Barry Jackson

Here’s what should most concern UM, which is off to its worst start since 1978

Some quick thoughts after UM’s 28-25 loss at North Carolina that dropped the Canes to 0-2:

You can criticize the special teams, and that’s an obvious place to start with Bubba Baxa’s missed late field goal, missed extra point and a missed chip-shot field goal earlier in the game.

You can criticize the clock management, with UM somehow ending the game with two timeouts.

You can criticize the reliance on screens and dump-offs on several third and long situations that went nowhere in the first half.

You can criticize UM for not starting D.J. Scaife, instead of John Campbell, at right tackle in the opener against UF.

You can question why D.J. Ivey, burned early, returned to the starting lineup after his suspension in place of Al Blades Jr, who played well against UF.

But here’s what most concerns me: If this defense doesn’t return to the dominant form we saw for parts of last year and during that scintillating 10-0 start to 2017, then there’s not going to be any return to national contention anytime soon.

It was easy to dismiss Wisconsin dismantling Miami for 406 yards, including 333 on the ground, in that 35-3 Pinstripe Bowl pasting because all of the attention was on Mark Richt’s future and fixing the offense.

But there has been clear diminishment in two areas to start this season: 1) tackling, which was again an issue at times Saturday; 2) even more so, vast regression in pass coverage.

Consider:

Last season, opposing quarterbacks had a dismal 71.5 NFL passer rating against Miami. This season, it’s 108.9. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell had a 133.9 passer rating Saturday, going 16 for 24 for 274 yards.

Last season, quarterbacks completed 51.1 percent of passes against UM, 12th best in the country from a defensive perspective. This year? 67.4 percent.

Last year, UM relinquished 167 passing yards per game. This year? 264.

UM, which allowed 18.2 points and 268 yards per game last season, is permitting 346 and 26 points per game this year.

The breakdowns Saturday were stunning, including the 4th and 17 completion in Gurvan Hall’s area that sustained the winning touchdown drive.

The pass rush (four sacks) was better Saturday than the one-sack showing against UF, but was nowhere to be found on that 4th and 17.

Five players who are badly missed: Safeties Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine, who were excellent in coverage, Gerald Willis (fewer tackles for loss without him), cornerback Michael Jackson and Joe Jackson, who’s more likely to make a momentum-turning play than Scott Patchan.

Pass coverage by the linebackers remains a shortcoming, and it didn’t help that Amari Carter was tossed for targeting.

The run defense, stout against UF, also let UM down Saturday, with North Carolina’s top two running backs combining for 106 yards on 21 carries - 5.0 yards per rush.

And the Turnover Chain never made an appearance Saturday - which is unusual for this program.

And here’s what’s especially troubling: The assumption was that the defense would remain elite with Manny Diaz promoted to head coach. Heck, that was one of the primary reasons UM gave him the job.

And while it wasn’t the primary reason UM lost to UF - and was only one of several reasons Miami lost Saturday - it’s obvious more is needed from the group that was supposed to be consistently good while UM broke in a freshman quarterback and young offensive line.

There were a bunch of positives, including Jarren Williams (30-39-309, two touchdowns), excellent work from DeeJay Dallas (14 for 107) and Cam’Ron Harris (10 for 60) and strong play from Brevin Jordan (6-73), KJ Osborn (7-76) and Mike Harley (5-79).

But we haven’t yet seen the explosiveness from Jeff Thomas, whose seven catches netted only 51 yards.

And here’s what most distressing: UM lost to a team that it beat more resoundingly (47-10) than any other FBS team on its schedule during last year’s 7-6 debacle, a North Carolina team that had lost 14 of its previous 16 conference games.

And this program still seems quite a distance from national relevance, with Miami now 7-11 in its past 18 games.

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