OPINION: Now is not the time for verdict on Diaz
CHAPEL HILL – At the end of the day it was another loss, six straight to Power 5 competition now.
Manny Diaz stood all alone in a corner inside Kenan Stadium long after the game was over trying to come to terms with that. A few workers were in the stands scooping up garbage. Diaz didn’t pay attention to them and they didn’t give him a single thought either. Diaz has lost a lot as a head coach. But not like this. Not in consecutive games like this.
A missed field goal. Now a batted pass that was intercepted.
The difference between leading the Coastal Division of the ACC and being almost out of it now.
The feelings of failure he had to feel in the early stages of each game when he was being undressed as a defensive coordinator only to see those games come down to one play and knowing that if he had just made a bigger difference along the way that those single snapshots at the end might not have been as significant.
The knowledge that so many people want to see him fired now because Miami football doesn’t seem to be going anywhere under his leadership with losses mounting on top of losses.
Diaz is human you know. This is absolutely devastating. All those millions he makes don’t mean much right now. He isn’t going shopping at Neiman Marcus with his wife tomorrow.
So yeah, Diaz stood there all alone in only his thoughts and you can only imagine what those might have been.
Nobody but him knows.
Five minutes turned to 10.
Ten minutes turned to 15.
He stood there thinking.
Finally he was summoned to the bus for the ride to the airport.
A lot of fans right now want it to be the last ride to the airport he takes.
But that is not going to happen, not after what we saw in the second half at Kenan Stadium Saturday. There is very little chance that will happen.
“In the years I’ve been doing this to be part of a team that has this mental toughness, resilience, courage that this team has - I’ve never been part of it before,” Diaz said after the game.
Diaz has been known to spin things at times. This was not one of them. This was pain.
North Carolina Coach Mack Brown tried to yuck it up with him at midfield after the game, probably about the greatness of the battle. Diaz wanted no part of that.
“That’s why my heart breaks,” Diaz said. “We just can’t find a play to get them the victory that in my mind they deserve. It’s a play, and as coaches we have to find that play.
“There are mistakes we have to fix, mistakes that as coaches we are accountable to make sure are fixed. … “
A week after getting outgained 151-10 in the first quarter by Virginia, Miami was outgained 176-12 by Carolina early-on Saturday and 275-80 by halftime. Yes, that’s a bigger issue that suggests opponents gaining a sizeable edge in game planning.
But what happened after that was quite remarkable. The coaches went inside at halftime and made a few impactful adjustments. The players pulled together and played every second of the second half like their own lives were on the line, not just the future of their coach.
And the game totally changed on both sides of the ball. Miami ran 26 plays in the first half and 53 in the second half. The Canes outgained North Carolina 341-107 in the second half. And by the time the game was over, Miami actually ended up with more yards than North Carolina did. 421-382.
It’s the magic of sports. There are things that sometimes you just marvel at, don’t try to explain.
Yes, that was Miami driving deep inside North Carolina territory with a chance to tie or win the game as the final seconds wound down.
And this time Diaz didn’t play for the field goal. There was never a thought of spiking the ball to stop the clock.
Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, who suffered through tough moments but drove the offense down the field twice in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, tried to execute a basic RPO play that the Hurricanes have practiced hundreds of times. Get the defense to suck up to stop the run, complete the pass over the top.
Charleston Rambo was lined up on the right side and cut across the middle.
Van Dyke saw him and released the ball.
But Carolina’s Jeremiah Gemmel batted the pass at the line of scrimmage and it eventually landed in the arms of Cedric Gray for an interception. There were six seconds left. The game was over. Just like that. The game was over. Canes lose again.
“There’s a really good team in that locker room,” Diaz said. “We are what our record is, I understand that. But we stay the course, it’ll show.”
The record is now 2-4. That’s bad. There will be a time to evaluate the football program at The U. A lot of conversations have begun behind the scenes. There will be a time to cast judgement on Diaz. But man, now is not it.
Not tomorrow either.
You want to know why? Because of how hard that team played under the adversity it faced. They could have quit on Diaz, who was having another really bad day at the office. That’s when you fire a coach. But they did not quit. They played harder. They played better. They showed heart that they might not have even known they had because that effort they showed would have come in handy a bit earlier in the game.
No matter how angry some fans might be, no matter how justified that anger might also be over what has happened to one of the most storied programs of modern day college football over nearly two decades now, now is simply not the time to brandish a sword.
It is not the time to drive it home.
It is not the time to draw blood.
Just six weeks ago, when anybody sized up the ACC in 2021 and the Coastal Division race in particular, the Miami-North Carolina game that was played out here Saturday was circled on every calendar.
So what the heck happened?
On one sideline stood the Hurricanes, loser of five straight games against Power 5 competition, with a head coach firmly on the hot seat in the eyes of the fan base if not the athletic director in just year three of his tenure.
On the other was a North Carolina team that was ranked in the top 10 to start the season who some were now calling the most disappointing team in the country. The offense was underachieving despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Sam Howell and the defense had been porous. The Tar Heels were pretty much out of the Coastal race with three conference losses entering Saturday’s game despite returning 21 of their 22 starters from the end of last season and also adding a Top-15 recruiting class. Brown was so rattled by it all that he has been blaming the media for having too lofty expectations for the Tar Heels.
Miami has never really recovered from the 62-26 loss to North Carolina that started this current freefall from grace.
And Carolina picked up right where it ended off last November.
The first quarter would end with North Carolina holding a 176-12 edge in total offense.
The Tar Heels systematically moved up the field on that opening possession until Ty Chandler busted a 51-yard run up the left side on the seventh play of the drive. Chandler wasn’t touched on the run. Te’Cory Couch whiffed on the tackle about 10 yards up field and Bubba Bolden took a bad angle to the play.
Miami’s offense quickly went three and out and the Hurricanes were facing a perilous situation when Jahfari Harvey made the play of his career and the best defensive play of the season for the Hurricanes. He stepped in front of a flanker screen pass and batted the ball into the air, catching it himself and running untouched for a tying touchdown from the 33-yard line.
Howell isolated Josh Downs in single coverage on Gurvan Hall and hit him on a slant for a 45-yard in which Hall didn’t come close to making the play. The defense was so flawed on the play. Hall was giving Downs, one of the top receivers in the country, a 15-yard cushion at the line of scrimmage. He didn’t have a chance to cover him. Not a chance.
Miami moved down the field on a drive in which 40 of the 48 yards came on undisciplined North Carolina defensive penalties. But the Canes had to settle for a Andy Borregales field goal that cut the lead to 14-10, which was remarkable considering the degree to which they were being outplayed.
But that good fate wasn’t going to last very long. Diaz was again helpless against Carolina’s offense, resorting to blitzes on almost every single down to try to make a positive play. But Carolina was too crafty and Howell was getting rid of the ball very quickly.
The Tar Heels easily moved 81 yards on 13 plays, scoring on a two-yard touchdown pass to John Copenhaver to make the score 21-10.
Moments later, they were scoring again as Van Dyke tried to force a slant to Rambo that simply wasn’t there. The ball was tipped and intercepted by Cedric Gray who returned it to the Miami 21. Seven plays later it was 28-10 as Chandler ran in untouched from the four.
Miami didn’t quit offensively though. The Hurricanes put together their best drive of the day, moving 75 yards in seven plays in 1:45 with Jaylan Knighton scoring the touchdown on a two-yard run. And then after North Carolina drove down the field again to the Miami 25, Keontra Smith surged through the middle on third down and sacked Howell for a 10-yard loss. And Carolina missed the ensuing field goal attempt.
Moments later, Van Dyke gave the ball back to Carolina with 55 seconds left in the half by throwing an interception into traffic over the middle to Cam’Ron Kelly. And this time Carolina made the kick to take a 31-17 lead into halftime.
So in its six quarters against North Carolina, the four last year and the first two this year, Miami was out-gained 1053-394 yards by North Carolina. Obviously what was going on schematically against this opponent was not working
But something happened at halftime. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee made adjustments up front and the Canes ground game suddenly began rolling.
Miami drove 75 yards after the opening kickoff of the second half to cut the lead to a touchdown. They did it in scrappy fashion. A 22-yard run by Cam Harris here. Eleven and seven-yard runs by Jaylan Knighton there. A fourth and nine scramble for 11 yards by Van Dyke. Then a three-yard touchdown run by Cody Brown.
But on Carolina’s first ensuing play, Howell hit Antwan Green over the middle for 41 yards. Three plays later, Howell took off running, bounced off James Williams at the 20, and ran the rest of the way into the end zone to put Carolina up by 14.
The Miami offense had confidence from the previous possession and drove 50 yards before being forced to settle for another Borregales field goal. Then the defense dialed up its best series of the day and quickly got the ball back again.
On third and five from the Miami 40, Van Dyke threw a swing pass to Jaylan Knighton who found himself with just one guy to beat in the open field. Knighton made a great cut and scored on the play, cutting the Carolina lead to 38-34.
And then the defense made another stop.
Miami got the ball back at its 37 with Knighton taking off for 14 yards on the final play of the third quarter.
It was time to buckle up for the fourth quarter.
Four fingers were in the air on the Miami sideline.
Diaz jumped and down like a little kid.
With a chance to reestablish control, Carolina showed its offensive class going 58 yards in nine plays to get the lead back to 10. Howell, with now over 100 yards rushing on the day, went the final 11 yards himself. 45-34.
Miami didn’t quit. Van Dyke kept hanging in there and making plays and drove the offense 97 yards in 12 plays with Knighton scoring on a four-yard run.
Then Van Dyke scrambled left and threw across his body to hit Rambo for the two-point conversion to cut the lead to three with 3:08 to play.
Carolina took over at its 27 and the defense stuffed consecutive runs with Diaz calling time out to preserve time after each. On third down, Howell ran up the middle and Diaz called time again.
By going conservative, Carolina was gambling that Miami and Van Dyke could not drive for a tying field goal. It seemed insane, quite frankly. Maybe Brown took a nap for the second half which was dominated by Miami’s offense.
Or maybe he was giving Diaz a gift to make up for the unceremonial firing at Texas when Diaz worked for him as defensive coordinator.
Miami got the ball back at its 28 with 2:46 to play.
Van Dyke passed to Knighton for 13 yards then Knighton peeled off runs of eight and three yards. Then Van Dyke stepped up and scrambled for 14 yards and 12 yards.
The clock was winding down to a precious few seconds, but Miami didn’t have a time out left to stop it. The Canes could have spiked the ball and kicked the field goal to go into overtime.
But this time, unlike against Virginia, Diaz didn’t play for the field goal.
Let’s say Diaz had played for overtime. Would the snap and hold been perfect under the pressure of the moment. Would Borregales have made the kick? Would Miami have even won in overtime?
Standing there all alone in the shadows in that corner of the stadium, you can bet Diaz replayed every second of those rapid-fire decisions.
He believes that these sequences will start going his way soon, that his team of fighters will become winners before the clock runs out again.