When quarterback Brad Kaaya gets sacked, his bodyguards feel his pain vicariously. When running backs Mark Walton or Joe Yearby get buried, their blockers feel just as sore. Or when kicker Michael Badgley’s extra point attempt fails because an opponent was able to squeeze through and block it, his protectors feel the same disappointment.
The University of Miami’s offensive linemen were hurting as much as anybody on the banged-up team after the 20-19 loss to Florida State. The unit that was supposed to be an upgraded strength for the Hurricanes this season finished with mixed results against the burliest defensive line it has faced so far.
But there’s an opportunity for an emphatic rebound Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against North Carolina in Hard Rock Stadium as UM digs into the heart of its ACC schedule with the Coastal Division title at stake.
“We should have won it,” center Nick Linder said of the home loss to archrival FSU. “That was a good front we saw. There can’t be any hangover. We’ve got to fix our mistakes and treat every game like a championship.”
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No. 16 Miami (4-1, 1-1) yielded three sacks, two quarterback hurries and seven tackles for loss. The rushing game was limited to 62 yards, and only 4 of 13 third downs were converted. Kaaya was bulldozed on the first play by blitzing Jacob Pugh, hit his head on the grass, dinged his shoulder and threw many off-target passes thereafter. Later in the game, tackle Tyree St. Louis was called for holding, negating a spectacular 45-yard touchdown run by Walton. With 1:38 left, FSU’s DaMarcus Walker penetrated the left side of the line and got his hand on the ascending PAT.
“Honestly, we’re a work in progress, and we’ve got some adjustments going on,” said offensive line coach Stacy Searels. “I don’t question the kids’ effort but we can get better.”
Last season, when UM lost 59-21 at UNC, Miami’s youthful O-line was chronically injured. The Canes were ranked 117th nationally in rushing offense, 107th in third-down conversions, 84th in red-zone offense, 33rd in sacks allowed, 29th in passing offense and eighth in tackles for loss allowed.
UM is currently ranked 43rd in rushing offense, 58th in third down conversions, 93rd in red zone offense, 14th in sacks allowed, 66th in passing offense and seventh in tackles for loss allowed.
This season, UM’s fitter, wiser front five of juniors Trevor Darling, Kc McDermott, Sunny Odgwu and Linder and senior Danny Isidora were among the most experienced in the ACC with a combined 110 starts. The unit was named Wednesday to the 17-team Joe Moore Award Honor Roll for “a high level of toughness, effort, teamwork, consistency, technique and finishing.” But that starting line will change for the first time against UNC when St. Louis replaces the injured Odogwu, who had surgery on his lower left leg.
“Tyree needs to gain more confidence,” Searels said of the sophomore. “I told him, ‘You’re the man and you’ve got to step up and act like a man.’”
Coach Mark Richt kept the offense on the field for extra work after practice on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I told the offense, ‘Here’s the script, we’ll run these plays, and run them right. If not, we’ll do it again,’” Richt said.
Searels, who came to UM from Virginia Tech, was an All-American lineman at Auburn who blocked for Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. In one of UM’s most significant improvements, runners are gaining nearly 80 yards more per game than last year. Walton and Yearby are averaging a combined 26.2 carries and 6.5 yards per carry.
“Our goal is to give our backs room to run and keep our quarterback clean,” Searels said.
Richt and Kaaya chose to throw more than usual against FSU. They expect to go back to the running game against UNC (4-2, 2-1), which, like FSU, is known more for its offense than defense. The Tar Heels allow 426 yards and 31.5 points per game and are ranked 113th in rushing defense. It could be a banner day for UM’s O-line.
Richt would like to see “firmer” protection for Kaaya, who is a pocket passer rather than what Richt characterizes as a mobile “point-guard quarterback.”
“If you play quarterback you’re going to get hit,” Richt said. “Quarterbacks who are pocket passers don’t cross the line of scrimmage and knock down linebackers but they’ve got to stand in there in a vulnerable position as they’re scanning the field making decisions. You have to trust the protection. Because if you don’t, you’ll be dancing around when you should be sitting firm and throwing strikes.”
Searels said his linemen can build a stronger wall for Kaaya, who knows how to get rid of the ball.
“I’ve had quarterbacks much worse than Brad,” Searels said. “We’d like to stonewall everybody and give him eight seconds every time. I watched the Green Bay Packers do that on TV. We’re not quite to the level of Green Bay.”