Miami Football: Why Canes Need to Let Stephen Morris Loose vs. Savannah State
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
The month of September was a one-game season for Miami with two vastly different scenarios. Life after a win over Florida, or a familiar regrouping process that would've come in the wake of another early-season loss.
Third-year head coach Al Golden needed a signature win and finally got one when the Hurricanes survived the Gators, 21-16, in Week 2. Miami started fast, took the early lead and from there bobbed and weaved its way to the upset.
The defense made headlines, creating turnovers, while the lack of offense has caused a different kind of stir.
First-year offensive coordinator James Coley has only manufactured 55 points in two games, while senior quarterback Stephen Morris doesn't quite look like the gunslinger he was a year ago, which has some sounding the alarm.
Morris threw for 3,345 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior but has only put together a few serviceable performances after two games this season.
The Hurricanes' offense was expected to be the strength of this 2013 team, and while there's a lot of football left to play, something has to give in the next two weeks before conference play kicks off. Miami hosts Savannah State this Saturday and travels to South Florida next weekend. From that point on the schedule tightens up, and there's little margin for Coastal Division error.
With ACC play soon underway, UM only has remaining eight quarters of football to work out some serious offensive kinks, and that won't happen until the Morris of old returns.
Last year's 7-5 campaign was highlighted by some Morris-fueled comebacks. A 436-yard performance in an overtime win at Georgia Tech was followed by an ACC-record 566-yard outing against North Carolina State the following week.
Miami suffered a midseason slump, but Morris closed strong, completing a combined 36 passes for 782 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in November wins over South Florida and Duke.
Sitting out an ACC Championship game and postseason bowl appearance put Morris and Miami on the shelf a month longer than most programs, but is that the real reason for the sluggish start?
The explanation could be more clear cut and three-fold; a new offensive coordinator, a defensive-minded, quality opponent early on, as well as some good old-fashioned rust.
The Hurricanes must now carefully shake off some cobwebs without showing too much. The next two foes appear easy to tame, but Georgia Tech (October 5) and North Carolina (October 17) are two critical ACC showdowns that could help decide the Coastal Division.
Regardless of how much Coley chooses to display the next two weeks, it has to be back to basics and playing to Morris' strengths the way former coordinator Jedd Fisch did last season.
When Morris has been at his best, it's been because of a combination of things.
For starters, a solid ground game sets the tone. The comeback against Georgia Tech began with Miami's commitment to run the ball. True freshman Duke Johnson showed some sizzle, but the comeback was rooted in senior running back Mike James pounding out the tough yards.
The one-two punch on the ground forced the Yellow Jackets to respect the run, which opened up more aspects of the passing game.
Fisch called a lot of hot routes and short routes in the final quarter. This got the ball out of Morris' hands quickly and took advantage of Miami's speed at the skill positions. Wide receiver Davon Johnson had a monster second half for the Hurricanes, pulling in five receptions between 17 and 22 yards, helping move the chains, forcing overtime and eventually securing the win in Atlanta.
Throwing the ball into the flats, most often to a running back, was another way Miami kept momentum and added another wrinkle. With linebackers and defensive backs dropping back into coverage, the dump-off, or quick slant, bought many a Miami playmaker some time and space and kept the offense on the field.
Fisch also made a point to use Morris' legs, either rolling him out and allowing him to throw on the run or letting him tuck and run. Morris is one of the stronger-armed quarterbacks in the game and has the velocity to get the ball into tight spots, whether dropping back or in motion.
The deep ball was also there more often for Miami in 2012 as a result of all the different offensive looks and more overall success.
In six games last season, Morris' longest pass was 50 yards or more. In a two-game span against Georgia Tech and North Carolina State alone there were touchdown passes of 65, 76 and 62 yards.
Savannah State and South Florida aren't games where Miami needs to blow open the offensive playbook, but helping Morris find his rhythm is certainly key, as is getting receivers and running backs in position for more yards after the catch.
Miami's rushing attack needs a second threat, too. Johnson is arguably one of the best in the game, but fresh legs and a bigger-bodied back must be available this season to wear opposing defenses down.
Gus Edwards had a few carries against Florida Atlantic but was shelved in the showdown against Florida.
The 6'2", 225-pound true freshman must get his feet wet the next two weeks, giving the Hurricanes that "thunder and lightning" type of ground game they had last season with Johnson and James. Dallas Crawford doesn't have the size, and Eduardo Clements is coming off a neck injury and lacks the durability. Edwards is a big back with solid moves, and it's time to break him in properly.
The purpose of taking on a Savannah State in late September is to get an easy win, but a close second is fine-tuning both sides of the ball before conference play gets underway.
The defense came alive against Florida. Now it's time for Morris and the offense to find their rhythm and get game-ready for the formidable foes coming up in October.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog
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