Updated:MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) (AP)
Tracy Howard knew exactly what was coming. First play of the game, screen pass, something that has burned Miami countless times in recent weeks.
He guessed right.
And with that, the tone was set for a redeeming day for Miami and its maligned defense.
Howard returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown a mere 6 seconds after kickoff, the first of four turnovers that Miami turned into touchdowns, and the Hurricanes snapped a three-game slide by beating Virginia 45-26 on Saturday to remain alive in the Atlantic Coast Conference race.
"Defense, I thought, really played their tails off," Miami coach Al Golden said.
Added Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, on the defense: "They were dominant."
Giving up 483 yards, 28 first downs, 11 third-down conversions and being on the field for nearly 38 minutes wouldn't seem dominant. But being largely responsible for 28 points more than made up for those numbers. David Gilbert had a 72-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown, and interceptions set up two drives that Dallas Crawford capped with touchdown runs for Miami (8-3, 4-3 Atlantic Coast Conference).
Morris passed for 214 yards and two touchdowns in his home finale. Allen Hurns had 126 receiving yards and a score and Stacy Coley had a 62-yard touchdown grab for Miami, which got a huge momentum shift late in the half when Ladarius Gunter had an interception in the Miami red zone. Gunter returned the ball 81 yards to the Miami 3, the Hurricanes took a 21-13 lead three plays later on Crawford's first score of the day, and weren't in trouble again.
"That's a good Miami team," Virginia coach Mike London said. "They played well and they capitalized when they needed to and we didn't."
Taquan Mizzell caught a touchdown pass and ran for another, while Kevin Parks ran for 130 yards and a touchdown for Virginia (2-9, 0-7), which has dropped eight straight and lost to Miami for the first time in four years. Starting quarterback David Watford completed 10 of 25 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted three times.
"It's very frustrating," Parks said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated right now. But we've got to make more plays and be positive."
Gunter was carted off with an undisclosed injury with 2:02 remaining. He had a helmet-to-helmet collision with Mizzell on a play where the Cavaliers freshman ran into the end zone from 7 yards out, remained on his feet for a few seconds, then fell to the ground.
A university spokesman said Gunter was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami in an abundance of caution and for evaluation of an upper-body injury. Golden said Gunter was moving his extremities and alert, and teammates said he was talking and joking with them while he was down on the turf, even as they kneeled around him.
"I told him he's still ugly," Rodgers said. "Something to joke around, to make sure he laughed."
Miami had allowed at least 40 points in each of its last three games, plus lost cornerbacks Corn Elder and Nate Dortch to injuries that Golden said afterward he feared were "significant."
But the fretting over secondary depth can resume Sunday. This win, the Hurricanes said, was for their seniors, especially after all they went through over 2-1/2 years of dealing with an NCAA investigation.
"I think we should be remembered as a group that stuck together," Morris said. "We fought through a lot and we're having one of the best seasons a Miami team has had in a decade."
Miami's win means the ACC Coastal Division race, and the right to play Atlantic Division champion Florida State in the conference title game, won't be decided until the season's final weekend.
For Miami to win the Coastal, it needs three outcomes next week: A win at Pittsburgh, a Duke loss at North Carolina and a Virginia Tech loss at Virginia.
"We just have to worry about the Pitt game," Golden said.
Howard's pick-six gave Miami a 7-0 lead -- "I knew it was coming," Howard said -- and turnovers kept ensuring that the Hurricanes stayed on top.
Miami's lead was 14-13 and Virginia was driving deep into Hurricanes territory with less than 2 minutes before intermission, when Gunter intercepted a pass from Watford. And with Virginia within 31-20 in the fourth, after Mizzell caught a 10-yard TD pass, Rodgers had an interception that set Miami up at the Cavaliers 16. Crawford finished off that drive two plays later.
"If it wasn't for the turnovers, it's a whole different game," Watford said.