The first goal for Manny Diaz when he arrived in Coral Gables in 2016 to rebuild the Miami Hurricanes’ defense was to stop opponents from running. Al Golden had left behind a mess and Diaz was the defensive coordinator Mark Richt thought could restore order to the once-great Miami defense.
Diaz makes his personnel decisions with run-stopping in mind. He recruits with it as a primary emphasis. For most of his tenure, the philosophy worked. The Hurricanes had one of the best defenses in the country the last two seasons. Opponents couldn’t run on Miami, which even translated into the Hurricanes having the best pass defense in the country in 2018.
Diaz’s defense is not the same this year, though. The former defensive coordinator is now the coach and Miami’s defense has taken a step back without his incessant involvement. On Saturday, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets stunned the Hurricanes with a 28-21 overtime win by disrupting the fundamental principle of Diaz’s defense. Georgia Tech gashed Miami for 207 yards on 46 carries.
“It’s attention to detail,” linebacker Shaquille Quarterman said. “In the Coastal, games are always close. You see ups and downs in the ACC all across the board, so it’s about attention to detail. It’s always been our downfall in the games that we lost this season, especially in the close games. It was always attention to detail.”
The Yellow Jackets are in their first year not running a triple option, so they’re attempting to run a more traditional offense with option personnel, which means they’re still run-heavy. The Hurricanes (3-4, 1-3 Atlantic Coast) prepared for this.
It didn’t matter.
Jordan Mason — Georgia Tech’s 6-foot-1, 219-pound bowling ball of a running back — spearheaded the offense at Hard Rock Stadium. He ran 20 times for 141 yards and picked up steam as the game continued. In overtime, he broke a tackle and ripped off a 17-yard gain to move the ball to the goal line. On the next play, he punched in the game-winning, 1-yard touchdown.
“We thought he was a very tough, very physical runner,” Diaz said, “but the way that we had played run defense this year, to give him 20 for 141 — including just running through a tackle there in the overtime on second down — you need your guys to step up, make plays.”
For most of two quarters, Miami’s defense was as stout as it was Oct. 11 when the Hurricanes knocked off the then-No. 20 Virginia Cavaliers in Miami Gardens. The Yellow Jackets’ first five drives totaled 84 yards and 41 of those came on a fake punt. Georgia Tech (2-5, 1-3) went three-and-out three times.
The Yellow Jackets’ final drive of the first half began at their own 20-yard line after the Hurricanes missed a short field goal. The seven-play, 80-yard march was the forebearer of a second-half debacle for Miami’s run defense.
Mason opened the drive with a 12-yard run and then a 14-yard gain. He finished the drive with four carries for 32 yards after managing just 18 yards in the first 26 minutes and Georgia Tech went into halftime tied at 21-21. The missed tackles piled up on the drive and didn’t stop in the second half. By the end of the game, they numbered closer to two dozen than a dozen. At one point in the second half, the Yellow Jackets converted 6 of 7 third-down opportunities. On the one failure, Georgia Tech converted on fourth down.
The Yellow Jackets, who entered Saturday near the bottom of the ACC in 12 major statistical categories, pulled off the biggest win of their season by beating the Hurricanes at what they do best.
“We play as a chain,” Quarterman said, “and when one person isn’t the ball usually finds the way to the person not playing as hard as everybody else.”