By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
The 'Canes struggle with run, kicking game and in red zone but dominate anyway.
MIAMI - They opened the season with two games that defied description, played in hostile arenas before fire-breathing fans, the outcome in doubt all the way to the end.
So Saturday's home opener for the Hurricanes was bound to be missing something, and maybe it started with all the empty seats in the Orange Bowl. An noon starting time and a lack of urgency likely contributed.
Not that anybody was complaining afterward.
The 12th-ranked Hurricanes got the victory they were after, a lackluster 23-3 effort over Colorado that, given the hysterics of the past few weeks, was probably just as well.
"You definitely worry about that," UM offensive tackle Eric Winston said. "Especially after all the crazy games we had. And Colorado is good. That was a good team we played out there. They're probably going to win the Big 12 North. I'm happy to win the game any way we can."
An announced crowd of 51,228 saw the Hurricanes improve to 2-1 against a Colorado team that figured to give them more trouble.
But the Buffaloes (2-1), who played in the Big 12 title game last season, sniffed the end zone just once, on their first series of the game. They needed just two plays to set up first and goal from the 7, then backed back up from there before one of the best kickers in the country, junior Mason Crosby, missed a 28-yard field goal.
It was the first time in Crosby's career he missed from inside 40 yards. He hit a 58-yarder in the fourth quarter to keep Colorado from being shut out, but by then the outcome was long decided.
"We were playing at home and they were not used to the heat," said receiver Darnell Jenkins, noting the heat index of 95 (compared to 65 degrees Saturday in Boulder). "We took advantage."
That was a welcome difference for the Hurricanes, who felt the heat in each of their past two games. On Sept. 5, they botched a field-goal attempt in the waning minutes and lost 10-7 at Florida State. On Sept. 17, UM saw Clemson score 10 in the final minutes before the Hurricanes prevailed in three overtimes.
This was not nearly as stressful. Clearwater's Jon Peattie kicked two field goals in the first half and sophomore quarterback Kyle Wright connected with Sinorice Moss for a 53-yard touchdown pass - the longest of his brief career - to give the Hurricanes a 13-0 halftime lead.
They extended it to 16-0 on Peattie's 33-yard field goal in the third quarter, and Wright ran in from 2 yards in the fourth.
"As a team, especially as an offense, we were faced with a lot of challenges in those first two games," said Wright, who threw for 264 yards, connecting on 20 of 39 passes. "And I think that we grew up really quick and matured."
One huge area of improvement was sacks. After Wright was sacked nine times at FSU and another five last weekend at Clemson, he wasn't brought down once by the Buffaloes.
The Hurricanes were aided by 16 Colorado penalties (two off the school record set in 1950) for 104 yards.
The UM offense also got a boost from two interceptions, one by Marcus Maxey, the other by Brandon Meriweather, both setting up field goals.
But there were plenty of problems to keep Wright from getting too confident and to keep coach Larry Coker fretting.
The Hurricanes struggled in the red zone, getting 29 yards in 19 plays inside the 20-yard line, and 15 of those yards came on one play. Added to the frustration of not getting to the end zone was Peattie missing field goals of 37 and 43 yards.
"One of my biggest concerns is our red zone offense," Coker said. "We won't get to be the kind of team we need to be kicking field goals."
The Hurricanes also had some difficulty on the ground, as tailback Tyrone Moss managed just 44 yards on 14 carries after carrying the Hurricanes against Clemson. Still, Moss and fullback Quadtrine Hill combined for 99 yards.
"We were coming off of two really tough games, and we didn't dominate either one," Hill said. "There was no way we could have a letdown out there. It was our goal to go out there and dominate them."
The Hurricanes did that on the scoreboard, if not everywhere else.
The good news is that after two difficult games to open the season, followed by an unexpected yawner, the Hurricanes hit the soft part of their schedule, starting next weekend with USF. UM will be heavily favored against the Bulls, the following weekend against Duke, then on the road at Temple.
Those games should not be much too watch, either.
Then again, UM would prefer it be that way.