Here is the longer version of my story running in Wednesday's paper
A week after playing so bad defensively at Nebraska that everyone in Mark D'Onofrio's meeting room probably deserved to be punished with push-ups, Hurricanes linebacker Denzel Perryman was doing them for fun last Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium.
Perryman dropped an interception in the fourth quarter and then dropped to the ground and gave his team 10. Refs flagged Perryman for unsportsmanlike conduct, but afterward he laughed about it.
"I've never seen a flag thrown for that," he said with a smile. "But it's alright."
Perryman and the Miami Hurricanes have been in a much better mood since redeeming themselves with a defensive-led 22-10 victory over defending Coastal Division champion Duke.
But is it safe to trust UM (3-2) has put its defensive mishaps permanently in the rear-view-mirror?
Can the Canes be trusted to avoid a relapse as they head to Atlanta Saturday night to take on unbeaten Georgia Tech (4-0)?
"You hope," D'Onofrio said Monday when asked if the 343 rushing yards 19th-ranked Nebraska (5-0) scorched the Hurricanes for was more of an aberration than the true identity of his defense (UM is ranked 14th in total defense, 19th in opposing passer efficiency and 46th in scoring defense).
"When we looked at the [Nebraska] tape we said, 'We're not far off. We just didn’t have a guy doing his job on every play,’” D’Onofrio continued. “You play a great back like that and you're not where you're supposed to be you can get exposed. So, I think the guys learned from that a lot. They focused in. I think the combination of that and the fact we didn't play very well last year against Duke -- I think the combination of the two -- got our focus where it needed to be, and the guys were locked in to execute and do their job. Hopefully it is a turning point and they'll see what we can do when we execute."
Although it was clear to many observers who watched Saturday's game that UM played more aggressively than it did at Nebraska (bringing safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, having cornerbacks play more press on Duke's receivers and setting the edge), both D'Onofrio and coach Al Golden said the only difference with UM's defense versus Duke was execution and energy, not scheme.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe and several of his players remarked after Saturday's game how physical the Hurricanes were on defense, how they played with a lot energy and did a great job tackling and making plays on the ball (UM had 10 pass breakups).
Saturday marked only the seventh time in 38 games under D'Onofrio the Hurricanes defense held an FBS opponent to under 300 yards of offense and fewer than 100 rushing yards.
Golden said UM’s defense was better, but said they've still got a long way to go. "I thought we played together," Golden said. "We executed. We communicated well. Our [mental errors] were down. Our explosives were down. I think the guys are starting to understand: it’s all or nothing.
"It’s all-in, everybody executing the correct technique, trusting their training, nobody on their own, and be a band of brothers. They saw in that game on Saturday night. When they weren’t, when they had a defect, we got exploited. That’s what college football is about. You can get exploited quickly. They’re just going to come after you with yards and [explosive] plays if you’re not all together."
Players like Perryman and linebacker Tyriq McCord say maintaining trust – where each player on UM’s defense sticks to their assignments and gaps, and doesn't come off them to try and make a play – is ultimately the key to the Hurricanes' defensive success in this scheme.
Of course, building that trust is what has been the hard part for Golden and D'Onofrio. Most of the players they recruit don't play with that approach growing up. Each of them is asked to be a playmaker, whether its Pop Warner or high school.
"Honestly, the way I played in high school I saw a gap and I shot it," Perryman said. "It really wasn't like you had a responsibility. You really just get to the ball. In high school, I could say I was pretty much playing off the d-lineman and stuff like that. As far as pass coverage wise, I just used to drop straight back.
"Here, it’s more organized. You've got to be accountable to your teammates, and your teammates have to trust you, and you have to trust your teammates to do their job. Just do your job and plays will come to you. That's hard for some guys until they learn it, trust it. Against Nebraska, all guys were doing was running around and trying to make plays."
"For the average person who goes into our meeting room, you'll think Coach D is talking French," McCord said. "But there's so much that goes on behind it you just have to understand it. Being in this defense three years, he does a real good job. A lot of the times he puts us in the right position, puts us in the right play. If he doesn't, he'll tell us, he'll own it."
Having trust will once again prove critical this week against the Yellow Jackets, whose triple option offense is averaging 36.3 points and 292 yards rushing a game behind speedy quarterback Justin Thomas.
The Hurricanes have won five in a row against Georgia Tech, but each of the past three years the Hurricanes have been giving up more and more yards on the ground to the Yellow Jackets. The last two games were shootouts.
“It’s a tricky offense,” Perryman said. “Guys have just got to be disciplined and be gap-sound. That’s what it all comes down to.”