By MIKE CASAZZA
ORLANDO, Florida — Miami handled a list of streaks with a style fit for South Beach.
The Hurricanes ended a six-game bowl losing streak and a 10-year postseason drought by finishing the season with a fifth straight win and a 31-14 triumph over No. 14 West Virginia in Wednesday’s Russell Athletic Bowl.
A crowd of 48,625 at Camping World Stadium saw Miami beat WVU for a seventh straight time and put a spellbinding run on the Mountaineers in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom.
“They were ready to play,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “This meant a lot to them. I think you guys making a big deal out of the fact that they haven’t won a bowl game in 10 years didn’t do us any favors, but they were ready to play. They played well, out-coached us, out-played us on all three sides.”
After beginning the game with five consecutive three-and-outs, Miami’s offense found a first down and then found the end zone on four possessions in a row. Quarterback Brad Kaaya, who started the game 5 for 13 for 29 yards, completed 14 of 15 passes for 217 yards and touchdowns to four players in a span of 10 minutes, 26 seconds of game time.
The incomplete pass was a drop, and Miami turned a 7-0 deficit into a 28-7 lead against a defense that only allowed 28 points in three games during the regular season.
“He’s a streaky player,” WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “That’s something you see on film when you watch them play. He gets rolling, and he’s hard to stop.”
The Mountaineers (10-3) stopped the surge by answering the fourth touchdown with a score of their own, and that drive came after Miami’s defense forced five straight three-and-outs. But a 26-yard pass from Skyler Howard to Daikiel Shorts on third-and-11 kept the offense on the field, and Howard scored on a 4-yard run on third and goal.
Miami (9-4) moved down the field again, but was finally slowed by the red zone and settled for a field goal and a 31-14 lead.
“I’ve never been a part of a game with five straight three-and-outs and five straight scores,” Gibson said. “I hate it for the kids. I thought we were prepared and ready to go, but then we got on our heels and couldn’t recover.”
The Hurricanes started the season 4-0, lost four straight games and then closed the regular season with a four-game winning streak. Their last bowl win was in 2006 in the MPC Computers Bowl against Nevada.
“I was just saying how much fun it is to win and celebrate with these guys,” said Miami coach Mark Richt, who finished his first season coaching his alma mater after 15 seasons at Georgia. “And after all these years of coaching, that is by far the most fun for me, is to be in that locker room after a game like that and celebrate. And there’s nothing like it. You know, people talk about games that — I’ve heard the term ‘meaningless bowl games.’ I mean, it just makes me mad when I hear that because I know how much it meant to us. And if you’re in that locker room, you would have seen it.”
The Mountaineers couldn’t become the sixth team in school history to win 11 games and settled with their best season since joining the Big 12 for the 2012 season and the ninth 10-win season in 125 years of football.
“To win 10 games is not easy. To win eight games is not easy,” Howard said. “To sing ‘Country Roads’ 10 times my senior year, if you would have told me that a few months ago before the season started, I would have smiled. I think everyone who’s been a part of this probably would have smiled, too.”
Kaaya, the school’s all-time leading passer who chose not to talk to reporters before the game this week, will announce soon whether he’ll return to school for his senior season or go to the NFL. He was named the game’s most valuable player after completing 24 of 34 passes for 282 yards and matching a school bowl record with four touchdowns.
He was spared two interceptions by pass interference calls against WVU safety Toyous Avery, who caught both passes. The first came in the second quarter as Avery nabbed a fluttering pass at Miami’s 48-yard line. The penalty gave Miami its first first down of the game. The second came at the start of the third quarter, and Avery returned a deep throw into a crowd of three defenders to Miami’s 44, a place the WVU offense hadn’t reached since late in the first quarter.
“I feel bad for the kid when he makes a play and they take it away from him,” Holgorsen said. “They were game-changing plays. I’m not going to sit here and critique what was going on or any of that. I just feel bad for the kid.”
Kaaya shook off the second and threw a short pass to tight end David Njoku, a redshirt sophomore who announced after the game he’s going to the NFL, and he pushed away defenders for a 23-yard score and the 28-7 lead.
Kaaya’s counterpart wasn’t quite as fortunate. Howard lost a fumble on the third play of the game and finished 17-for-26 for 134 yards, and he was hurried and harried from start to finish. Miami’s pressure wouldn’t allow Howard to get comfortable, and the Hurricanes took away just about everything the Mountaineers tried to do running the ball outside. Miami finished with nine tackles for a loss by 10 players. Howard wound up running a career-high 21 times — including four sacks — for 63 yards.
“They were better than we thought they were,” center Tyler Orlosky said. “They played very hard and played very well. They beat us up front. They beat us all over. The scoreboard was pretty evident with that.”
Holgorsen said Miami had the best defense the Mountaineers have seen this season, and his players could not disagree. WVU finished with season-low totals for points, rushing yards (95) and total yards (229).
“I don’t think anybody held us to 14 points,” Howard said. “They do a lot of different and exotic things we don’t see. At the end of the day, I’ve got to get the ball in the receivers’ hands, and they have to catch it. It works both ways. It takes 11 guys, but it starts with me.”
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