ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands -- University of Miami coach Randy Shannon said earlier this week it would likely take his defense about a quarter to get adjusted to the speed of Georgia Tech's Triple Option offense. He miscalculated. The Hurricanes never did.
And the result was one of the worst defensive nights in Canes' history. The Yellow Jackets ran through, around and past Miami Thursday night, shredding the Canes for 472 yards rushing in a 42-23 blowout victory that hurt badly. The most heartbreaking part for fans of the U is that the Canes had just returned to the national polls this week (for the first time since 2006) and were in position to punch their ticket to the ACC Title game. Now, the ranking is sure to be history and those hopes of reaching the conference title game will require a few lucky bounces to go UM's way.
While I'm interested in hearing what Shannon has to say tomorrow, I wanted to pass along my thoughts and observations and get your thoughts once U have been able to cool down.
> THE BIGGEST FAILURE: We all knew coming in Georgia Tech's triple option offense was not only one of the best in the country, but that it was going to be a major challenge for the Hurricanes to stop. While the lead story is that the Yellow Jackets piled up the second-most yards allowed on the ground all-time by a UM team (Auburn had 536 rushing yards in 1944), they basically did it with a rag-tag group of guys. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt wasn't even close to 100 percent, yet still torched the Canes. Jonathan Dwyer, who didn't even play in the second half, had 128 yards on 10 carries. ESPN's announcers said before the game the Yellow Jackets were already thin along their line and in the second quarter put in a former running back who weighed all of 254 pounds.
Defensive line coach Clint Hurtt told me earlier this week Shannon first began throwing the triple option at the defense during Miami's bye-week two weeks ago. But it's obvious the Canes were completely fooled by it. Romeo Davis was completely out of position on the big runs up the middle. And Miami's cornerbacks never really got into help. What I'm trying to decide in my head is what this really says about UM's defense. Before the blowout loss Thursday, Miami had been doing a pretty good job stopping the run since they got lit up by Florida State. In three of their five wins, UM had held their opponents to 78 yards or less on the ground. I think what Thursday's loss showed us was just how much this team needs the right kind of matchup to win games on defense. When Miami faces option running quarterbacks, it struggles, especially sticking to assignments. Thursday was quite literally the worst kind of matchup for Miami because it had to guard against four guys running the football on each play. That's too much for an overachieving linebacking corps (who has one real star in Sean Spence) that sorely misses Colin McCarthy.
> THE BIGGEST CRITICISM: Offensive coordinator Patrick Nix has long been under the gun here for his playcalling -- much like any offesive coordinator in the country who isn't winning or scoring 50 points. I've been 50-50 on Nix during his time here because I thought he's done some really good things and some really bad things with this offense. But nothing has been worse in my eyes than a few decisions he made Thursday. There were at handful of plays when Miami had 3rd down and 2 yards or less. And each time, he lined up his quarterback in the shotgun. While I understand Georgia Tech's front four could be one of the best in the country and obviously did a great job shutting down Miami's running game Thursday, I find it disturbing Nix left all the pressure on his quarterbacks to make tough plays on those downs. He's preached -- along with Shannon -- that wouldn't be the case.
But ultimately, what bothers me most about what Nix has done this season is this: in 11 games he still hasn't been able to figure out what offense he wants UM to be. Each week, it's a different look. One week, its Marve and Harris running sprint option against Wake Forest. The next, it's five wide, spread it out against Virginia Tech. We were told at the start, this was going to be a team in which Javarris James and Graig Cooper were going to carry the load. We were told the strength of the team was the offensive line. What is Miami's offensive identity? Honestly, I couldn't tell you.
> THE HOT TOPIC - QUARTERBACKS: Speaking of the quarterbacks, the final stats will tell you Jacory Harris (13-18, 162, 2 TDs, 1 INT) had a better night than Robert Marve (10-20, 121 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT). And while it's a fact Harris picked up most of those stats in garbage time when the game had already been decided, he once again looked like the more cool, calm passer in the pocket. While Marve made some amazing plays, avoiding sacks and then finding receivers downfield, it always seems to me when Marve is in the game Miami's offense as a whole feels flushed, frenetic and frustrated. Maybe it's just me, but everytime Harris is in there, he just looks a lot cooler, calmer and commanding than Marve. I highly doubt Shannon will go back on his word this coming week and start Harris in front of Marve in Miami's regular season final at N.C. State. But I've at least seen enough through 11 games to know who I like better as Miami's quarterback.
> THE Z-FACTOR -- MISSING BENJAMIN: Miami didn't lose Thursday because it lost Travis Benjamin (again) to an ankle injury (again) in the first quarter. But there's no doubt this team has missed Benjamin's presence on the field. Those long, uplifting, get the team excited returns Benjamin used to provide aren't happening anymore and the explosive receiver opponents were forced to cover because of his speed is also gone. That's hurting Miami much worse than U think. Benjamin is a special player. And when he's around, he makes his teammates better.
> THE BOTTOMLINE: The ultimate feeling I got when the 41-23 beatdown came to an end was this -- this UM football team is good, but not as good as that five-game winning streak and all that ACC title talk made us believe. Don't get me wrong, what Randy Shannon has accomplished this season with a group of young freshman and sophomores deserves credit. Most experts figured Miami would be 4-7 now and not 7-4. It's found some amazing leaders for the future, guys who can make this team very good in years to come. But this football team -- the one playing in 2008 -- has simply been a product of overachievement.
Here's what UM's success this season has been built on: an amazing season out of Matt Bosher (UM doesn't beat Virginia Tech or Wake Forest without him); much faster returns from its receivers and quarterbacks than was expected (UM doesn't come back to beat Virginia and Duke without Jacory Harris, Aldarius Johnson and company); and a pretty good coaching job by defensive coordinator Bill Young (who worked wonders for five weeks turning what had been a bad defense into one that did enough to win some tough games against decent ACC competition).
But there are still some rather large holes on this team that have just been covered up by overachievement. Miami's offensive line sorely needs at least another two to three more Jason Foxes (they've been getting away with project guys like Chris Rutledge for too long). The secondary needs major work -- especially at corner and free safety (Bruce Johnson is a great guy, not a great corner). The defensive tackles -- the young guys who are good and not the older overachievers -- still need to grow up (Joe Joseph, Dwayne Hendricks are average at best). Ditto for the linebackers (the Arthur Browns, Ramon Buchanon and Jordan Futche's on this team). Thursday night was a tough, humbling experience for Miami's young football team. But really, it should have also been for U too.