ORLANDO, Fla. — Amid six series of Miami slogging through its sorriest stretch of offense this season, someone in the Russell Athletic Bowl chirped “I hope nobody wrote that Brad Kaaya should turn pro!”
By the end of Wednesday night, however, Kaaya looked every bit the NFL prospect and No. 16 West Virginia’s defense, so dominant and relentless early, came unraveled in a 31-14 loss.
Kaaya took MVP honors by throwing four touchdowns, one of them a short hitch that Ammon Richards turned into a 51-yard score and turned the game around.
“One play kind of sparked the team offensively. Then after that, Kaaya took off,” said Miami coach Mark Richt. “Sometimes he’s careful, maybe a little too careful. But once he turned it loose and started drilling the ball with confidence, it was over after that.”
In a momentum swing unlike any West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has witnessed, Miami compiled 31 yards on its opening six series and then scored four touchdown and a field goal on its next five.
Kaaya’s poise in the pocket after the ugly start stood out to Gibson.
“Early on we had him rattled. He wasn’t stepping into throws,” he said. “You’ve seen that with him watching film — he goes on streaks. He gets rolling and he’s hard to stop.”
While Miami (9-4) won its first bowl game since 2006, West Virginia (10-3) posted its most anemic offensive showing since 2013 and missed a chance to match the program’s single-season record for wins.
Skyler Howard failed to throw a touchdown for the first time since the season opener and lost a fumble. His 29-yard run in the third quarter nearly matched the output of West Virginia’s other rushers. A puny total of 229 yards — much of that offset by 108 yards in penalties — left Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen stalking the sidelines with an anguished expression.
“It’s the best defense we faced all year,” he said. “Those guys came off the ball, had a solid front. Their linebackers got better and better. Their safeties had range and could run. Their corners recovered.”
Howard finished 17-of-26 passing, with only five completion of 10 or more yards, and was sacked four times.
“They do a lot of exotic things. It’s hard to identify things,” the senior quarterback said of Miami’s defense.
Howard had company in his confusion.
“I pride myself on being pretty good at reading defenses, but I couldn’t read a damn thing,” said senior center Tyler Orlosky. “They did a really good job disguising their blitzes and a really good job of slanting and confusing us up front.”
Daikiel Shorts, despite making five catches for 61 yards, sounded equally perplexed.
“I couldn’t tell you what the hell was going on, honestly,” he said. “A lot of times I’d think I’m open or I’d think I’m one-on-one but there’s somebody else on the other side waiting. But we have things to execute against that, and we didn’t do that.”
The NFL could be looming for Kaaya though Miami fans heralded postgame chants of “One more year!”
“Not really leaning a certain way right now,” he said. “I’ve got some soul searching to do. Got to talk things over with Coach Richt, some of my teammates, some of the guys who are coming back next season. And then talk to some of my former teammates as well, some of the guys who have left. Get some opinions. Talk to a couple of mentors of mine.”
Another Miami underclassmen, tight end David Njoku, announced after the game he planned to enter the draft. His five catches included a 23-yard touchdown in which he broke loose from the grasp of safety Jarrod Harper at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s kind of bittersweet, leaving my team a couple years early,” said the redshirt sophomore.
Strange day for defense
West Virginia held Miami to 2.4 yards per carry, with 1,000-yard rusher Mark Walton netting 52 yards on 17 carries.
“Their down lineman whipped us in the run game,” Richt said. “I don’t know if we ever really had a run that we just blocked everybody beautifully and we caught a crease and got a nice, positive gain. I don’t know if we really had a running play that we just knocked anybody off the ball and created a seam for a back. So you’ve got to give West Virginia’s defense credit. They did a great job of stoning us and then, thankfully, we made a couple of plays throwing the ball and the dam kind of broke a little bit.”
Despite making the Hurricanes one-dimensional. WVU’s defense broke down in the back end.
“We could’ve played till Monday and they wouldn’t have been able to run the ball,” Gibson said. “They couldn’t block us in the run game, but we couldn’t stop them when they were throwing it.”