Miami returners Stacy Coley and Artie Burns were in the doghouse after two huge special teams fumbles against Virginia Tech a week ago.
Saturday at Duke, the explosive wide receivers were both eventually knocked out of the game and sorely missed against the Blue Devils as injuries continue to take a toll on the Hurricanes in the latter half of the season.
An early 79-yard punt return by Coley helped Miami jump out to a 10-0 lead, but in a second straight shootout between these ACC foes, the Blue Devils pulled away late for a 48-30 victory as the Hurricanes simply didn't have the horses to hang.
Miami needed a strong start and got it. Stephen Morris was crisp early, while running backs Dallas Crawford and Gus Edwards did their best to effectively step in for the irreplaceable Duke Johnson.
The Hurricanes pushed the lead to 17-7 late in the first quarter and seemed destined to build a comfortable first-half lead when a deflected Morris pass was picked off by Deondre Singleton in Duke territory.
Six plays later, the Blue Devils pulled to within three. They eventually took a halftime lead and from there began Miami's slow fade into the dark Durham night.
Duke outscored Miami 27-10 in the second half behind a power running game that churned out 358 total yards.
Golden had this to say afterward, via the Associated Press (h/t ESPN), "We started well. We just aren't doing a good enough job of answering on defense."
The Hurricanes' undersized, undermanned defensive line was also unable to pressure quarterbacks Anthony Boone or Brandon Connette, each bringing a different dynamic and element to the Blue Devils' potent offense.
After a 7-0 start to the season, Miami has since dropped three straight. The Hurricanes overachieved early, but injuries and a lack of overall depth and talent has brought Al Golden's program back down to earth.
Miami's road to undefeated-through-October included three comeback wins against mid-level ACC foes—Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest—while an early upset of No. 12 Florida was the result of forced turnovers as the Hurricanes defense still surrendered over 400 yards.
Over the past three weeks, Miami has given up a grand total of 131 points and 1,609 yards—with Virginia Tech and Duke both outgaining what Florida State dropped on the Hurricanes three weeks back—which in itself is inexcusable, even with holes in the roster.
The X-factor for Miami since that initial loss of the season—key injuries taking their toll and forcing momentum to slip away.
The Hurricanes lost the dynamic Johnson to a broken ankle against the Seminoles, while the absence of Coley and Burns cast the inexperienced Corn Elder—a late addition to the 2013 recruiting class—into a bigger special teams role than expected.
The absence of Johnson's breakaway ability, coupled with the loss of deep-threat wide receiver Phillip Dorsett in mid-October at North Carolina, has crippled Miami's offensive production. Meanwhile, Morris' ankle injury suffered mid-September continues to nag the quarterback, seemingly on display anytime the senior is forced to run the football.
Last November, Johnson rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns at Duke, while Dorsett had a four-reception, 83-yard outing. A year later, the Hurricanes totaled 186 yards on the ground with four running backs, while the lack of a deep-threat receiver was sorely missed by Morris and Miami.
With the luster having since worn off the Hurricanes' unexpected 7-0 start, reality has set in and, fact is, the "The U" has a lot of catching up to do.
Miami was 13-11 under Golden the past two seasons, with the 116th-ranked defense in the nation. Prior to Golden's arrival, it was a 28-22 run over the previous four-year span on Randy Shannon's watch.
Toss in a hovering NCAA investigation that came to a close in October, coupled with three dozen players that departed the program over a three-year span—2010 to 2012—and a lack of depth and talent is as much to blame as overall game-planning and scheming.
While this year's goal of winning the Coastal Division and playing for an ACC Championship are long gone, there is good news for the Hurricanes—help is on the way.
Miami earned a verbal commit from 4-star defensive tackle Anthony Moten earlier this week, as well as 3-star wide receiver Tyre Brady, bringing next year's class total to 28.
Moten marks the eighth defensive line addition and fifth defensive tackle, joining 4-star standout Travonte Valentine, as well as 4-star defensive end Chad Thomas. Brady is the third receiver, joining a group that already includes highly coveted 4-star wideout Braxton Berrios.
While the "wait until next year" battle cry can sometimes be viewed as a sign of defeat, for Miami the influx in talent should prove to be a huge difference-maker.
A fast start to the 2013 season caused some wishful thinking for Hurricanes Nation, as a decade of subpar football can do that to just about any proud fanbase.
In all reality, the Hurricanes' biggest victories have already taken place, both with the NCAA case coming to a close and the recruiting trail continuing to heat up.
Miami didn't have enough to take care of business at Duke on Saturday, but based on the fact that their talent level is set to increase, the loss in Durham can be chalked up to a fluke, not a sign of things to come.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.
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