Barry Jackson

Enough is enough. Time for significant change in UM’s football program

Thoughts and postscripts after UM’s 27-21 loss at Georgia Tech on Saturday:

If Mark Richt intends to tell athletic director Blake James, in their season-ending meeting, that he can fix this mess without any staff changes and significant strategic adjustments, then James should have a brief but firm answer:

That’s unacceptable.

UM’s on-field product isn’t nearly good enough, and minor changes will no longer suffice.

If UM had stopped this four-game skid after two games and gotten back on track against Duke and Georgia Tech, Richt might have been able to make the case to stick with this staff another year, to allow this group another recruiting cycle to get it right without major changes.

He cannot make that argument now, not after his third four-game losing streak in three years as coach, not after his eighth loss in his last 13 games, not with Miami one loss away from matching its longest losing streak since 1977, before the program’s rise to relevance and eventually, dominance.

It’s not our style to advocate specific coaching dismissals, but moving on from offensive line coach Stacy Searels would be thoroughly justified. Searels has three marks against him:

1) 1) His unit is substandard. 2) None of his most-highly recruited players have played anywhere up to expectation (Navaughn Donaldson) or played at all (Kai-Leon Herbert). 3) His players are undisciplined.

On Saturday, we saw the offensive line commit four false start penalties and a holding penalty. Donaldson lost his starting job to Hayden Mahoney before coming in on the second series and whiffing on a block.

Donaldson was the sixth-ranked tackle in the Class of 2017, per Rivals, and apparently isn’t good enough to even start anymore. Herbert, the 25th best tackle in that class, can’t even get on the field.

It’s difficult to place specific blame on quarterbacks coach Jon Richt, because he’s merely an extension of his father, conveying his father’s message and teaching these quarterbacks exactly what Richt taught him.

But here’s the problem: Mark Richt is essentially allocating a coaching position to a clone, an extension of himself. There is no vastly divergent thought, nobody to tell Mark Richt he needs to do things differently, because everything that Jon Richt knows about quarterback coaching came from his father. So even though Jon Richt is smart and a hard worker, it’s almost as if UM is coaching with one fewer assistant than other teams.

As for who should handle play-calling, I’ve changed my mind on this as the losing streak has grown from two to four and after hearing Jimmy Johnson make a sensible argument to WQAM’s Joe Rose about why calling plays is too much for Mark Richt.

There were more head-scratching calls Saturday, including a delayed handoff to Travis Homer that lost yards on 3rd and 3 (Georgia Tech wasn’t the least bit surprised) and running the ball up the middle three times with Miami down 13 points in the fourth quarter.

At one point, I could have understood if Richt had told James that UM should continue running a pro style offense for another year – with additional creative wrinkles - because he has had success with it in the past and because his most talented offensive players are young and still learning.

But the depth and prolonged nature of UM’s offensive struggles – 13, 14, 12 and 21 points in four consecutive losses - suggest significant change is needed there, too.

As ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, the former NFL backup quarterback said Saturday, and as I stated in a column two weeks ago, more motion is needed in UM’s offense.

“They are stationary before the snap,” Orlovsky said. “If you are not using presnap motions, you’re behind the times.”

Orlovsky went another step, adding the Hurricanes “have to hire someone who is on the cutting edge of offensive innovation.”

I agree.

But I will be surprised if Richt does. A proud and stubborn man, Richt has been terse, even dismissive at times when asked about his play-calling, instead blaming execution and saying these plays have been working for 30 years.

So the onus might end up on James to convince Richt to change, which would assuredly be awkward for James, an excellent athletic director who generally believes he should defer to the coach on such matters. If Richt balks, James needs to tell him that minor tweaks aren’t good enough.

Richt’s reaction on WQAM afterward: “Two turnovers on special teams put us in a bad way. Had a turnover on a quarterback/center exchange. Had a few holding penalties. That got us, too, but there were also bright spots.

“The 95-yard drive was magnificent. N’Kosi [Perry] played his tail off. He made a lot of really good throws. I thought the kid did a really nice job. We dropped too many balls.”

Perry had some good moments, completing 14 of 23 passes for 165 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. But he also fumbled a snap, missed some open receivers and couldn’t overcome penalties, two critical special teams fumbles (by DeeJay Dallas and Jeff Thomas), more mediocre work form his offensive line, and not enough help from Travis Homer (11 carries, 30 yards) and Dallas (six carries, 15 yards).

Richt said Dallas’ fumble (his fourth in two games) “is devastating to the team. It’s killing him. He’s done nothing but great things for this program and this team. When something like that happens, it crushes him. We’ve all got his back, I can tell you that.”

The only bright spots? UM incorporated Thomas more in the offense and he had six catches for 84 yards. And freshman Cam Davis was impressive (six carries, 48 yards).

“Cam ran the ball extremely well,” Richt said. “He’s getting more comfortable in pass protection where we don’t have to pull him out on certain plays.”

But why are highly-regarded freshmen receivers Brian Hightower and Mark Pope not being incorporated more into the offense?

UM’s defense - a strength most of the season - doesn’t get a pass here, either. After UM closed to within 27-21, the Canes couldn’t get a stop and allowed Georgia Tech to run out the final 6:53, including three third-down conversions.

The run defense, which entered 23rd in the country allowing 123.6 yards per game, relinquished 231 yards on the ground (4.4 per carry) against a Tech team averaging 377 rushing yards per game.

And even though Tech threw only four times, UM had three damaging breakdowns in coverage, including Trajan Bandy being badly beaten on Brad Stewart’s 31 yard touchdown reception, and a key third down catch late in the game.

“Overall, our defense played really well,” Richt insisted. “They did an outstanding job.”

Who would have thought that Pittsburgh would have a chance to win the Coastal Division (if the Panthers beat Wake Forest next week) before UM (5-5, 2-4) even becomes bowl eligible?

If UM loses Saturday at Virginia Tech (3:30 p.m., ESPN) and needs to beat Pitt to become bowl eligible, the Canes might have to hope that the Panthers – if they beat Wake next week to clinch the Coastal – have less motivation against UM and be looking ahead to the Clemson ACC title game the following week. That’s the sad state the Hurricanes find themselves in, and one Richt now needs to fix with significant change, not minor tweaking.