Miami won the Mario’s Cristobal way — by dominating Clemson at the line of scrimmage

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Reuben “Hurricane” Bain didn’t play in Miami’s 40-10 loss at Clemson 11 months ago. He was still a high school senior at Miami Central and deciding if he wanted to stay home or play for Alabama, Auburn, Florida State or Oklahoma.

On Saturday, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive lineman emerged as the poster boy in Mario Cristobal’s most impressive win to date as Hurricanes coach — a 28-20, double-overtime slugfest over the ACC’s most physical team at the line of scrimmage for the better part of the last decade.

Bain had eight tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and recorded 10 quarterback pressures in one of the best freshman performances by a Miami defensive player since Ray Lewis.

How did Bain’s body feel after he and his teammates combined to sack Cade Klubnik five times and hold Will Shipley and Phil Mafah — arguably the ACC’s best running back tandem — to 31 yards rushing?

“I feel like I’m 70 right now,” the 19-year-old said through a smile.

That’s how a lot of Miami fans feel when they watch Cristobal coach on game days. Some of his mind-numbing clock management decisions and his tendencies to reel back the offense and play conservatively raise the blood pressure and stress levels of even the biggest Canes diehards.

But there’s a method to his madness. There is an endgame. He wants Miami to win games with a tried, trusted and true method as it did on Saturday — by being the more dominant team at the line of scrimmage. It’s what he saw work when he was Nick Saban’s assistant at Alabama and what he tried to build at Oregon — and it’s why teams like Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and Ohio State are always in the championship hunt.

“We talked about how games like this are 15-round heavyweight fights and rounds 11 through 15 separate you,” Cristobal said. “I’m just proud of those guys, man. They played hard. They played well. They got it done.”

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t sexy. It wasn’t even fun. But the Canes beat a Dabo Swinney-coached team coming off an idle week and did so with starting quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, leading rusher Henry Parrish Jr. and two starting defensive linemen out — and an extremely nervous true freshman making his first college start.

Yes, Clemson is now 4-3, with three league losses for the first time since 2010. Yes, Swinney appears to have lost something off his fastball since former defensive coordinator Brent Venables left for Oklahoma.

But this is still Clemson, which ranks No. 5 in the nation in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite, right behind Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Texas A&M. Many of these same Tigers held the Hurricanes to 98 yards of total offense last November in Death Valley with another true freshman starting at quarterback for The U and Miami marching toward a 5-7 finish.

“By the time we got to Clemson last year, we were already worn down,” Canes safety James Williams said. “This year, we’re more in shape, playing with more physicality. We were the tougher team tonight and proved it.”

Miami still has a long way to go to climb up the food chain in the ACC. The Canes are 10-9 under Cristobal, and this was their first league win at home since November 2021.

But the program he’s trying to build — a team that can outmuscle opponents and bully its way to victory — finally experienced a proof-of-concept moment on Saturday. Down 17-7 entering the fourth quarter, Miami ran the ball 12 times on a 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive that ate up nine minutes off the clock.

Miami finished with 211 yards rushing, 189 more than Florida State had in its 31-24 overtime win at Clemson in September.

At times, I could hear Sam Spence’s “March To the Trenches” playing in my head as NFL Films narrator John Facenda described freshman quarterback Emory Williams handing the ball off to Don Chaney Jr., who followed big No. 73 Anez Cooper and No. 61 Francis Mauigoa — a pair of 6-6, 335-pound plus bulldozers — through the right side for a gain of 4 yards.

It was the kind of stuff you imagine Cristobal will watch this offseason sitting in a dark room with a cigar in his hand sipping brandy, the type of highlights he’ll send to every offensive lineman from here to American Samoa over the next three to four years. In the end, Cristobal’s plan to wear Clemson down in the fourth quarter worked. It was just scary as all hell.

He and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson treated Williams with kid gloves through the first three quarters, asking him to throw quick passes to avoid making any big mistakes against Clemson’s vaunted defense, which still ranks nationally seventh in yards per play allowed. It looked like the conservative approach would cost Miami the game, but in the end, Cristobal came out smelling like roses even after he let the clock run out in regulation with the ball at Miami’s 40 and a timeout in hand.

“They’ve got a really good pass rush and they’ve got an extensive blitz package and we thought that we were controlling the line of scrimmage, the risk-reward side favored us taking the game into overtime,” said Cristobal, explaining why Miami ran the ball twice at the end instead of letting Williams drop back and take a shot downfield to try to get into range for a late field goal attempt.

Even after hearing his explanation, it’s hard to understand why a coach would be so conservative. But it worked out this time.

Williams was 10-of-16 for 31 yards and an interception in the first half. He had passes batted at the line of scrimmage. But he was much sharper and confident in the second half, completing 14-of-17 for 120 yards and a touchdown to Colbie Young.

What changed?

“Kind of getting more reps,” Williams said. “It moves at a different speed. When you play a great defense like Clemson, they play fast. The more times you get to have in-game reps, you get to settle down. That one tackle — that hurt. I can’t remember the last time I got tackled.”

Van Dyke is likely to be back in the lineup next weekend against Virginia. Cristobal said as much after the game, and people close to Van Dyke said his bruised body (knee, ribs) should be healed up to practice soon. But on an important night, Williams delivered exactly what the Canes needed — smart decision-making and few mistakes.

What’s next for these Canes?

There’s an outside shot they could still make it to Charlotte for the conference title game, especially after North Carolina was upset at home by Virginia, a three-touchdown underdog. Duke and Louisville each have one ACC loss. If Miami can run the table, including beating a top-five Florida State team on the road, this season would exceed any preseason expectation.

But for now, let’s let Cristobal and his team enjoy its first win over Clemson since 2010 and its first comeback from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter since 2012.

Let’s see if they can make it two ACC home wins in a row.

(Photo: Samuel Lewis / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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