There are a lot of nicknames for Jacory Harris out there that make the rounds amongst college football fans none too happy about the Canes' steady revival. One that jumps out of me because of both its stunningly unimaginative wordplay and its roots in the truth is “Japicky”. This of course stems from the 17 interceptions thrown over the course of 2009, an average of 1.3 per game. The junior thus ranked second in the NCAA in picks thrown that season, behind only Jevan Snead of Ole Miss.
In these days of spread offenses and ridiculous touchdown / interception ratios (see: Boise State's Kellen Moore), it obviously produces fodder for criticism when a team's "Heisman hopeful" star quarterback's ratio is just above 1. Without going into what made those turnovers happen, I'm going to discuss some key interceptions that cost the Canes double-digit wins.
I’ll take a look at the two in-conference losses that WEREN'T decided by 24 points (Virginia Tech, you broke my heart): Clemson and UNC. Harris threw seven interceptions in those two games, and three were returned for touchdowns.
Jacory threw three interceptions this game, and though Graig Cooper, Javarris James, and Damien Berry combined for 210 rushing yards, it wasn't enough to stop an overtime loss. Now, what were the circumstances surrounding those picks?
The first came on Miami's first drive. The Canes drove deep into Clemson territory, and after a completion to Leonard Hankerson, they had a 1st and 10 from the Clemson 20 yard line. 3 points, probably 7 considering the Canes' expertise in the red zone, seemed pretty likely, and it would have given some early momentum since Clemson had missed a field goal on its first drive. But DeAndre McDaniel intercepted #12 at the 5 yard line and returned it 27 yards. It didn't mean too much, though, since after Series of Unfortunate Events by Clemson, it was 4th and 45. The Tigers punted.
The second pick came with 7 seconds left in the half, when Jacory was intercepted by Rashard Hall. Though the Canes only got to the Clemson 37 and time was running out, a field goal to make the score 14-13 in Clemson's favor would have given them some momentum going into the locker room. Miami had a timeout left, and the clock stops to move the chains, so anything was possible. The interception, though it didn't lead to any opposing points, put a sour note on the first half.
The final and most important interception came with 9:40 left in the game. On the first play of the drive, from the Miami 15, Harris threw an interception to DeAndre McDaniel, which was promptly returned for a touchdown. Before that play Miami was up a field goal; a touchdown would have made the game much more difficult for Clemson. But suddenly, it was 31-27 in Clemson's favor. Of course, Jacory threw a bomb to Travis Benjamin for a touchdown the very next time he took the field, but that interception kept Miami from being able to control the clock, VERY crucial in the last ten minutes of the game.
Now, were there other aspects of that game that could have turned it around for Miami? Of course, but if that pick-six is eliminated, the Canes would have won without overtime, 34-27. Jacory's interceptions had a much more palpable effect, though, in the second loss...
The thorn in the gut of the Canes that is the North Carolina Tar Heels was twisted in a heartbreaker in Chapel Hill. Miami at this point controlled its own destiny for the ACC Championship. It was not to be, however, as #12 threw four interceptions over the course of the game. What happened here?
The first interception, with 9:09 left in the first quarter, was made by Da'Norris Searcy, and didn't lead to any points for the Tar Heels. In fact, there was no scoring at all in the first quarter, a dangerous Miami offense being snuffed out by a tough UNC defense, and the UNC offense being its usual underachieving self.
The second pick came with 8:21 left in the half, as Jacory's pass was caught by Kendric Burney. Miami was down 7-10, and was looking to at least tie things up. Instead, UNC turned that into a field goal, making it 7-13. But that was still only one score down. The Hurricanes defense had held up pretty well against the Heels, and the offense had proven time and time again that it could score at any time.
And it did. Unfortunately, it scored for the wrong team.
Jacory was intercepted for the third time with 56 seconds left in the half, once again losing the essential momentum heading into the locker room. What's worse is that the pick (Kendric Burney again) was returned 77 yards for a touchdown. Make it 20-7 UNC. Harris' efforts to get some points with less than a minute to play were unsuccessful.
Miami didn't lay down, thankfully, and pulled within 6 by the start of the fourth quarter, with the UNC offense not being able to hold onto the lead. But as the Canes moved into UNC territory looking for the go-ahead score, history repeated itself.
Kendric Burney again.
In a pretty strange play, Burney actually fumbled the ball, and had it scooped up by Melvin Williams, who... took it back for six points. 30-17 UNC. Two pick-sixes in one game put the nail on the coffin and left Miami disappointed and out of the ACC Championship game.
If Jacory had thrown ONE fewer interception -- or if one of them hadn't been returned all the way (I really can't imagine a UNC offence efficient enough to score six points on both drives) -- Miami would have won.
So, what do we learn here? We learn What Might Have Been.
Two fewer interceptions, and Miami is in the ACC Championship game with an 11-1 record. Jacory is still in the mix for the Heisman. The Orange Bowl looms. Recruiting explodes, as Miami puts itself ahead of the 7-6 Seminoles and their retiring coach, and not far behind a Florida team with issues of its own.
The Canes would be ranked in the top five if had they gone 13-1, and probably the top 15 had they gone 11-3.
What a difference seven interceptions make.
*Stats taken from ESPN.com*