We will hear a lot now about how UM can still achieve nearly all of its goals: beating Florida State, winning the Coastal and (as improbable as it would seem) winning the ACC championship.
And all of that is true.
But so is this: All of the momentum this program built from September through Thanksgiving last year is gone, obliterated by substandard offensive line play, at times deplorable quarterback play, shoddy tackling, loose pass coverage, disappointing special teams and a flood of penalties – all of which torpedoed UM in a 33-17 loss to LSU, a game in which UM trailed by 30 in the second half.
And so ABC’s Sean McDonough, late in the second quarter, said instead of asking whether the U is back, the more appropriate questions are these: “Was last year a bit of a mirage?”
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And: “Are they still mediocre?”
Mediocre would be overstating it. But this isn’t a top 10 team, and this doesn’t look like a top 15 team, either.
After outscoring teams by 160 points in their first 10 games last season, UM has been outscored by 71 in its last four, all losses.
So what should Mark Richt do now?
▪ Put Malik Rosier on notice after a fourth consecutive subpar game (15 for 35, 258 yards, two interceptions). Every additional start he makes at Miami must be earned.
Should he be replaced now? Here’s how I would answer that:
I would pick the best of the three backups and increase his first-team snaps in practice, with Rosier still getting a chunk of those snaps – something UM can afford to do this week with a cupcake opponent in Savannah State.
If that backup clearly outplays Rosier, then start him. But there’s little reason to believe that will happen, based on how the offseason played out, when Rosier wasn’t seriously challenged for the job. And Richt has said Jarren Williams doesn’t know the offense well enough to be a factor.
If Rosier isn’t outplayed in practice, he should keep the job another week.
But assuming N’Kosi Perry or Cade Weldon and Williams aren’t ALL awful in practice, a change at quarterback will be justified – and should happen - if Rosier plays poorly in another loss or struggles badly well into September even if UM is winning against a soft upcoming schedule (Savannah State, at Toledo, FIU).
There can no longer be a long leash, not with the way Rosier has played in UM’s last four games (four touchdown passes, seven interceptions, 44 percent completion percentage and too many errant throws to count). In Rosier’s defense, he was given no help by a mediocre offensive line.
But let’s be real here: UM has simply too much talent at receiver and running back (and young talent at tight end) to continue to squander it with an inaccurate quarterback. But it’s not yet time to gift the job to one of the backups if that backup doesn’t earn it.
Fans can direct their anger toward Rosier, but the bigger problem is that Perry didn’t improve nearly as much as UM coaches hoped.
He took on a mythical aura, like Paul Bunyan, in the eyes of Canes fans – and perhaps the media can be blamed partly for that – and simply hasn’t lived up to the hype. That’s mostly on Perry, who was left home for the game because of a violation of team rules.
As one UM official said, there’s very little Perry does in practice that makes you say “wow.” And his multiple red zone interceptions in practices understandably irked coaches.
Here’s a column I ran a month ago today in which a UM coach explains Perry’s shortcomings.
What’s disappointing is that Rosier’s accuracy problems clearly haven’t been solved. Beyond the 20 incomplete passes in 35 attempts (some of which were throwaways in the face of a pass rush), Rosier threw an inexcusable interception on the pick six and even a few of his completions, including a great one-handed catch by Jeff Thomas, weren’t particularly well thrown. Perhaps this is nothing that can be fixed.
▪ Get the ball in the hands of your playmakers early in games. It was disappointing that Ahmmon Richards, UM’s best offensive player, had only two targets in the first three quarters, with one catch for nine yards, and that Travis Homer had only two carries, for 19 yards, in the first half. Richards didn’t play much in the second half because of a bone bruise on one of his knees.
▪ Take another look at the young offensive linemen, because this group isn’t remotely close to elite. Richt told ABC’s announcers off camera that UM will have a dominant offensive line once freshmen DJ Scaife, Cleveland Reed and John Campbell are ready. We’ll see.
This might be the best defensive front UM faces all year, unless it advances to the ACC title game to play Clemson. So that’s the caveat. But there were far too many mental and physical breakdowns, too many penalties (Tyree St. Louis, two by Navaughn Donaldson, another by Hayden Mahoney) and too many open lanes for LSU rushers.
St. Louis had a rough night in his debut as UM’s starting left tackle. The lowlight: He was beaten handily on one pass rush, forcing an errant Rosier throw that was intercepted.
▪ Re-evaluate everything you’re doing on third down. With UM’s talent, there is no excuse for being fourth-worst in third down conversions last year, ahead of only UTEP, Kent and Charlotte, three teams that went 3-33 last season.
UM was 0 for 7 on third down to start Sunday’s game and finished 6 for 16.
Rosier’s inaccuracy and offensive line breakdowns are the primary culprits. But better play-calling could help; one DeeJay Dallas run up the middle on a third and long was particularly perplexing. And why not use a fullback more in short-yardage situations?
“They didn’t put Malik in the best position to be successful,” former Canes punter Brian Monroe said on WQAM’s postgame show.
▪ Enforce consequences for penalties. Running laps doesn’t suffice.
Those who commit one dumb penalty or multiple penalties in a half should be removed, if only for the duration of the series, if not longer.
Some of the 11 penalties were particularly hurtful, including Tito Odenigbo jumping offsides on a 4th and 1 on LSU’s second touchdown drive, and Demetrius Jackson’s late hit on LSU’s previous drive.
▪ Pass the punting baton from Zach Feagles to Jack Spicer. Feagles, who averaged 36.4 yards per punt, wasn’t very good as a freshman, either. He doesn’t deserve the keep the job.
▪ Don’t play too many of your backups at once against top teams. Robert Knowles, Mike Smith and Bradley Jennings were all on the field on the 50-yard Nick Brossette TD run. Starters certainly must be rested but UM must be judicious with this against high-level competition.
There were several problems on that 50-yard run, including a cut block that put one linebacker on the ground. Knowles and Joe Jackson were among several Canes pushed aside.
▪ Though officials were merely following NCAA rules in ejecting Trajan Bandy for leading with his helmet, the penalty doesn’t fit the crime. That should be a 15-yard penalty, not an ejection.
Jhavonte Dean, who replaced Bandy, was beaten on two long catches.
▪ Neither of the ballyhooed freshmen tight ends - Brevin Jordan nor Will Mallory – had a catch and neither was targeted in the first three quarters. Jordan was thrown two passes in the fourth quarter, but Rosier missed him. And neither is physically ready to make a big difference as run blockers.
▪ UM paid offensive line coach Stacey Searels a lot of money to lure him, at Richt’s request. But too many highly-recruited players, such as LSU transfer George Brown and redshirt freshman Kai Leon Herbert, haven’t improved enough to crack a very ordinary lineup. (Brown is out with a knee injury but lost his potential starting job in March.)
Either the player development or recruiting or both must be better at this position.
▪ There were far too many missed tackles, with Mike Pinckney one of the culprits. But if you remove the 50-yard run, LSU had only 106 yards on its other 40 rushing attempts.
▪ Romeo Finley started ahead of Zach McCloud, and Derrick Smith Jr. also got work at the new “striker” position.
▪ Bubba Baxa, who made less than half his field goal attempts in high school last year, converted from 38 and missed from 45. This might be an adventure all season with him.
▪ UM’s best player tonight? Probably Thomas, who caught five passes for 132 yards has a chance to be one of the nation’s best slot receivers. Defensive tackle Gerald Willis had some good moments. Brian Hightower made a terrific catch on his 32-yard touchdown, similar to what he did in offseason practices and scrimmages. Dallas had eight carries for 38 yards.
▪ I ran a piece last week on how far UM is from the elite teams in college football. (Spoiler alert: Very). But what the AFC executive said in that column was borne out again tonight: He said the gap is sizable, and the two areas where UM must improve to be on the Clemson/Alabama level are quarterback and offensive line. He said the line isn’t physically talented enough, and UM must hope Rosier improves substantially. “Rosier is just a guy,” the executive said.
▪ UM has now sandwiched two four-game losing streaks around a 15-game winning streak. What are the chances of that happening?
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