As devastating as it was to get dominated in the second half by rival Florida State and lose Duke Johnson for the season in the process, the Hurricanes shifted their focus Monday and completely immersed themselves in preparing for Saturday's pivotal Coastal Division showdown with Virginia Tech.
"We have a lot to play for," UM coach Al Golden said. "We got a lot of season left. How we play here in the next four weeks will determine how much, what the stakes will be. It's real important we get back on the saddle given the team that's coming in, their tradition, what they've meant to this division and the challenge they pose."
The Hurricanes (7-1, 3-1 ACC) still control their destiny in the Coastal Division. But lose to the Hokies (6-3, 3-2) and the Hurricanes will need help to reach the ACC title game.
"It's still all in front of them," Golden said. "What they have to do is trust what we're telling them. Let them go through that process of growing and maturing and learning, just focusing on the details everyday and not focusing on everything else. Sometimes you get stung."
NEWS AND NOTES FROM MONDAY
> The No. 1 question on the minds of all Hurricanes fans has to be just how bad Duke Johnson's injury really is. A source inside UM told me Johnson's broken ankle is not nearly as bad as the one receiver Malcolm Lewis is still trying to completely recover from.
When asked if Johnson might be ready for spring ball, Golden appeared encouraged: "I think he'll be back sooner rather than later," he said. "We're going to try like heck to get him stronger, really work on his nutrition and his weight gain. I know Clinton Portis is one of the guys who talked to him about that. He's got to continue to get stronger, and he will."
> How will the Hurricanes handle not having Duke around? Offensive coordinator James Coley said replacing Johnson's production will involve a running back by committee approach. Still, expect to see Crawford handle the bulk of the carries with Clements coming in on third downs and Gus Edwards likely participating in special packages. Freshman Walter Tucker is simply taking more reps in practice in case any of those three go down.
Golden said the reason Edwards had not seen much work (one carry for no yards at North Carolina) since tallying 166 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries against Savannah State and USF four weeks ago is because Duke Johnson and Dallas Crawford "were holding his reps off."
"Gus is ready for this now," Golden said. "He's going to be in the mix and is definitely going to be carrying the ball for us on Saturday."
Golden said the offensive play-calling would not be scaled down with Johnson out and noted that the team's mental errors are down 50 percent from where they were a year ago "at this very date."
> Expect to see safety Deon Bush a lot more this week against Virginia Tech, which could lead to fewer minutes for senior AJ Highsmith, who despite making Miami's only sack Saturday didn't have a great game overall.
Defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio and Golden both came to Highsmith's defense Monday. Golden actually said Highsmith "played really well at FSU" and has done a great job "leading, getting us lined up."
"I know he'd like to have the one play back -- he's was probably one step away from intercepting the deep play [to Kelvin Benjamin] -- one of the few deep ones they got in the game," Golden said.
D'Onofrio said Highsmith didn't get the help he needed from the cornerback covering on that play (Ladarius Gunter) and noted Highsmith has "played played a lot of snaps without a mental error. Going into that game he was 250 snaps without making one mental error, which is hard to do, especially at that position."
Still, D'Onofrio conceded he'd like to have a more physical safety out there. Bush had four tackles and his first career college interception Saturday (his previous one came his junior year at Miami Columbus).
"It is the most he's played and the best he's looked so hopefully we can get him back to the confidence level he was playing with last year prior to the injuries he's had to deal with," D'Onofrio said.
"We need physical players back there. Your physical players in games like that have to make plays, they have to impose their will. You guys know who they are. You watch the games. The guys that are physical, that can cause fumbles, those guys have to show up and be physical. He's one of the guys that can do that. And we're going to need that from him."
Bush said Monday he still experiences some pain in his surgically repaired groin, but is feeling the best he has in a long time. He also dealt with neck/shoulder injury last year.
> D'Onofrio said his defense was obviously disappointed with giving up 41 points and more than 500 yards of offense to Florida State because they had a lot invested into Saturday's game. But the Hurricanes did enjoy some success against FSU quarterback Jameis Winston early, throwing a mix of man and zone coverages in with an occasional blitz, leading Winston holding onto the ball and to two interceptions.
The problem for UM was they couldn't get off the field on third down and let Winston escape the pocket a few times on third downs for first downs.
"That was disappointing," D'Onofrio said. "Our guys had an understanding of who was back there [Jameis Winston] and we just didn't make plays on him a couple times. We didn't have the vision we needed there. It's really a two-level deal. You have to keep him in the pocket, try to come clean and get a sack, and then have underneath defenders that have vision. Somebody needs to be a wrap player whose watching him if you're in man coverage and then all the underneath defenders need to watch him in zone. We just have to do a better job overall when you're dealing with a mobile quarterback like that."
The difference in the game, D'Onofrio said, was Florida State's ability to establish the run in the second half. Once the Seminoles went up by a couple scores Miami was simply playing catch-up.
> Against Virginia Tech's offense, the Hurricanes will have to try and contain a quarterback that has beaten them with his legs before.
Senior Logan Thomas ran 22 times for 124 yards and a touchdown last season against UM, but struggled throwing (19-37, 199 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs) in a 30-12 Canes win. A year earlier in Blacksburg as a sophomore, he lit UM up, finishing 23 of 25 for 310 yards and three touchdowns and running for 38 yards and two scores in a 38-35 win.
Defensive tackle Justin Renfow, who faced Thomas a few times when he played at Virginia, said its even more important this week for the Hurricanes defense to make sure they don't let the opposing quarterback escape the pocket.
"Logan Thomas is a good quarterback and I think think its even more important this week [to cut off running lanes," Renfrow said. "He's been a lot more run first. One look and if his first look is not there he's tucking and running. As a d-line we definitely have to corral him because he tries to run people over. The big guys up front need to be delivering the hit instead of leaving it like we did against Florida State for the corners and safeties to come up and do it."
> Golden made it seem Monday as though receiver Phillip Dorsett might be able to come back before the end of the regular season. "He is fighting like crazy to get back" Golden said. "We have to help him by continuing to play well."
A source said Dorsett had a clean tear in his MCL, which was helpful in his case, and was catching passes at Monday's practice. Still, it's more likely to believe Dorsett will be back for the ACC Championship game, assuming Miami makes it.