The Miami Hurricanes are coming off the type of three-week run that can leave a football program questioning just about everything.
After a 7-0 start rooted in comeback wins and a heavy dose of overachieving, the first half of November has been a season-defining nightmare for Miami that won't seem to end.
Over the past 12 quarters, the Hurricanes defense has surrendered a mind-boggling 1,609 yards and 131 points in three straight losses. Even scarier was that Virginia Tech and Duke each tagged Miami harder than third-ranked Florida State—proof that confidence in Miami's defense has been further shaken with each setback.
How Miami got into this overall mess isn't nearly as confusing as to how it will find a way out. Head coach Al Golden inherited a squad that went 28-23 the previous four years and limped to a combined record of 13-11 the past two seasons.
Conditioning issues, a broken culture and a roster littered with entitled, underachieving players were just the beginning in Coral Gables. Toss in two-plus years of the NCAA's hovering presence, and the Hurricanes program has been fighting with one hand tied behind its back for entirely too long.
Some thrilling early-season wins, coupled with closure of an NCAA investigation (per Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com), had Miami flying high in September and October. Since then, however, there was the harsh reality of a 15-day span that served as a reminder as to just how steep a mountain the Hurricanes still have to climb.
D'Onofrio Still Missing the Mark?
To Hurricanes fans, defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio remains the face of everything wrong with Miami football.
A lack of talent and overall depth had plagued the defensive side of the ball before D'Onofrio even arrived at Miami, but the third-year coordinator's inability to baby-step the Hurricanes back to respectability remains a huge sticking point for his critics.
Ten games into this season, players appear lost, confused and out of position, while failing to execute basic fundamentals. Still, the losses aren't what necessarily have the spotlight on Golden and D'Onofrio—it's the lack of measurable progress.
Much has been made of the brotherly bond and working relationship that exists between Golden and D'Onofrio. Former teammates at Penn State and coaching compadres since reconnecting at Virginia in 2004, D'Onofrio followed Golden to Temple and then to Miami.
Their third year together at Miami is limping to a close, and while the Hurricanes could still mathematically finish at 10-3, the odds of that now seem slim based on injuries, a shattered team psyche and recent results.
Even with wins over Virginia, Pitt and a decent bowl opponent, winning three straight soon erase recent losses or mask the defensive issues that have since been revealed.
Canes Defense Experienced Late-1990s Shift
Butch Davis took over a Miami program knocking on the door of NCAA-inflicted probation in 1995. Between 1996 and 1998, the Hurricanes surrendered 31 total scholarships. Three-loss seasons became the new norm, while the 1997 squad bottomed out at 5-6.
The Hurricanes appeared to be on the mend in 1998, but fell, 66-13, at Syracuse in late November with a Big East title on the line. A week later, Miami managed to upset No. 2 UCLA behind a monster 299-yard rushing effort from Edgerrin James, but still surrendered 45 points and 670 total yards.
Although Miami beat North Carolina State, 46-23, in the Micron PC Bowl, the Hurricanes still surrendered a grand total of 1,068 yards and 111 points over their final three games, convincing Davis to part ways with fourth-year defensive coordinator Bill Miller.
"It was time to go in a different direction," Davis told the Associated Press. Miller understood and owned up to his shortcomings.
"We didn't play very well the last few games of the year, and I take full responsibility for it," Miller said. "The bottom line in this business is to produce, and it's my responsibility how we played."
Davis' decision to replace Miller caused the Miami head coach to embrace a more aggressive philosophy entering his fifth year as proven by his choice in replacing Miller.
Within a month, Chicago Bears defensive backs coach Greg Schiano was tapped as the Hurricanes' new defensive coordinator, ultimately playing a huge role in Miami's resurgence. Schiano, then 33 years old, talked about his coaching style, per HurricaneSports.com.
"Everyone wants to talk about the scheme, but the biggest thing we've talked about is consistency," Schiano said days before the 1999 Kickoff Classic. "We have to stop the run, win third down and come up with the deep ball when we have the opportunity."
In the same AP article, former Chicago Bears coach Dave Wannstedt made it clear that he approved of Davis' hiring of his former defensive assistant.
"Greg is probably as conscientious and smart as any young coach I've been around," Wannstedt said. "I don't know how much talent Miami has, but he'll get the most out of them."
Schiano proved his former boss correct right regarding the maximization of talent in Miami. The Hurricanes fielded the 16th-ranked overall defense in 1999, one season after Miller's unit had finished 62nd. Schiano also accomplished the step forward in a season when Miami faced No. 9 Ohio State, No. 2 Penn State, No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Virginia Tech—with the Seminoles and Hokies going on to reach the national championship game.
Davis gave Miller ample time to get Miami's defense on track, but things went from bad to worse as Year 4 wound down to prompt another change. Not only were the Hurricanes giving up too many yards and points, but Miami's defense simply lacked the aggressiveness that past UM squads had possessed.
Change Must Take Place One Way Or Another
Whether Golden's third season ends up being 7-5, 10-3 or somewhere in between, the Hurricanes' backslide is evident and must result in some form of modification.
Should Golden choose the Davis route by parting ways with a coordinator a few years into his regime, Miami would need to hire a proven commodity. Time is of the essence, as the Hurricanes are riding a 10-year down cycle. Another bad hire could be difficult to overcome—for Golden, as well as for "The U" as a program.
Jim Leavitt spent 13 years building something out of nothing at the University of South Florida. The former Bulls head coach was relieved of his duties in January 2010 for allegedly striking a player in a heated moment during halftime of a game the previous season. Leavitt took some time off, but was eventually hired by Jim Harbaugh in 2011 as the San Francisco 49ers linebackers coach.
Redemption stories are prevalent in sports. In due time, Leavitt will get the call to run a defense or head up another program. It's simply a matter of letting enough thing blows over in the wake of his scandal.
Leavitt is a great defensive mind, a solid recruiter and knows the ins and outs of running a program. Should the Canes opt for change, Leavitt could be to Golden what Schiano was to Davis back in the day—a defensive shot in the arm and a way to inject some life into the program.
While Leavitt going to Miami reeks of wishful thinking, a more plausible scenario could come in the form of an offseason overhaul for the Hurricanes defense.
Miami may scrap what isn't working, study what is and turn D'Onofrio loose as soon as the season ends. The Canes could set up some visits with powerhouse programs, hit the road, pick the brains of defensive gurus nationwide, bring that information back to Coral Gables and get busy implementing the information.
While coaching changes may or may not be in Miami's future this offseason, here's a cold, hard fact: If things don't turn around over the next couple years—especially on the defensive side of the ball—the Hurricanes will be replacing more than just a coordinator.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.com