combined for 637 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, and wideouts Dorsett and Rashawn Scott have collected 790 receiving yards and five scores. Seven Hurricanes already have at least 10 catches this season; only three finished with 20 or more receptions during all of 2011.
In a year in which points have come in bunches, Miami's offense has more than done its part. Unfortunately, Miami's porous D has allowed equally massive outputs on the other side of the ball.
Through Week 5, Miami ranks a woeful 114th in the FBS in total defense, surrendering 494 yards per game. It's allowed two 400-yard passing performances and two 100-yard rushing efforts, and it's accumulated just five sacks, fewer than all but three teams in the ACC. Notre Dame's offense has been its weakness, and the Irish are currently embroiled in a quarterback dilemma of sorts. But whether Everett Golson or Tommy Rees lines up under center may not matter. To date, Miami hasn't shown it can stop anyone.
The Irish and 'Canes are diametric opposites. Miami has averaged 630 yards of offense over its last two games; Notre Dame has allowed just 268 yards per game over that same span. But while Irish coach Brian Kelly's squad has proven itself, Golden's group is still fighting to earn respect. A surprising win Saturday would go a long way toward gaining some.
Can Duke Johnson have a freshman season for the ages?
Statistical outliers exist, so it's foolhardy to get overly excited about a small handful of promising data. Still: Johnson appears to be on his way to a historically great freshman campaign. Here's how Johnson's first five games compare to those of four top freshmen from the past three seasons:
Before anointing Johnson as Miami's savior, however, here are a few things to keep in mind: He has played a mostly lackluster schedule thus far, as Boston College, Georgia Tech and NC State all rank 64th or lower in total defense. (Bethune-Cookman is an FCS school.) If Miami's defense continues to sputter, his success may make little difference in the 'Canes ultimate standing. And Johnson is coming off his weakest effort to date, having tallied just 82 all-purpose yards against the Wolfpack.
But for the first time since the Nevin Shapiro scandal, hope abounds at Miami. With a plethora of playmakers around him, Johnson seems poised for the program's first 2,000-yard season since Willis McGahee racked up 2,108 all-purpose yards in 2002.
Morris is the leader of this team; James is the go-to short-yardage back; but Johnson's impact can't be overstated. Though just a freshman, the 5-foot-9, 183-pounder could be the spark the 'Canes need -- and his teammates are certainly buying in.
"Since day one he came with a work ethic saying that he wanted to be great," said Dorsett. "That's what happened. He goes out there hard every day."
• Notre Dame's QB situation: Irish coach Kelly insists freshman Golson is his starter, but Kelly hasn't hesitated to insert Rees when the situation has called for it. After Golson completed just 3-of-8 passes with two interceptions against Michigan, Rees came in and guided the Irish to a crucial victory over the Wolverines, and it'll be interesting to see how Kelly juggles his signal-callers Saturday. That'll be particularly true if Golson can't dissect a defense that's allowed opponents to average 9.75 yards per attempt through its first five games.
• Denzel Perryman's return: Inexperienced to begin with, the Miami defense grew even thinner following Perryman's high-ankle sprain, an injury that forced the sophomore linebacker to miss consecutive games against Georgia Tech and NC State. Perryman, who finished second on the team with 69 tackles in 2011, is scheduled to return Saturday. He could help further slow an Irish attack that's had issues moving the ball consistently.
• Te'o's impact: It's impossible to preview a Notre Dame game without highlighting the All-America linebacker. Te'o has already totaled 38 tackles and three interceptions, and he played a pivotal role in shutting down Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Michigan's Denard Robinson, two of the nation's top offensive threats. For Morris and Miami to succeed, they'll have to minimize Te'o's impact. "He's very quick to the ball, very physical, very tough," said Morris. "A lot of things are funneled to him for him to make plays. Offensively, what we're trying to do is just play our ball and execute."
SI.com caught up with Miami wide receiver Phillip Dorsett before this week's game against Notre Dame.
SI: What was going through your head during last week's game-winning touchdown?
PD: The play at first wasn't even designed for me to get the ball. It was designed for someone to get the ball straight up the middle of the field. But [NC State] kind of busted the coverage a little bit, and I just scrambled and got past everybody. I saw Stephen just heave it, and I was thinking in my head, 'Oh snap. I gotta catch it.' It was an unbelievable feeling. I've never had that feeling in my life.
SI: After struggling in some early games, the offense has put up huge numbers the past two weeks. What's been the difference?
PD: I would say that we started fast. The other games, we didn't come out and attack the defense. These two games we came out fast. We know that we can't play from behind.
SI: How do you plan to attack Notre Dame?
PD: We just gotta take what they give us. We watched a lot of film, and we see that they play a lot of Cover 2. They're gonna try to stop our deep passes 'cause that's what we've been doing these last couple of games. Whatever coverage they play, we're gonna have to execute the play that's called.
SI: What's the key to the game?
PD: I would say probably the battle in the trenches between our front seven and their 3-4 defense. The only other 3-4 team we played was Georgia Tech, and we're gonna need to be able to run the ball this game.
For all the buzz surrounding this Miami team, expectations should be kept in check. This team is still young and largely untested. It's also about to clash with one of the premier defenses in the country, a unit that -- in addition to star linebacker Te'o -- features standouts such as Bennett Jackson, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III.
But if there's one type of team the young 'Canes are built to hang with, it's the Irish. Notre Dame lacks the firepower to dismantle the Miami defense like Kansas State did, and the Irish have had trouble putting away lesser opponents as easily as they should. If Miami can capture an early lead, it could keep things close until the fourth quarter, at which point -- as Morris demonstrated last week -- anything can happen.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Miami 17