When Jacory Harris overthrew an open Tommy Streeter down the seam towards the end of Miami's last gasp drive in Blacksburg on Saturday, The Canes' chance of winning the game effectively ended, though it may not have been blatantly obvious at the time. But, by that point, it didn't really matter. Harris had done more than enough. His performance on Saturday— which most notably featured three touchdowns and zero interceptions— was, considering opponent and venue, probably the most impressive game of Harris' career, and thinking back to how he fared in Blacksburg in 2009, maybe the most unlikely.
The game followed a curiously similar script to Miami's previous two losses. After getting beaten thoroughly in the first quarter, the Canes offense went into halftime with the game within reach, before dramatically taking the lead in the fourth quarter and handing the game over to their defense with a simple message: Get off the field. And for the third time in three tries, the Miami defense could not secure a victory. It seems very likely, barring rapid progress, that the Canes' depleted defense is going to be a major liability for the rest of the season, if not the foreseeable future. The question, I guess, is this: Who is to blame?
The answer seems simple, but of course, it's not. For one, the Miami defense is dealing with issues beyond the control of any coaching staff. The most pertinent one is that the defensive line has been ravaged by injuries. Injuries to the defensive tackles in particular are so thorough and extensive that it's almost as if the entire position group got into a van and drove off of a cliff. And then, of course, there are the NCAA suspensions, which have robbed the defense of not just manpower, but maybe more crucially, continuity. Ray Ray Armstrong returned on Saturday and, well, it looked like he hadn't played football in 10 months. And though it could be argued that the previous regime should shoulder the blame for the suspensions, clearly the acts that led to them were the symptoms of a problem at UM that transcends any one coaching staff.
But it's difficult watching this defense, a unit that's almost completely comprised of players with no experience prior to this season or veterans playing out position, and not place a crushing amount of the blame on Randy Shannon and his staff. Whether Mark D'Onofrio or any of his position coaches can do their jobs at a high level in a BCS conference obviously remains to be seen, but it would be utterly unfair to judge them based on their work with a unit as ragged as this one.
D'Onofrio tried on Saturday— he tried blitzing, he tried not blitzing, he tried man coverage, he tried zone. There was a telling play in the third quarter, when on 3rd and seven, Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas completed a 12-yard pass to a wide open Danny Coale. Tech had two wide receivers to the far side, and they ran routes that crossed each other— the receiver closest to the sideline ran a square in, and the inside receiver ran an out route under him. D'Onofrio had actually called the perfect play, a simple zone scheme that would've prevented the defensive backs from picking each other off had they been trailing the receivers. But, Lee Chambers, who was lined up across from the outside receiver, and whose assignment on the play was to man the zone near the sideline, inexplicably followed the outside receiver across the middle of the field, thus leaving a completely wide open space for the inside receiver along the sideline. These are the types of things that happen when a team's depth at cornerback is so nonexistent that a fifth string running back must be moved there, where he finds himself in the two deep rotation.
The current Canes defense, as it stands now, has three consistently good players: LB Sean Spence, DT Micanor Regis and DE Anthony Chickilo, though we'll see how well the freshman holds up as the season progresses. That's three reliable players out of, say, sixteen that play in any given game. Clearly, that's a ratio that is going to lose you a lot of games. The hope has to be that players like Jimmy Gaines and Darius Smith and Denzel Perryman start to figure things out as the season goes along, putting them in good position for next season. Others, like Andrew Smith and Ray Ray Armstrong and Vaughn Telemaque (who found himself in a three safety rotation on Saturday), have little excuse for not being consistent, quality contributors.
The unfortunate part is not even necessarily that the defense is losing Miami games, though that's easy to say when you're not playing in them. All told, this wasn't a team that, after the NCAA suspensions, had much of a shot of competing for even an ACC title. The worst part is that the defense is spoiling what has surprisingly become one of the most enjoyable Miami offenses in years. Lamar Miller is arguably the best offensive player that UM has had in about ten years. It's been gratifying and fun to watch guys like Allen Hurns and Tommy Streeter and Clive Walford assert themselves in the offense. And although the story of Jacory Harris' career at Miami has pretty much already been written, he's morphed into a very good, if not dangerous quarterback, led by an offensive coordinator that understands his strengths.
The offense is going to put up enough points to win, and the defense is going make it very difficult for those points to hold up. Until further notice, there's no point in denying that. It's time to just get used to it.