The Miami Hurricanes are unraveling defensively. There's no other way to put it after an eight-day span where UM surrendered 1,066 yards and 83 points in back-to-back outings.
As a result, defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio is understandably under fire. The Hurricanes defense finished the 2012 season ranked 116th of 120 Division I squads. A year older and wiser, D'Onofrio's bunch was expected to take a step forward. Based on the past two games, things look pretty much the same.
Miami's defensive issues were masked early this season. Florida Atlantic, Savannah State and South Florida helped pad the September stats, while an upset of No. 12 Florida was highlighted by some opportunistic play as the Hurricanes forced six turnovers.
Lost in the shuffle—the fact that the Gators still put up 413 total yards.
Head coach Al Golden was on the Joe Rose Show early Monday morning and broke down the recent loss to Virginia Tech.
The tackling wasn't very good. In terms of the game plan, we had to move away from our game plan. We were forced really to be more aggressive. We were forced to play a lot of calls that we didn't want to play, in terms of having a running quarterback. More importantly, they were allowed to keep it really simple and run the ball more and go with a naked game as opposed to having to sit in the pocket and throw balls. All those elements are a factor in that.
In terms of what the game plan was going in, now all of a sudden we got a mess on our hands because of three plays. Now it doesn't excuse the defense—we need a stop on one of those, we need a red zone stop. We need to have that mentality. We didn't have that in the game. We gotta be better on third down. Again, there are no excuses—and it's not just about Mark—it starts with me. It's Mark, it's the defensive staff, it's all the players on the defense making sure that we're in the right calls. We blew a couple of coverages, our tackling wasn't what it needed to be. Again, the whole game turned on those three plays.
While it's easy to focus on Miami's recent losses and to have a knee-jerk reaction regarding coaching staff changes, it's not productive or timely as three crucial games remain. The Hurricanes are 7-2 and have a good shot at a 10-win season, something this program hasn't accomplished since 2003.
To put Miami back on track defensively, here are five painfully obvious keys that D'Onofrio and the Hurricanes must embrace with Duke, Virginia and Pittsburgh on the docket:
1. Play Assignment Football
Coaches preach this every week, but for some reason it doesn't always translate come kickoff. Nerves, adrenaline or the simple desire to make a big play—something seems to take over. WQAM's Jon Linder tweeted postgame about Golden's frustration regarding practice effort and understanding versus game-day execution.
When players are where they're supposed to be, good things tend to happen. When defenders freelance, there are soft spots easier for offenses to exploit.
Miami's defense is lacking the playmakers of yesteryear. The secondary is definitely coming along with top-flight talent like Tracy Howard, Deon Bush and Rayshawn Jenkins, but the front seven is in dire need of improvement next season.
Denzel Perryman is currently the lone bright spot at linebacker, while the Hurricanes' defensive line is makeshift, lacks toughness and struggles to get penetration.
Defensively Miami is what it is and must work within its current parameters for the duration of this season. Sweeping changes can take place next yet, but the next three games are all about survival.
Freelancing is an option when the overall talent level is bumped up a few levels. Until then, sticking to assignments remains job No. 1.
2. Pressure the Quarterback
Miami spent the past few years making bad quarterbacks look good, while pretty good ones come off all-world against the Canes. This past weekend was another example of good-looking-great as Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas had a career day.
Thomas threw six interceptions the past two games but was turnover-free and passed for 366 yards and two touchdowns against Miami. Why? Because Hurricanes defenders couldn't get a hand on him all game, giving Thomas a lifetime to complete pass after pass.
Miami let Florida's Driskel throw it around for 291 yards earlier in the season. Since then, North Carolina's Bryn Renner had a 297-yard day, and Wake Forest's Tanner Price passed for 302 yards a week later. Before Thomas' big outing this past weekend, Florida State's Jameis Winston went for 325 yards.
The Hurricanes have tried multiple defensive options this year. Miami has rushed four, brought pressure, disguised blitzes, played zone, tried man to man and still remained one step behind.
Rattling a quarterback early is a key to forcing late-game mistakes. If Miami can't get in the heads of the Blue Devils quarterbacks, Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone, this Saturday in Durham, expect the Hurricanes to again make two decent passers look like Heisman finalists.
3. Find Early Success and Build Momentum
Miami's defense actually got off to a good start against Virginia Tech, but special teams mishaps put the Hurricanes in a huge hole. The Hokies first possession went 18 yards in five plays before a punt, while the second attempt was a quick three-and-out after a 3rd-and-long pass attempt fell incomplete.
The Hurricanes scored on their first offensive possession when wide receiver Stacy Coley took a short pass 81 yards for a touchdown.
Minutes later, Coley returned a punt 23 yards to midfield, fumbled and put the Hokies offense back on the field with new life. Soon after, Artie Burns coughed up a kickoff return near Coley's scene of the crime, followed by punter Pat O'Donnell inadvertently touching his knee to the ground, turning the ball over at the UM 17-yard line.
Miami got the start it needed both offensively and defensively but gave control back to Virginia Tech with three huge special teams setbacks in just under one quarter of play.
While the Hurricanes need to show up in all facets of the game, momentum starts with defensive stops. Miami's offense has been fragile as of late and cannot afford to get in another hole—especially on the road coming off two straight losses.
4. Make Necessary Halftime Adjustments
Miami trailed Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest at the half. The Hurricanes got off to slow starts offensively in all three games and came alive late. Still, the comeback wins were a result of defensive adjustments and shutting down the opposition, as much as overall offensive production.
Miami outscored Georgia Tech 28-13 in the second half. Against North Carolina, a 14-6 advantage while the Hurricanes outlasted Wake Forest, 14-3 in the third and fourth quarters.
The past two weeks Miami trailed Florida State 21-14 after two, while Virginia Tech led 28-14 at the halfway point this past weekend.
The Hurricanes missed some early third-quarter offensive opportunities against the Seminoles and were unable to stop the Florida State scoring machine in the eventual rout.
Against Virginia Tech, Miami got a defensive stop on the first possession and answered with a field goal, narrowing the gap. On the ensuing drive, a disastrous 3rd-and-12 play was marred with missed tackles and a fumble recovery in the end zone for a back-breaking touchdown.
Miami's offense needs to do its job in the third quarter in order to help set the late-game tone, but second-half defensive stops are the ultimate key to victory.
The Blue Devils have been a second-half team this season, outscoring Virginia 28-0 and North Carolina State 28-20 in the final two quarter. This is not a team that Miami wants to be forced to rally against late, putting extra pressure on the defense to get stops.
5. Stick to Fundamentals and Create Turnovers
Another suggestion that sounds painfully obvious, but when re-watching Miami and Virginia Tech, warrants mention.
Coley, Burns and O'Donnell were fundamentally un-sound on special teams, but a late first-quarter defensive flub was equally as detrimental.
Tied 7-7, Virginia Tech's Joshua Stanford was stripped by Tracy Howard after a 13-yard gain. Linebacker Jimmy Gaines missed a shot at a fumble recovery, while safety Rayshawn Jenkins committed the ultimate defensive sin—thinking end zone opposed to regaining possession.
Instead of jumping on the loose ball, Jenkins tried to pick it up and had it knocked away. The ball advanced eight yards, was recovered by the Hokies and with 1st-and-goal from the Miami 2-yard line, quickly turned into a touchdown.
Late in the third quarter, another blown opportunity as the Hurricanes didn't get a crucial 3rd-and-12 stop, down 28-17 at the time after narrowing the gap with a field goal.
Miami blitzed Thomas, no one picked up wide receiver Willie Byrn and the reception went 48 yards before Ladarius Gunter forced a fumble that the Hokies recovered in the end zone. Another opportunity lost in a game that had little margin for error from the onset.
Miami fumbled twice and turned it over on the failed punt attempt. Virginia Tech lost control of the ball three times but recovered every opportunity. The Hurricanes certainly didn't get any breaks, but the Hokies—always a fundamentally sound program—played turnover-free football in the rain. That was the ultimate difference in the upset win for Virginia Tech.
Assignment football, improved fundamentals and clamping down in the red zone are a must if Miami is going to bounce back against Duke, as well as Virginia and Pittsburgh.
The Hurricanes graded out at 79 percent regarding tackling, which doesn't cut it by D'Onofrio's standards, as reported by CaneSport.com (subscription required).
Our tackling percentage was the lowest it was all year, ball disruption percentage was the lowest percentage all year, and our finish grade was the lowest all year. Those are the three things we've preached from day one.
At the end of the day we have to tackle well, affect the ball and play really, really hard. If certain guys aren't going to play hard we have to get other guys in there.
Unfortunately for the Miami defense, there aren't too many "other guys" left.
With three games to play, this Hurricanes defense must work with what it has, putting more emphasis on tightening up, playing smart football and finding a way to persevere.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog