Six games into the 2012 season, the Miami Hurricanes have officially reached the halfway point and with six remaining, it’s time to assess where things have been, where they are and where they could go over the next few months.
The good news; the Canes are 4-2, which isn’t an optimum record for a team with national championship aspirations, but based on some predictions as low as 3-9 this season, Miami has already over-exceeded expectations and must find a way to keep going and growing.
The Canes were also picked to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal Division and instead are 3-0 and sitting a top the standings, which despite the ‘how’, is still a tremendous accomplishment for this squad.
Yes, it took three miracle finishes to remain undefeated and the foes Miami took down – Boston College, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State – have had their struggles.
The next three – North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia Tech – better programs and all are headed to Sun Life Stadium, a welcomed sight after the Canes spent four of the first six weeks on the road, visiting a handful of hostile venues and logging some serious frequent flyer miles.
To date this season, the topic de jour? The defense, or lack thereof.
Fans have dubbed coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, “Onofrio”, saying he has no “D” and patience is growing thinner than the defensive line’s depth as Miami has proven it can stop no one this season.
Head coach Al Golden continues to defend the most valued member of his staff – his former teammate at Penn State and best friend for the past two decades.
At Tuesday’s presser, Golden made it clear that the buck stops with him as the team’s CEO, and regarding this frustrated fan base, no UM supporter is more riled up than this coaching staff, which worked thirty-eight hours straight this weekend.
“There’s no fan out there that can match his [D'Onofrio's] intensity or his dedication in trying to get his trade right. The last two years the same guy had two top-twenty defenses in terms of scoring defense. So, as angry as everybody is, they’re not watching it, they’re not living it everyday like he is,” Golden replied to the media on Tuesday.
“As I say to him and the whole defensive staff, we’re moving the team forward. Just keep moving it forward. As I said to you guys before, it’s not like we’re hiding a bunch of fourth and fifth-year seniors on the scout-team field. Where are they? There are no fifth-year seniors, there are no fourth-year seniors – only a couple – and there are very few juniors.
“The guys we’re playing with right now are fighting every day, they’re learning, but they’re learning under fire. I think you go to Parris Island before you go to war, right? They’re learning on the battlefield. Just stay positive, man. Just keep moving forward. We’ll get there. I promise you we’ll get there.”
I took in Tuesday’s press conference at Hecht and Wednesday night’s radio show in the Grove Spot. I’ve listened to Al. I shook the man’s hand. I’ve felt the penetrating stare when he delivered his pitch about “the process” and his commitment to get it right, and I buy in. I’ve been Goldenized.
I’m sure others in the media feel different, but maybe that’s just it. I’m not a tradional media guy. I haven’t been around long enough to become jaded or to have heard it all.
I’m a long-time fan with a B.A. in English who started a blog so I could get all these crazy thoughts out of my head and onto virtual paper. Cynicism? I save that for other areas in life not associated with games.
I see something in Al that I haven’t seen in any leader of this program in over a decade, which is cause for some long-lost optimism to return.
I also recently finished “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell and was turned-on to the premise of ‘thin-slicing’ – the concept that in some cases limited information can be better than info-overload when coming to a conclusion.
My intuition? That Golden, should he stay around long enough, will turn Miami around.
No, it won’t be the type or program the world saw in the 1980s, early 1990s or early 2000s. That ship has sailed – not just for the Hurricanes, but any program not in Tuscaloosa, paying the game’s best coach $6M annually (and God knows how much to Crimson Tide players), where every off-season is a true reload, not a rebuild.
Randy Shannon? There was always that hope that he’d turn it around, as well as the benefit of the doubt (as a former player and assistant) and a slew of caveats for a first-time head coach.
Tap into decades of City of Miami knowhow and life experience. Learn on the job. Hire quality assistants. Seek out successful mentors who can help with the learning curve. Continue getting better annually until the ship was finally righted.
That was the dream scenario and of course none of that happened.
Instead, Shannon fell on his face, never truly growing as a coach, mentor or leader. The top-notch assistants never came, the right players were never brought on board – nor were kids developed properly, getting better annually.
It also quickly became apparent that the personal issues from Shannon’s past were demons he never truly escaped in his journey to becoming a proper head coach, a complete man and true CEO of a program.
Golden has “it” and that is something measurable based on his eighteen games as Miami’s head coach, as well as how he’s handled any off-the-field adversity.
‘Shapirogate’ blindsided this program weeks before game one, the NCAA descended to investigate soon thereafter, suspensions were doled out and there was zero stability.
Still, Miami earned a few solid wins, gave a few games away, recruited well in the off-season and focused on nutrition and conditioning – all of which made for an impressive debut everywhere but the record books as UM finished 6-6 when 9-3 was a real possibility.
The Canes lost some key players after the 2011 season, including five would-be starters who could’ve provided some depth, maturity and experience.
It’s as hypothetical a question as could be posed, but how much stronger is this defensive line if Olivier Vernon and Marcus Forston had returned and Adewale Ojomo was granted that deserved medical redshirt?
How much better is the running game with Lamar Miller taking the majority of the snaps, while Mike James, Duke Johnson and Eduardo Clements are in a complimentary role?
How much easier would it have been to absorb the temporary absence of Allen Hurns at receiver, or the season-ending loss of Malcolm Lewis had Tommy Streeter come back for one more?
Even the offensive line, good as it’s played at times, would be more complete with a veteran like Brandon Washington worked into that rotation.
Staying on topic, Ray-Ray Armstrong makes more sense in the secondary instead of guys like Kacy Rodgers II and A.J. Highsmith, who have struggled and been out-manned at times, but the would-be senior blew that opp thanks to selfishness.
Add it all up and that’s seven would-be starters – four on defense – who could’ve been a big part of this year’s Hurricanes’ squad, but for one reason or another, aren’t.
Again, the ultimate ‘what-if’ question, but for those who continue stating that youth has become an excuse, the above points are being tossed out there to show it’s more of an explanation than a cop-out.
Are there some obvious issues with D’Onofrio’s scheming? Absolutely. Even during the probation era, Miami didn’t own the third-worst defensive statistics in the nation and even with all this youth, the Canes should be this bad.
Why are corners playing five feet off receivers? Why aren’t defensive linemen plugging the gaps? Why is Miami reactive, sitting back and waiting to make a play, instead of being aggressive and attacking?
That’s not for fans to answer, but it’s something Golden and D’Onofrio must address with six games remaining and ACC championship game aspirations still on the radar.
Play as the Canes have played defensively and Miami will most-likely finish 4-3 in conference, due to future competition. Maybe 5-2 with a few lucky bounces – meaning the offense will have to remain alive, doing everything it takes to win games the defense found a way to lose.
537 total yards to Boston College. 489 yards at Kansas State. 426 yards to Bethune-Cookman. 419 yards at Georgia Tech. A whopping 664 yards given up to North Carolina State and this past weekend Notre Dame went for 587 against Miami.
Regarding this week’s opponent, North Carolina, the Tar Heels are coming off a 48-34 win over Virginia Tech where they put up 533 total yards against the Hokies, including 339 on the ground – 262 of which came from Gio Bernard, a local product out of St. Thomas Aquinas who will raise his game against the hometown team.
If North Carolina could get after a usually-sound Bud Foster-led defense, what does that mean against Miami? This Tar Heels team was built by Butch Davis and is old school Hurricane tough, crafted in the mold of 2000-era UM teams. They are coming to play.
This remains a stretch of one-game seasons and Miami enters another growth opportunity, which really has been the underlying theme all year; how can the Canes continue to grow and take proper steps back towards reclaiming greatness?
This week’s lesson; again, working to bounce back from a loss. Mentally shake off what happened last week against Notre Dame, much like Miami had to after an early-season loss to Kansas State, though North Carolina a much more formidable foe than Bethune-Cookman.
Week one against Boston College, the lesson was overcoming a 14-0 deficit and clawing itself back into the game, as well as breaking in some newbies, which proved successful as Johnson and Lewis got it done in their first collegiate games, as did Morris with his first start in over a year.
Three games later, it was the opposite – learning how to handle success and prosperity. A 19-0 lead evaporated at Georgia Tech. Thirty-six points were given up unanswered. A defense that started strong and fell apart, proved it could make some plays down the stretch, stepping up in the second half and getting some key stops that proved to be the difference.
The Canes scored the game’s final twenty-three points and where one-yard was the difference last season in games against Kansas State and Virginia Tech, Miami’s struggling defense got a 4th-and-1 stop on the goal line as Boston College and another in overtime at Georgia Tech.
Miami has taken a step forward this season and has won games it would’ve lost in recent years – and while beat downs courtesy of Kansas State and Notre Dame were disheartening, they simply prove that the Canes aren’t yet a primetime player, ready to go on the road to beat top ten teams in hostile environments.
Again, this should be much of a shock for a program picked fifth in the ACC’s Coastal division during the pre-season.
When assessing these 2012 Hurricanes, fans must grade on a curve year two, hard as that may be.
For now, throw out any issues with D’Onofrio’s scheme and degree of the two losses, and look at the talent level, the depth, the youth, the inexperience and attempt to solely focus on where there’s been growth, which has led to an unexpected 4-2 record.
That doesn’t forgive any of this team’s flaws, it’s simply an exercise in focusing on more than just wins, losses and yards given up.
In a rebuilding year you look for bright spots and six games in, a few obvious ones are quarterback play, surprise freshmen, a few miraculous moments and overall growth – those moments and situations where there’s zero doubt a recent Canes team would’ve folded, but this one found a way.
Think back to some of those character-building moments in the 1990s when Miami was on the mend and it’s obvious this team is dealing with things now that will pay off in the coming years.
The 1997 squad absorbing a 5-6 record and that 47-0 thrashing at Florida State.
The 1998 team getting clobbered 66-13 at Syracuse with a Big East title on the line, only to return to action a week later, knocking off No. 2 UCLA, 49-45 in the season finale.
The 1999 Hurricanes starting on a high after dropping Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic, only to lose a heartbreaker to No. 2 Penn State weeks later, falling 27-23 on an eighty-yard touchdown bomb after overcoming a huge early deficit and finally taking the lead.
That Miami squad also dropped an embarrassing loss to a not-so-good East Carolina team, as well as falling at No. 1 Florida State (31-21) and No. 2 Virginia Tech (43-10), where true freshman quarterback Ken Dorsey was tossed around like a rag doll in his first big collegiate moment.
This four-loss season took place year five of the Davis era, when Greg Schiano finally came on board to run the defense, as Butch fired Bill Miller four years into his tenure – not one and a half.
A year later, it started turning.
There was that early-season loss at Washington, but the 2000 Hurricanes won out from that point, including that signature comeback win over No. 1 Florida State (27-24) and No. 2 Virginia Tech (41-21), two teams that whacked Miami the previous year, en route to their appearances in the national title game.
Miami ended the season with a convincing win over Florida in Sugar Bowl, 37-20, setting the stage for a title run in 2001 and three incredible seasons of UM football.
No one is predicting a run like that or a return to that beloved time, but when looking at the blueprint, it’s about progress. It’s about taking those steps forward. It’s about absorbing some heartbreak, learning from it, growing and when in a moment like that again, seizing it and getting the job done.
Tough as this may be to absorb, this again won’t be a season measured in wins or losses. It’s not about judging these Hurricanes based on how the handled some big stage moments, either.
Fans are clamoring for a 2000-era Miami team and if attempting to compare to the old days (which truly doesn’t work as the game has changed and there are so many other intangibles), it’s closer to 1998 than it is the new millennium.
Now isn’t the time to chant “Fire D’Onofrio”, for a multitude of reasons, even if you do feel that way and even if that sentiment is later justified should the struggles continue.
Assess that defensive mess at the end of the year, not at this season’s halftime. Right now the ACC title is still within reach. Three weeks from now, 3-0 could easily be 3-3 and should the wheels fall off, reassess things then.
For now, it’s all about North Carolina. It’s all about devising a game plan to slow down Bernard. It’s all about getting an offense that disappeared last week to tap back into the mojo it had against that other team from the Old North State.
One-week seasons. Brick-by-brick. One game at a time.
Put this thing entire thing under a microscope come December and dissect away. Until then, find a way to be at Sun Life Stadium this Saturday for the next step in “the process” and support these hard-working kids.
Christian Bello has been covering Miami Hurricanes athletics since the mid-1990s. After spending almost a decade as a columnist for CanesTime, he launched allCanesBlog.com. – the official blog for allCanes.com : The #1 Canes Shop Since 1959. Bello has joined up with XOFan.com and will be a guest columnist at CaneInsider.com this fall. Follow him on Twitter @ChristianRBello.