A week after playing so bad defensively at Nebraska that everyone in Mark D’Onofrio’s meeting room probably deserved to be punished with pushups, Hurricanes linebacker Denzel Perryman was doing them for fun Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium.
Perryman dropped an interception in the fourth quarter and then dropped to the ground and gave his team 10. Officials flagged him for unsportsmanlike conduct, but afterward Perryman laughed about it.
Perryman and the Miami Hurricanes have been in a much better mood since redeeming themselves with a defensive-led 22-10 victory over defending Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division champion Duke.
But is it safe to believe Miami (3-2) has put its defensive mishaps permanently in the rear-view-mirror? Can the Canes be trusted to avoid a relapse as they head to Atlanta on Saturday to take on unbeaten Georgia Tech (4-0)?
“You hope,” D’Onofrio said Monday when asked whether the 343 rushing yards Miami gave up to No.19 Nebraska was more of an aberration than the true identity of his defense.
Heisman Trophy hopeful Ameer Abdullah accounted for 229 of those yards and two rushing touchdowns for the Cornhuskers. Despite the Cornhuskers’ big night, UM is ranked 14th in the nation total defense (299.8 yards allowed per game) and 45th in scoring defense (21.8 points per game).
“When we looked at the [Nebraska] tape we said, ‘We’re not far off. We just didn’t have a guy doing his job on every play,’” D’Onofrio said. “You play a great back like that [Abdullah], and if you’re not where you’re supposed to be, you can get exposed.
“So, I think the guys learned from that a lot. They focused in. I think the combination of that and the fact we didn’t play very well last year against Duke ... got our focus where it needed to be, and the guys were locked in to execute and do their job. Hopefully it is a turning point, and they’ll see what we can do when we execute.”
Although it was clear to many observers of Saturday’s game that UM played more aggressively than it did at Nebraska (bringing safeties closer to the line of scrimmage; having cornerbacks play more press on Duke’s receivers and setting the edge), both D’Onofrio and coach Al Golden said the only difference between UM’s defense against Duke and Nebraska was execution and energy, not scheme.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe and several of his players said after Saturday’s game that the Hurricanes’ defense played physically and with a lot of energy. They also said Miami did a good job tackling and making plays on the ball (UM had 10 pass breakups).
Saturday’s win over Duke marked only the seventh time in 38 games under D’Onofrio that the Hurricanes defense held a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent to fewer than 300 yards of total offense and fewer than 100 rushing yards.
Golden said UM’s defense was better, but added it still has a long way to go.
“I thought we played together,” Golden said. “We executed. We communicated well. Our [mental errors] were down. Our explosives were down. I think the guys are starting to understand: It’s all or nothing.
“It’s all-in, everybody executing the correct technique, trusting their training, nobody on their own, and be a band of brothers. They saw that in that game on Saturday night. When they weren’t, when they had a defect, we got exploited. That’s what college football is about. You can get exploited quickly. They’re just going to come after you with yards and [explosive] plays if you’re not all together.”
Perryman and linebacker Tyriq McCord said maintaining trust in their teammates — in which each player sticks to his assignment instead of trying to make a play on his own — is ultimately the key to Miami’s success.
Building that trust, though, has been difficult for Golden and D’Onofrio because most of the players they recruit don’t develop that approach in high school, where many are asked to be playmakers.
“Honestly, the way I played in high school I saw a gap and I shot it,” Perryman said. “Here, it’s more organized. You’ve got to be accountable to your teammates, and your teammates have to trust you, and you have to trust your teammates to do their job. Just do your job and plays will come to you. That’s hard for some guys until they learn it, trust it. Against Nebraska, all guys were doing was running around and trying to make plays.”
Said McCord: “For the average person who goes into our meeting room, you’ll think Coach D is talking French. But there’s so much that goes on behind it you just have to understand it. Being in this defense three years, he does a real good job. A lot of the times he puts us in the right position, puts us in the right play. If he doesn’t, he’ll tell us, he’ll own it.”
Having trust will once again prove critical this week against the Yellow Jackets, whose triple-option offense is averaging 36.3 points and 292 rushing yards a game behind speedy quarterback Justin Thomas.
The Hurricanes have won five in a row against Georgia Tech, but each of the past three years the Hurricanes have been giving up more and more yards on the ground to the Yellow Jackets. The past two games were shootouts.
“It’s a tricky offense,” Perryman said. “Guys have just got to be disciplined and be gap-sound. That’s what it all comes down to.”