Mistakes along the offensive line and a blunder on special teams overshadowed a strong performance by the University of Miami’s defense in the Hurricanes’ season-opening loss.
Entering Monday night, there was a considerable amount of pressure on the unit to excel, especially considering the demonstrative disapproval of the defense last season by fans and media. After what Al Golden called an “elite” performance by the defense against Louisville, it appears the coach made the right decision in retaining his embattled defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio after last season’s disappointing results.
“I thought we were more aggressive,” Golden said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “We got four sacks and had a number of hits on the quarterback, we were three-and-out 50 percent of the time. We were much more physical up front.”
But now there are all new problems to correct during the next three weeks. The Hurricanes, which converted on third down just once out of 13 attempts in their 31-13 loss, play host to Florida A&M on Saturday and then Arkansas State before playing the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Sept. 20.
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Miami’s offensive line was considered a strength entering the season, but that unit underperformed against Louisville, which was playing its first game as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. With the right side of the offensive line surprisingly passive, running back Duke Johnson never impacted the game, and freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya struggled to find confidence.
Kaaya was hit hard on his first passing play of the game and the abuse continued. He was hurried nearly 10 times and sacked twice while also throwing two interceptions.
“Clearly, they were going to jam the front with eight or nine guys and they were constantly moving around and made it difficult,” Golden said of the Cardinals’ defensive front.
Golden wouldn’t single out anyone by name, but he made it clear there could be some changes along the offensive line this week. Eager underclassmen are available if it is determined drastic changes need to be taken. Two weeks against competition of a lower tier could provide a good buffer if Golden deems the Canes’ blocking problems uncorrectable.
“I wouldn’t just isolate it to the offensive line or right side of the offensive line,” Golden said. “There is going to be a lot of competition this week with positions up for grabs.”
Specifically on his primary blockers, Golden noted technique problems, including the “pad levels” of his players. He also noticed his linemen “looking around instead of attacking and executing.”
Johnson averaged 4.5 yards per carry, but didn’t score despite the Canes’ defense forcing two turnovers inside Louisville’s 10-yard line. In the second quarter, wide receiver Stacy Coley fumbled for the Canes on their first play following the team’s own fumble recovery at the Louisville 8.
A second recovered fumble at the Louisville 8 (this time in the third quarter) ended with only a field goal.
“It was difficult when you don’t translate that into points there, and then we gave up a kick return, so it was compounded by that,” Golden said.
The kick return came after a lengthy drive for the Canes ended in another field goal. Johnson, Miami’s best offensive player, had difficulty maneuvering in the red zone throughout the game. Facing a rookie quarterback making his debut on the road, the Louisville defense chose to focus on stopping the gifted running back.
In hindsight, Golden said he should have asked more of his quarterback.
“I didn’t think it was too big for him. He had poise,” Golden said, before adding, “We probably could have or should have opened it up a little bit more for him.”
The offense’s ineptitude spoiled an encouraging, if not elite, performance by the defense against Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. Petrino returned to Louisville after a season at Western Kentucky and an embarrassing dismissal from the University of Arkansas in 2012. Petrino’s offense managed just 336 yards against Miami. Consider this for perspective:
In Petrino’s final season at Arkansas, only two teams held the Razorbacks’ offense to fewer yards — Alabama and LSU — and both teams played in the BCS national championship game.