Before Notre Dame heads down to south Florida for a prime-time, top-10 pseudo-elimination game (8 p.m. ET, ABC), let’s get to know the No. 7 Hurricanes a bit with the help of Susan Miller Degnan of The Miami Herald.
DF: Hey Susan, I appreciate you taking some time out of your week to chat Miami football. As I mentioned to you earlier, I certainly didn’t expect this game to have such importance when the season started. Before getting into the weeds, how long have you been covering the Hurricanes?
SMD: Since Butch Davis took over in 1995, though I didn’t start full-time until 2000, the year the Hurricanes finished 11-1 and began their 34-game winning streak.
Miami’s offense ticks away pretty well — 31.5 points and 461.0 yards per game with a relatively-balanced run-pass distribution — even without junior running back Mark Walton (ankle). I expect it to come at least within shouting distance of those numbers Saturday. At that point, it will be a question of the Hurricanes slowing, if not stopping, Notre Dame. That is tough to envision considering Miami gives up 170.0 rushing yards per game and the Irish offense relies on the ground game. How might the defense adjust to buck those two trends?
The running yards sometimes come in big chunks — until the ball gets close to the goal line. Then the ‘Canes are very stout. Miami held Virginia Tech last week to 2.4 yards per rush. Someone asked Diaz before the Hokies game last Saturday if he was concerned about yielding rushing yards. His response:
“Toledo is the only team that’s had more than five yards a play on us. We had 17 possessions of defense last week and in a normal game there are 13. We played five quarters of football. We three-and-outed them or less eight out of 17 times. Our kids aren’t perfect, but they’re playing pretty good by all the metrics.
“There are a couple of things that we would love to do better. Our third down defense started poorly and it’s been improving. Our run defense is suffering from a couple mistakes. People are starting to run their quarterback against us, which to me is a sign of respect that we are shutting down their running back. If you look at where we are and what we are doing and the fact that what it all comes down to is that we’re not allowing points because we don’t give up long runs or passes for touchdowns and then we have the mental toughness to stop people in the red zone.
“We never have panic. That’s why when the ball was fumbled last week and 11 guys had to take the field, we knew we were going to get the ball back. We didn’t know how and we didn’t know who, but we knew we were going to get it done. Like anything else, we always have room to grow. We hope that our best game is always our next game, but I think our kids are playing pretty hard right now.”
That cause suffered a setback Monday when it was announced senior defensive lineman Demetrius Jackson is out for a stretch due to a right knee injury. Though a backup, Jackson has made 7.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks. It may seem lacking a reserve would hardly be noticed, especially along a deep defensive front such as the Hurricanes’, but Jackson certainly provides pressure. How will his absence affect Miami’s defense, if at all?
Yes, the absence of Jackson will make a difference, but Miami has a couple of highly rated freshmen. One of them, Jonathan Garvin, will get a lot more snaps as he fills in for Jackson. How’s this for a true freshman who hasn’t played a ton? A sack, tackle for loss, forced fumble and fumble recovery against Virginia Tech.
I feel a need to bring up the turnover chain, both as a gimmick and as a tangible piece of an on-field factor. The Hurricanes force 2.5 turnovers per game. How much has that been due to defensive design vs. the inherent chance tied to an oblong ball vs. the motivating factor of a shiny, bulky gold necklace?
This defense has been focused from the start, but there’s no denying that the turnover chain has got them having fun. It’s contagious, they all agree. And they all want the chance to wear it. Fifteen players have worn the chain this season.
“Wearing the chain, it’s a big accomplishment,’’ safety Jaquan Johnson said. “We go out there and have to guard an offensive player the whole game, and sometimes we don’t get credit for what we do. When we get the turnover, we get rewarded and everyone sees we’re doing our job. It’s definitely a trending topic.”
Notre Dame fans are skeptical of Miami’s chances this weekend. Much of that stems from the Hurricanes barely slipping past Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse and, especially, North Carolina. Miami is undeniably a talented football team. What led to such a by-the-skin-of-its-teeth stretch?
Slow starts. The ‘Canes have a second-half point differential of +206 in 21 games under coach Mark Richt (390-184) and have held opponents to 10 points or fewer in the second half in 15 of 21 games. This season, Miami has 154 points in the second half and 98 in the first half. Its opponents have 84 points in the second half and 57 in the first half.
(Note from Douglas: Notre Dame has outscored opponents 224-82 in the first half this season, compared to only 148-84 in the second half. Even if attempting to adjust for the Irish easing off the gas pedal in blowouts, that first-half discrepancy stands in stark contrast to the Hurricanes’ tendency to get out of the gate a touch sluggish.)
The flip side of those close games is the Hurricanes are much more battle-tested than the Irish. The last time Notre Dame won a close game was … the last time Miami lost a game. Bookmakers expect this to be close. Do you? If so, will those October stresses bear Hurricane fruit now?
I would be surprised if Notre Dame blows out Miami, though I know people who swear that will happen. If the Hurricanes win Saturday, they will be sparked by what will be the most raucus, insane crowd at that stadium in years. The Hurricanes are convinced the nation underestimates them and never gives them the credit they deserve. That drives them, too. But mostly they emulate the old-time defensive players who expected to win.