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U-Turning point: Canes at crossroads as Pitt visits on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: Miami Canes head coach Mark Richt shouts out instructions for the defense during the fourth quarter of the NCAA Football game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on October 29, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. Notre Dame defeated Miami 30-27. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)
Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

The question four games into Mark Richt’s initial season as head coach of his alma mater was: Can the Miami Hurricanes finish a perfect season? At 4-0 the potential for conference and national honors was growing. Now, four games later, the question has turned to: Can Richt and the Canes stop the bleeding?

At 4-4, simply salvaging the season appears to be a lofty goal. Rarely has a season taken such a dramatic turn for the worse. That this sudden slide is happening in Richt’s first season, one in which things looked so good a month ago, is most concerning.

“We understand we’re playing good teams,” Richt said in the weekly ACC teleconference. “We understand they give scholarships, too. We understand they’re good coaches, too.

“But some of the things that happened that have kept us from having the success we want has been some self-inflicted wounds, whether through penalties or through missed assignments or maybe not the proper technique in tackling or whatever it may be.

“So we’ve just got to keep banging away at doing things right and believing in each other and staying positive. That’s where we’re at right now.”

Where they’re at right now is a critical crossroads. Given the first month of the season, it’s a somewhat stunning place that Richt finds himself in. It’s all on his shoulders now as to whether he can get this team to pick itself up off the mat and fight back.

Unfortunately Saturday’s opponent, the 5-3 Pitt Panthers, aren’t offering much in the way of relief. It’s really not a favorable matchup the Canes face when they tee it up at 12:15 p.m. Eastern in Hard Rock Stadium. For starters, the Canes have had all kinds of difficulties running the football lately. The Panthers are sixth in the country against the run.

“We’ve not run the ball well in our early downs,” Richt said. “We’ve gotten ourselves into some third downs where it’s not as manageable as you’d like it to be, and you just about have to drop back and chunk it if you want to have a chance at it. You might be able to spit a draw here and there or some kind of a screen pass, but you just can’t get in third-and-longs.”

More often than not, that’s the situation the Canes have dug for themselves over the last four games. The shoulder injury quarterback Brad Kaaya suffered in the Florida State game has only made matters worse, although he started showing signs of returning to form late in last week’s 30-27 loss at Notre Dame – throwing for 288 yards (26-for-42) and a touchdown.

On the other side of the football, slowing down Pitt running back James Conner will be a key to coming out on top. The Panthers’ senior is coming off a season-high 141 yards (19 carries, three touchdowns) in a 39-36 loss to a Virginia Tech team that blew out Miami (37-16) the previous week.

If the Canes lose their fifth in a row on Saturday they would have to win two of the remaining three games (at Virginia; at N.C. State; Duke) just to become bowl eligible. They are 3-point favorites, but opened as 6 1/2-point favorites. Most of those putting their money where their mouth is don’t have much faith in the Canes.

The decision to bring Richt back to South Florida seemed at the time like the perfect fit. Perhaps that was just the desperation talking?

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