Grading the Hurricanes: How did No. 14 Miami fare in win against Duke?

It’s becoming sort of the expectation for Miami this season. The Hurricanes tend to start fast, then cool off a bit in the middle before turning on the jets to close out a victory. It was the case once again Friday as No. 14 Miami let Duke hang around deep into the second half in Durham, N.C., before pulling away for a 31-6 at Wallace Wade Stadium.

The Hurricanes were mostly back at full strength on offense for this first time this year —  running back Mark Walton and wide receiver Ahmmon Richards started — and it led to a convincing win to begin ACC play.

Next up is the biggest annual game on Miami’s calendar. The Hurricanes go to Tallahassee, Fla., on Oct. 7 for their rivalry game against Florida State. So how is Miami looking heading into the high-profile showdown? We grade the Hurricanes’ performance against the Blue Devils on a scale of 1-5 stars.

Offense (3 stars)

Miami’s offense vacillated between looking unstoppable and being absolutely flummoxed. For the first two drives, the Hurricanes carved up Duke. Walton made big plays out of the backfield. Richards got worked in quickly during his first game back. Malik Rosier capped the first drive with a touchdown pass to Braxton Berrios and then finished the second with a quarterback sneak into the end zone.

Then Miami’s offense went silent. The Hurricanes couldn’t find the end zone for the next 38:48 when Richards caught his first touchdown pass of the season.

The floodgates opened back up for Miami. The Hurricanes scored another touchdown on the next drive with a 40-yard touchdown run by Travis Homer to bury the Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium despite losing Walton to another injury during the fourth quarter.

Stalling out midgame is becoming a persistent issue for Miami. It happened last week when the Hurricanes entered halftime trailing Toledo before turning it into a blowout during the second half. The high points, though, are reason to be optimistic about Miami’s offense.

Defense (4 stars)

Finally, the Hurricanes defense looked like the unit that came into the season bubbling with hype. Miami got to break out the turnover chain twice and kept Duke out of the end zone altogether.

The Hurricanes defense has been more sketchy than anticipated during the early part of the season and some of the same issues persisted during Miami’s ACC opener. The Hurricanes are still playing a little too much of a bend-but-don’t-break style for a group with as much talent as them. The Blue Devils put up 349 yards of total offense and made it into Miami territory eight times before frequently stalling near midfield.

The Blue Devils also played a bit more risky than they typically might because of the expectation they’d be overmatched by a top-15 team. Duke went for a fourth-and-1 at the Hurricanes’ 18-yard line on the opening drive of the game only to be stuffed and come away with nothing. And during the third quarter, while trailing 17-6, the Blue Devils tried on fourth-and-3 at Miami’s 43 and were stopped again.

They were two huge plays for the Hurricanes to quash any Duke momentum. Better teams, though, might convert those plays or even position themselves so they may not be in those situations at all.

Special teams (2 stars)

Any time you have a punt go negative yards, it’s hard to give anything close to a generous grade. Punter Zach Feagles has mostly been solid as a freshman, but this is a gaffe that will surely find its way on to the lowlight reels this week and maybe for the entire season. The shank left Feagles with a meager 28.8-yard average for the game.

Michael Badgley also had his first miss of the season, although it was on a tough kick. With the win already in hand during the fourth quarter, coach Mark Richt let his kicker try a 53-yarder, which would have been a career best had he made it. Badgley hooked it wide and the Hurricanes still held a 24-6 lead.

Badgley was otherwise impeccable as a kicker. The senior hit another short field-goal attempt and made all 4 of his extra-point tries.

Miami’s return game was once again solid. Freshman athlete DeeJay Dallas had one decent 22-yard kick return, but Mike Harley botched his one attempt. The freshman wide receiver brought it back only 15 yards. Berrios had the biggest return of the game on a punt, bringing one back 24 yards.

Coaching (4 stars)

There’s still not much to complain about with the Hurricanes coaching staff and it’s certainly encouraging that Miami seems to always pull away late against these inferior opponents. There’s only one glaring coaching decision and it’s one that will draw plenty of scrutiny.

With the game already in hand during the fourth quarter, the Hurricanes let Walton keep running the ball despite injuring his ankle last Saturday against Toledo. The running back spun to the ground during a tackle and appeared to land awkwardly on his ankle. He stayed down for a few minutes before limping off the field by himself. Miami is optimistic about his status for next Saturday.

The Hurricanes did add one interesting new wrinkle on offense, although it’s not something that can be a fundamental part of the offense. Two times Friday, Miami faced a third-and-short or fourth-and-short, and had a decision to make. Each time, the Hurricanes had Rosier rush back to the line of scrimmage, set up behind center and try a sneak against a not-quite-set defense. Both times, the quarterback pushed the pile to get the yardage he needed.

On defense, Miami continued to bend and not break. There are some things to still clean up on that side of the ball, but the Hurricanes allowed fewer big plays this week than they did against the Rockets a week earlier.

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