As promised, here is my strictly football follow-up to the FIU game and a look ahead with keys to victory/the keys to real progress for UM against Duke on Saturday.
Let's start off by reviewing the UM performance against FIU. Again, unlike other blogs where writers may take a look at what UM must accomplish to win a particular game, keep in mind the keys/goals I've set since the Louisville game have been with an eye on how UM must show improvement to pass its bigger tests -- at Georgia Tech next week and at home versus Virginia Tech the week after. In other words, if UM passes these tests, I feel they really show they're ready to give Georgia Tech and V-Tech a challenge.
With that, I'll begin by revisiting the goals I set for UM against FIU.
1. PROTECT KYLE WRIGHT AND THE FOOTBALL (No more than 2 sacks allowed): PASSED (Barely). After being sacked only once against Houston and North Carolina, quarterback Kyle Wright found himself running for his life in the first half against FIU. Javarris James had a first half fumble, but in all-in-all you have to say UM is protecting the ball better. Only one turnover in its last eight quarters. And Kyle Wright hasn't been picked off since the first half against Houston.
2. KEEP PLAYING STELLAR ON 'D' (Allow no more than 300 yards total offense, 14 points and produce at least 2 turnovers): PASSED. UM held FIU to 114 yards total offense and recorded its first shutout since beating Louisiana Tech 48-0 in 2004. The Hurricanes also had two first half interceptions and produced a fumble that led to a touchdown in the third. FIU's offense wasn't much of a test, but you got to give the Hurricanes D credit for continuing to show it can put the offense in situations to succeed. Kenny Phillips interception in the end zone in the first quarter was a big play and stopped FIU from getting its only points after James fumbled inside UM's 30.
3. KEEP RUNNING STRONG (Run for 175 yards, 2 TDs and get at least 50 yards from somebody other than Javarris James): FAILED. Canes only ran for 90 yards against FIU and scored its only rushing touchdown in garbage time when it was already 28-0. The bad sign was that when James, who fumbled, struggled, Miami proved it really couldn't run with anyone else. James finished with 36 yards on 11 attempts and while Tyrone Moss made a return, he finished third on the team with 24 yards on 10 carries. Not exactly the kind of stuff that proves UM's running game is successful unless James is running strong.
4. SUSTAIN MORE THAN ONE LONG SCORING DRIVE AND PUNT LESS THAN FOUR TIMES: FAILED. Despite having great field position throughout the game, UM's offense proved yet again it could not sustain a scoring drive longer than 39 yards when the game was still in doubt. UM punted four times in the game, but was turned away inside the FIU 6 in the first quarter and missed a field goal on the only meaningful offensive drive, a 9-play, 55-yarder that ended with Jon Peattie going wide left. All three of UM's first three touchdowns came because the defense or special teams put them in great field position. The first two touchdown drives began at the FIU 39 after a bad punt and a blocked punt and the third TD drive began at the FIU 15 after UM recovered a fumble.
5. FIND THE RECEIVERS AND PRODUCE (AT LEAST 10 RECEIVER RECEPTIONS, 1 TD CATCH): PASSED. Wright completed 14 of 22 for 117 yards and three TDs and his receivers -- Lance Leggett and Sam Shields -- both had big days. Leggett caught 7 passes for 77 yards and two scores and Shields caught 6 passes for 88 yards. It was nice to see both become involved in the passing game. But something to take note of here is that Greg Olsen was out with a concussion and didn't catch a single pass. You can look at that two ways, Wright was forced to find his receivers and two, it made it even tougher without Olsen in the middle and credit should be given to Wright for what he accomplished. Either way, there were still a few drops. Leggett had one and Khalil Jones had another.
6. GET A BIG PLAY FROM SPECIAL TEAMS (Blocked kick, big return, something): PASSED. After spending most of the season in a comatose state, the special teams final broke through with its biggest play of the season when freshman linebacker Colin McCarthy blocked an FIU punt that led to UM's second touchdown. That was an encouraging sign as was the punt returning of Rashaun Jones, who fielded two and returned them for a total of 37 yards. The bad sign? Peattie missing yet another field goal. After "correcting his mistakes" against North Carolina and going 2-for-2 against the Tar Heels, Peattie missed his only chance from 43 yards. Hate to say it, but Peattie's inconsistency is probably going to end up costing UM somewhere down the road.
OVERALL GRADE: B-. Individually, the defense gets an A; special teams gets a B; running game gets a D; and the passing game gets a B. As much as FIU can beat its chest for being in the game through the first half, I thought UM would struggle in the first half against FIU's defense anyway. What was encouraging to see was that for the second straight week UM's offense found the end zone before the half, the defense dominated for four quarters and the special teams came through with a big play. What was disheartening was Peattie's missed field goal and the struggling running game. Bottomline, UM showed some improvement, but still likely not enough to win a tough road game at G-Tech.
With that, let's look ahead to Duke. Don't kid yourself. The Blue Devils are a bad team. Obviously, the suspension of 13 players hurts UM's depth. But Duke makes so many mistakes on its own, UM should be able to survive this game easily. Besides, there are only five real starters who are out -- Brandon Meriweather, Derrick Morse, Brian Monroe, Jon Beason and Greg Olsen.
With that said, UM still needs to be able to show it can win a game like this the way it should, because it has superior talent. With Georgia Tech on the schedule next week, the Hurricanes need to continue to play strong defensively and the offense needs to prove it can run the football again with its final tune-up for the Yellow Jackets.
1. KEEP CHASING DOWN THE QUARTERBACK AND CREATING TURNOVERS (A minimum of five sacks and three turnovers created): Now that the defensive line has begun not only stopping the run, but getting to the quarterback on a regular basis, UM needs to prove this week it can remain consistent against inferior opponents. Duke has given up 26 sacks this season (4.3 a game) and has a freshman quarterback in Thaddeus Lewis who has really struggled in all but one of his starts, when he put up 305 yards and a touchdown in a 14-13 loss to Wake Forest. With five defensive backs out and a six-man rotation in the secondary, UM needs its pass rush to be effective so corners and safeties aren't running around all day. If that happens, they'll continue giving their offense good field position. Look for Calais Campbell to continue to play well.
2. RE-ESTABLISH THE RUN AND DRIVE THE FOOTBALL (Eclipse 120 yards on the ground and get Javarris James back on track with at least 75 of them; also establish at least one long scoring drive): Duke's run defense isn't half bad. The Blue Devils Run D actually ranks 35th nationally (110 ypg). But with how inconsistent UM's passing game has been this season and with Olsen likely out for this game (still bothered by the concussion), UM needs to reestablish it can run the football, even against tough run D's. Besides, if the Canes can't run against Duke, how are they going to run against a Yellow Jackets run defense that ranks 7th nationally and only gives up 71 yards a game on the ground? They got to get rolling at Duke.
3. HAVE A BREAKOUT PASSING GAME (Eclipse 275 yards passing and throw at least two TDs): Aside from All-ACC corner John Talley, Duke's pass defense lacks real talent and has looked porous this season. The Blue Devils rank next to last in the conference in Pass D and give up an average of 226.5 yards a game. For Wright, who finally connected with his receivers, its important to continue to show he and his receivers are on the same page. With Olsen likely out and UM playing likely without an H-Back, Wright will get a chance to show he can throw in four-receiver sets. I've noticed all season he's struggled throwing the ball downfield. If he's going to be able to do that against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, he needs to prove he can do it against lowly Duke.
4. PLAY SOUND ON SPECIAL TEAMS (Create another big play *return or block, and stay away from special teams mistakes): The real losses of the suspensions come on special teams for the Canes who lost a lot of guys who had important roles. Daren Daly will start at punter for Brian Monroe and must make sure to continue to provide solid field position for the Hurricanes. More importantly, though, Peattie has to get back on track with his kicks. If he struggles again, it's going to be hard to have confidence in him should UM need a big kick in one of its next few games.
My prediction: Miami 37, Duke 6. Vegas has the line at 17 1/2. But I think UM will bounce back from its suspensions and continue to play strong on defense even without Beason and Meriweather. Duke is a team that has killed itself with turnovers and UM's defense should be able to put enough pressure on Lewis to create plenty of turnovers on Saturday, giving Wright and the offense enough chances to collect big points. I think this is the game UM finally shows from start to finish it is capable of dominating the teams it is supposed to. Wright will be the offensive MVP with over 250 yards passing and three TDs and Calais Campbell will have two sacks and a forced fumble.