In a season which almost never was, if one were to believe the media hysteria surrounding the University of Miami after Yahoo’s reports of alleged NCAA infractions, the realities of missed opportunities have begun to set in. As the Hurricanes take on North Carolina this Saturday in Chapel Hill, they do so with a losing record (2-3, 0-2 ACC) and the knowledge that all three losses were much theirs for the taking.
“It hurts,” said quarterback Jacory Harris, recalling the three one-score losses this season. “I’m tired of always falling short and that’s how it’s always been since we’ve been here. But we’ll keep grinding and keep fighting.”
Offensively, Harris currently ranks 10th overall in the FBS for passing efficiency, due largely to better decision-making and relying on offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch’s system that doesn’t rely solely upon forcing the ball downfield.
And whether or not Harris’ improvements in the passing game have created opportunities for the running game or vice versa, their combined production lands Miami the ACC’s top-ranked rusher, sophomore Lamar Miller, and puts Harris second overall in pass efficiency. Miller, averaging over 135 yards per game, has topped the century mark in each game this season.
The Canes’ shortcomings this season are apparent, but lie in places recent history would not suggest.
“The challenge for the offense right now is to win the game,” head coach Al Golden said. “We didn’t win it against Kansas State and we didn’t win it [against Virginia Tech]. The offense needs to be the strength. If we’re in a situation where the offense can win the game, the offense needs to start winning the game, because we all know we’re not where we need to be on defense.”
Golden, often visibly and admittedly frustrated with his defense’s inability to create turnovers or stop the run – second-worst in conference for each category – must again rely on a patchwork defense to contain Tar Heel running back Giovani Bernard. The freshman tailback currently ranks third in the ACC for rushing, averaging 106 yards per game.
“Given what we have, we have to do a better job stopping the run or we’re going to continue to lose in the fashion we did Saturday,” Golden said. “We have enough talent if everybody plays the same defense, the same call and we play as a unit. When we play as a unit, we’ll be okay. Will we be dominant? No.”
These defensive struggles, cited by all who watch Miami play, are not lost on any of its members either. Senior linebacker Sean Spence, the unit’s leader both emotionally and in tackles, needs to rely on all of his teammates to solve the issue.
“It’s little things, like guys not being in their gap,” Spence said. “We have a gap-control defense and if one guy gets out of their [assignment], the ball will find it. All it takes is one guy to get out of their gap and it makes the whole defense look bad. We just have to take it upon ourselves as players and do our jobs.”
Implementing new schemes and strategies to players sometimes engrained with four years worth of contradicting coaching can be a challenge for any new staff, but especially one that continues to rotate new players into the game due to sheer necessity. Season-ending injuries to players such as linebacker Ramon Buchanon and defensive tackle Marcus Forston, combined with the offseason suspensions of four different defensive starters, made the defensive combinations on the field seemingly infinite. And in response, Golden and defensive coordinator Mark D’ Onofrio have severely scaled back the playbook in hopes to counter these difficulties. The intent is clear, but its effectiveness is yet to be seen.
“It’s as simple as it can be right now,” Golden said. “For us to operate at 100 percent right now on defense, we can’t install 100 percent. That’s a function of not only being in a transition year, that’s a function of playing young guys, and also a function of playing 28, 29 guys on defense. There isn’t a lot of consistency.”