It’s unarguable that the Canes are having their best season in some time. They’re undefeated and in the top 10 for the first time since 2013. They’ve finally beaten Florida State after 7 straight years of misery. They’ve topped ACC Coastal nemesis Georgia Tech. There is plenty to celebrate here in “Canesland”.
Yet, anyone that’s been watching the games closely knows there seems to be something missing, but you can’t quite put your finger on why. It’s true: Miami isn’t consistent, on either side of the ball, for all four quarters.
So, that begs the questions: is this as good as it gets from this year’s Canes? Are we doomed to having to hold our breath in every 4th quarter? Have we seen the best this team has to offer in 2017?
My opinion? No, I don’t think we have. Even at 6-0, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Miami is 21st in the nation in yards per game with 474. Make no mistake, this team can move the ball at will when everything is clicking. So why does it feel like every week Miami leaves points on the field? Because they do. Touting that #21 offense in yards per game, the Canes fall to 40th in the country when it comes to scoring points, with 33.3 points per game. That’s not all. They have scored below their season average the past 4 games, and haven’t scored 30 in the last 3 weeks.
Where is the disconnect? Well, the main culprit? Lack of success on third down, an issue that dates back to the Al Golden era. UM is 23 of 71 on third down conversions for the season. That’s 32.4%, good for 111th in the country. Yuck.
The Canes are racking up yards, only for drives to frequently stall on third downs near midfield or in the redzone. Which brings me to my next point: while Miami is 6th in the country at redzone offense (meaning they either score a touchdown or kick a field goal when they get inside the opponent’s 20) at 23/24 for 95.8%, that number can be a bit misleading. That’s because Miami is also one of the nation’s leaders at settling for field goals in the redzone, getting 10 field goals on those 24 redzone trips.
So, yes, while it’s a positive that the Canes are taking care of the ball in the most crucial area of the field and at least putting SOME points on the board, the execution in the redzone so far leaves much to be desired and is not indicative of an elite team.
“In the red zone and goal line we struggle, mainly because there’s less space,” offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said. “We have to execute better. It’s not a play calling deal, bad design, it’s just me against you, one on one, not run a guy over, make a guy miss… that adds to our struggle trying to score touchdowns in the red zone.”
On the flip side of the ball, Miami has struggled on run defense since the Duke game. UM is allowing 180.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 86th of 129 FBS schools. That’s a far cry from last year, when UM only gave up 134 yards per game on the ground, which was 31st in the country. How is that possible for such a deep and talented front seven, one that is consistently mentioned among the tops in the nation?
In short, minor errors that can lead to giant busts: like linebackers not being in their assigned gap, or a single defensive lineman losing an individual battle at the line of scrimmage to open a huge hole. Defensive ends over-pursuing too far up-field and losing containment. It’s those type of kinks that the coaches are trying to iron-out every week.
“What I have to do is manuever the stress of the defense,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “If I want to put help on this side of the defense, somebody is going to be stress on the other side. We still don’t like seeing the runs spit out there like we did.”
This weekend against a woeful UNC is a chance to hone in and correct mistakes. Less drops, missed assignments, and missed tackles. Better conversion rates on third down and in the redzone.
For all those miscues, UM is still 6-0. The Canes’ still have that #21 offense in yards per game. The plays are there to be made and this team is on the verge: a few minor adjustments here and better execution there, and we are talking about a truly dangerous team. When talking Miami, people will be able to stop adding the caveat, “Dangerous...when everything is clicking”.
No Miami hasn’t played it’s best game yet. But maybe that’s how it should be. Saving the best for the best. At least we hope. Because one thing is for sure: Virginia Tech and Notre Dame won’t be pulling any punches in a few weeks. Some of those those field goals will have to turn into touchdowns for Miami to gut out those wins. The run D will have to play better, especially against Notre Dame’s #6 ranked rushing offense. However, Mark Richt and this Hurricanes team have consistently shown that they are battled tested and will fight until the last seconds tick off the clock. And that might be the most important non-stat of all.