There are plenty of reasons to feel good about the way the season has started for the Hurricanes offense:
> UM ranks 20th in scoring (41.7 points per game), 36th in total offense (472.0) and is tied for 11th in fewest turnovers (two).
> The Canes' young offensive line has allowed only three sacks (tied for 23rd fewest) and seven tackles for loss, tied for the fewest in the country with Toledo, Texas Tech, LSU and Navy. Left tackle Trevor Darling has given up two of those sacks.
> Quarterback Brad Kaaya ranks 50th in QB rating (145.53), is completing 61.4 percent of his passes and has thrown a touchdown pass in 16 consecutive games dating back to last year. He's thrown five touchdowns compared to just one interception.
Maybe the biggest reason to be excited: sophomore running back Joe Yearby has proven in his first three games as the starter to be just as explosive a weapon as Duke Johnson was.
Yearby is averaging 7.59 yards per carry, which ranks 10th in college football among players with at least 30 carries. He's averaging 10.3 carries per game and is pretty fresh after just a few games.
Last year, Johnson averaged 6.83 yards per carry and averaged 18.6 carries a game.
It's not just the running game where Yearby has been effective. Of the 99 players in the country with at least 42 touches from scrimmage, Yearby's 9.0 average per touch ranks second only to Georgia Southern's Matt Breida (9.8 yards per touch).
Last year, Duke finished 19th in touches (280) and tied for third in yards per touch (7.4) among the top 100 players nationally in plays from scrimmage. Only Toledo's Kareem Hunt (7.8) and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (7.6) averaged more.
Can Yearby handle more of a workload? We'll find out in the coming weeks. But with freshman Mark Walton having less success running the ball (4.43 yards per carry), the Hurricanes might not have much of a choice. Walton said after the FAU game he was having trouble finding holes and creases as easily as he would like.
THIRD DOWN/RED ZONE BLUES
As encouraging as all of those starts are, we know the struggles the Hurricanes have had on third down and in the red zone could come back to haunt them as the season progresses and the schedule gets tougher.
UM's third down woes are nothing new. They struggled on third down last year, too. Right now, the Canes rank next-to-last in converting (9 of 38, 23.68) among 128 FBS programs.
Even if you believe the idea that strategically the Canes are using third down simply as a setup for fourth down on certain parts of the field, UM is converting just 14 of 43 on what Golden refers to as "money downs." That's a 32.5 conversion percentage. That's not good to begin with, but even more troubling when you consider that happened against Bethune-Cookman, FAU and Nebraska, three of the worst defensive teams in the country.
Overall, UM hasn't had to face third down very much because they've been exceptional on first and second down. But against better competition you have to convert. The Cares are tied with Oregon, Florida State and Nebraska for having faced the 35th fewest. Each of those other teams, though, are converting at 36 percent or better.
It isn't just third and long the Canes are struggling in. UM has been in 3rd-and-3 or less 12 times. Coordinator James Coley has called for the run and pass evenly (six times each) and his offense has converted just three times (once passing, twice running) overall.
Last year, UM had 3rd-and-3 or less 52 times and converted at 50 percent running the ball (17 of 34) and 47.3 percent (9 of 19) when they decided to pass it. Gus Edwards ran it 12 times in those situations and picked up five first downs. Duke picked up first downs 11 of the 16 times he ran it in those situations. Yearby ran it three times in third-and-short and didn't pick up a first down.
Having a healthy Edwards would probably make things easier for UM's offense in short yardage situations. So far, Trayone Gray hasn't gotten many opportunities to fill Edwards' shoes. Might we see that in the coming weeks? Maybe.
Kaaya, meanwhile, is 9 of 27 on third down (33.3 percent), the second-lowest completion percentage of any of the top 100 quarterbacks in the country with at least 14 pass attempts on third down. Only Kent State's Colin Reardon (6 of 21, 28.6 percent) is worse.
The staggering part of Kaaya's struggles is the fact that he simply can't connect with his veteran receivers on third down.
Fifth-year senior Rashawn Scott has been targeted a team-leading six times on third down and has only catch for nine yards -- when he fell a yard short of the marker against Nebraska and UM ended up settling for a field goal. Herb Waters is next on the list with five targets on third down and he doesn't have a single catch. Fourth-year junior Malcolm Lewis has been targeted twice on third without a catch as well.
Meanwhile, sophomore Tyre Brady (2 targets) and freshman Lawrence Cager (1 target) have two first downs on money downs between them, both came through with big catches against Nebraska.
Where Kaaya has had most of his success on money downs is checking down to his running backs and tight ends. Walton (3 targets) and Yearby (3 targets including a fourth down catch) have converted on money downs four of the six times they've been targeted out of the backfield.
Standish Dobard has been targeted four times on money downs, he's cashed in once for a first down on third down and a touchdown on fourth down, both against Bethune-Cookman.
Last year, UM wasn't great on third down either. But at least Kaaya was connecting with his receivers on third down. He was 57 of 99 on third down (57.6) and produced 35 first downs in those situations.
Kaaya certainly misses his go-to receivers from last year. A look at the numbers on third down last year shows Phillip Dorsett had 12 catches including nine first downs (1 catch, 1 first down on 4th down) on third down. Clive Walford had 10 catches for eight first downs (1 catch, 1 first down on 4th down) and Duke Johnson had 14 catches for six first downs (5 catches, 3 first downs on 4th down) on third down.
If there's a reason for hope its the potential return of slot receiver Braxton Berrios. Last year, Barrios had five catches for 53 yards and five first downs on third down. He also had three catches for 33 yards and two first downs on fourth down.
The Hurricanes rank second nationally with 21 trips in the red zone, but they've gotten into the end zone only 10 times on those trip. That 47.62 touchdown percentage ranks 108th nationally. Last year the Canes ranked 105th (51.06 touchdown percentage).
Last Saturday against Nebraska UM was up 14-0 and about to go up three touchdowns when they had a first-and-goal situation at the Cornhuskers 3. But back-to-back runs by Walton netted just one yard before a false start penalty by left guard Alex Gall on third and goal moved the ball back to the six. UM ended up settling for a field goal when Kaaya failed to connect with David Njoku in the end zone on third down.
Had UM scored a touchdown in that situation or a couple of others when they were in the red zone they wouldn't have needed overtime to survive against Nebraska.
Running the ball better in the red zone would help. UM is averaging only 2.75 yards per carry in the red zone compared to 6.75 yards when they line up on the rest of the field. UM has run it 32 times in the red zone and thrown it 28 times. The Canes are 12 of 28 inside their opponents 20 (42.9 percent) passing compared to 52 of 79 (65.9 percent) when the line of scrimmage is outside the red zone.
So, the shorter field ultimately means bad results for the offense. That's something Coley and Kaaya have to address.