The honeymoon phase is over, and the Hurricanes’ season is on the line. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but one thing is for sure: the team, specifically the offense, is struggling.
Back-to-back losses, including a head-scratching performance against the North Carolina Tar Heels, leaves Miami out of control in the ACC Coastal Division and fans wondering what exactly is going wrong.
The offense has taken a nosedive in production. After averaging 47 points in its first four games, the team has averaged 16 in the last two. Clearly the strength of the opponent was significantly higher with FSU and UNC, and that always plays a part, but there can’t be that much of a drop-off for one of the nation’s best football programs.
“Execution,” Head Coach Mark Richt said on what the team needs to do to improve its offense. “Catching the ball when it’s in your hands. Hitting a target when it’s open. Protecting your quarterback when you need to. Finding the right running lanes when the blocking is there.”
It all sounds so simple, but many of these fixes don’t come so easy. Junior quarterback Brad Kaaya has struggled mightily for the greater portion of the season, averaging just 228.8 yards per game and already has four interceptions, which is equal to the number of picks he threw in total all of last season. Part of that can be put on bad protection, receivers having a hard time getting open or dropping passes and even the play-calling. However, when it comes down to it, he is the face of the offense, and the blame falls on him when the team fails to score at least 20 points for the second game in a row.
“The whole point of emphasis this offseason was just getting people to do the right thing, all 11 guys,” Kaaya said. “We have to do the right thing when it matters – third down it matters, fourth down it matters, and it starts with me.”
The run game has slowed down as well. The team averaged 232.5 rushing yards in its first four games, but that has since dropped to an average of 100.5 in the last two.
“They have a tough defense,” sophomore running back Mark Walton said of North Carolina. “The lanes were very small. You just had to try to hit them very fast. I give credit to their defensive line.”
The defense had some issues against the Tar Heels, especially in the first half, but did hold the opposition scoreless in the second half, giving the Hurricanes a chance to come back from a 20-3 deficit.
“I honestly think we kind of started off slow,” sophomore defensive lineman RJ McIntosh said. “We got together in the locker room at halftime, and we just talked about it. We game planned. The coaches motivated us and we motivated each other, came out and played hard. That’s the difference.”
Miami showed some grit in the game on an impressive goal-line stand at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. North Carolina’s offense had made it to the Miami one-yard line and had four downs to punch it in for a score. The Canes stuffed the Tar Heels on each of those four plays, thus regaining offensive possession.
“The ball was six inches away and to stop them from that distance four times is something that now our guys understand that if we can eliminate plays, if you’re confident in your goal line defense, then you believe you can always hold somebody out of your end zone,” Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz said. “Certainly that’s a fantastic offense, to hold them to two touchdowns gives you a chance to win a football game. What they will be disappointed in is the things that got them down there along the way, which I think we can improve on.”
Diaz highlighted a problem with the defense that must improve if the team is going to defeat Virginia Tech on Thursday.
“Certainly the biggest disappointment of the game was our third down defense,” Diaz said. “I thought that was decisive in determining the outcome of the game, because too often we could not get the offense the football on short fields.”
Going into the game against the Hokies, the coaches know what needs to happen on offense as well.
“It’s about us being able to capitalize when opportunities are given to us,” Offensive Coordinator Thomas Brown said. “We have talent all over the field, but we have to be able to execute.”
Richt talked about how the team must be disciplined and cannot afford to shoot itself in the foot.
“There have been a couple of times that we didn’t get information signaled well enough, and we missed a couple of those here and there, which hurt,” Richt said. “You get some self-inflicted wounds here at times, whether we jump offside or have a hold or whatever it may be, so we can’t have the penalties.”
Miami is going to need to overcome the adversity of two straight losses quickly in order to win in a hostile Virginia Tech environment.
“I think with this fast of a turnaround, it’s hard for everybody to catch their breath a little bit – physically and mentally,” Richt said. “But Virginia Tech is going through the same thing. They’re coming off a loss which wasn’t exciting for them, and they have to turn around quick as well.”
Isaiah Kim-Martinez can be reached on Twitter at @isaiah5740