Miami Hurricanes coach Al Golden prefers to look at the regular season as 12 one-game missions rather than one long battle – at least when he’s in the middle of it.
So when he was asked Wednesday to assess his team at the midway point of the season – and if expectations might have been high considering the Canes were picked to win the ACC Coastal Division – Golden bristled a bit.
“It’s really not about what anybody else’s expectations are,” Golden said as the Hurricanes (3-3) prepare to play 161/2-point underdog Cincinnati (2-2) at noon Saturday at Sun Life Stadium.
“Certainly there are a lot of things we need to improve as we evolve this year,” he continued. “But I’m not really – we’re not really – assessing anything but Cincinnati and the threats that they pose.”
Golden’s mind might be on the Bearcats this week, but he’s also zeroed in on what UM has to improve to have any shot at winning the division.
Among the first areas Golden said UM must get better: Protecting the football.
“We’ve thrown too many interceptions, so we’re putting the defense in too many [bad] situations,” he said. “I think we’re minus-4 or minus-5 [in the] turnover ratio, which is not winning football.”
UM is minus-4. Last year, the Canes finished plus-5. Counting freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya’s nine interceptions (Stephen Morris threw 12 in 13 games last season), UM has turned the ball over 15 times already (as many as they did in all of 2012). The other six were fumbles (UM fumbled it away eight times in both 2013 and 2012).
What else needs fixing?
“Third-down offense for sure,” Golden said. “And then when we get in the red zone, we’ve got to score.”
Miami’s offense is tied for last among Football Bowl Subdivision schools in third-down conversions (23.81 percent). Last year, the Canes ranked 96th out of 125 FBS schools – and that was at an unimpressive 35 percent clip.
UM has been in the red zone 25 times but produced only 13 touchdowns (52 percent), which ranks 99th among 128 FBS schools. Last year, UM scored TDs on 60 percent of its trips in the red zone (73rd). On the dozen other trips inside their opponents’ 20, the Canes have made seven field goals, missed one field goal and turned it over four times.
On the other side of the ball, Golden said “third-down defense” must improve. “We’re not taking the ball away as well,” he said.
Last year, Miami’s opponents converted third downs at 42.4 percent, which ranked 90th nationally. This year, the Hurricanes are slightly better (40.66 percent, 78th overall) but are still giving up 45 percent on third downs to FBS programs like they were last year.
Offensive coordinator James Coley said last week converting at 45 percent on offense “is championship level.” That can’t be good on defense, though.
In terms of forced turnovers, UM has 11 (tied for 33rd nationally). But the Canes are off last year’s pace of 27. Miami also has only four interceptions after picking off 18 a year ago.
What else needs work?
“[We have to] continue to increase our [tackles for loss] and sacks, and our tackling has been inconsistent,” Golden said.
Although the Hurricanes have jumped from 80th (5.75) to ninth (4.4) nationally in yards per play allowed and are giving up fewer points (22.8) than a year ago (26.8), they still rank among the worst teams in college football (114th) in time of possession (27:08). Getting off the field defensively on third down – as Golden mentioned – would help.
In terms of producing negative plays, UM has 27 tackles for loss (they had 61 last year) and 13 sacks (they had 29 in 13 games last year).
On special teams, kickoff coverage and kickoff returns need the most work, Golden said.
UM has given up six returns of 30 yards or more to opponents already. Last year, only four kicks were returned for more than 30 yards. On the flip side, UM has just one kickoff return longer than 30 yards after leading the country with 13 kickoff returns of 30 yards or more last year.
One explanation for the Canes’ struggles compared to last year when they began the season 7-0: This year’s schedule is a lot tougher.
Miami’s first five FBS opponents have a combined 22-5 record (.815 win percentage). Last year’s first six FBS opponents – during the 7-0 start – combined to finish the season with a .389 win percentage.
▪ Despite being 1-2 in the ACC, UM isn’t out of the division race. Since the ACC split into divisions in 2005, four teams have won the Coastal with two losses or more (Georgia Tech was 6-2 in 2006; Virginia Tech was 5-3 in 2008; Georgia Tech was 5-3 in 2012; and Duke was 6-2 in 2013).
“We’re really trying to keep each other up, keep each other positive,” freshman receiver Braxton Berrios said. “We could end the season 10-3. You never know.”