The Miami Hurricanes got back to winning ways, topping the Virginia Cavaliers 45-26 in the final home game of the season.
Impressive in a stats-sense as Miami's defense forced turnovers, didn't give up a ton of points and had its most impressive showing scoring-wise since a 45-30 win over Georgia Tech on October 5.
While those final scores were comparable, the paths to victory couldn't have been more different.
As the 2013 season winds down, and sense is made of the Hurricanes' recent decline, porous defense is only part of Miami's problem. Equally as big for Al Golden and staff has been adjusting to life after Duke Johnson.
The sophomore running back suffered a broken ankle late in a 41-14 loss at Florida State, and Miami as a team, has yet to fully recover. The Hurricanes lost their biggest home run threat and playmaker going into the most important stretch of the season and has paid dearly.
Miami totaled 28 rushing yards in a recent 42-24 loss to Virginia Tech, unable to get anything going on the ground with Dallas Crawford or Gus Edwards. Crawford was serviceable a week later in the loss at Duke, but struggled to keep drives alive and didn't have a run longer than 14 yards.
Defensive turnovers bailed Miami out against Virginia, while a few big plays through the air pushed the Hurricanes over the top.
Tracy Howard intercepted the first pass of the game, running it in for a touchdown, while David Gilbert returned a fumble 72 yards for Miami's final score late in the fourth quarter.
In between was the Stephen Morris and Allen Hurns show, shining in their home finale, with the senior quarterback and wide receiver duo hooking up six times for 126 yards and a touchdown. Still, it marked the fourth-straight week the Hurricanes were outrushed, putting up 90 yards to the Cavaliers' 243.
Johnson and the Miami ground attack were set to be the heart and soul of the Hurricanes' offense this season. The electrifying running back was named to four preseason watch lists and looked to build on last year's 947-yard, 10 touchdown debut.
Johnson was leaned on early and often this fall, which wasn't the case as a freshman when he shared carries with senior Mike James. Eight games into this season, Johnson reached 145 carries. In 2012, he only had 139 total attempts on the year.
Johnson exploded for 186 yards in the season opener against Florida Atlantic and helped Miami rally to victory with 184 yards over Georgia Tech.
Weeks later, the Canes were in a hole against Wake Forest. Johnson rushed for two fourth quarter touchdowns, carrying 30 times for 168 yards, stepping up as a leader and asking for the football, as Johnson told the Miami Herald post-game on October 26.
I had a lot of momentum coming into the drive, and I wanted the ball. So I went to the coaches and we talked about it, and Coach [Golden] was like, ‘We’re going to put the game in your hands, the ball in your hands and you make it happen.’ It’s a great feeling knowing everybody is going to put their faith in you. Coach didn’t have to give me the ball with the previous fumbles I had in the past. He didn’t have to. But it was a great feeling of him trusting me, giving it to me and helping the team win.
Without Johnson, November has been full of "what if" moments. How much of a difference could the talented running back made in losses to Virginia Tech and Duke, where Miami only scored 23 and 30 points, respectively?
A year ago, Johnson was a workhorse against the Blue Devils, rushing for 176 yards in a 52-45 win. Weeks earlier, a gritty 100-yard performance against a fundamentally-sound Hokies' defense.
Offense was supposed to carry Miami this season, not defense. The Hurricanes lack overall talent and depth, putting the onus on an experienced offense to move the chains, light up scoreboards and give the defense some breathing room.
Instead, the injuries piled up as Morris injured his ankle against Savannah State and deep-threat wide receiver Phillip Dorsett suffered a partially torn MCL at North Carolina. Johnson getting rolled up on at Florida State was the tipping point. The Hurricanes' offense has been makeshift at best, since.
For Miami, 7-0 became 8-3 in a matter of weeks, stalling progress and killing momentum—for the team and fan base alike. The Hurricanes end the regular season at Pittsburgh on Friday and will soon begin bowl preparations for the first time in three years.
While three straight losses were definitely a setback, everything must be taken in stride.
Offense was supposed to do the heavy lifting for the Hurricanes this season. Without "The Duke of Coral Gables" the latter half of the year, Miami simply ran out of gas and must limp to the finish line.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog