The University of Miami football team’s first two games have not been particularly revealing, which gives Saturday’s noon game at Appalachian State an added dimension of suspense.
The Hurricanes go on the road for the first time with new coach Mark Richt, and they are visiting the snug home of giant-slayers in Boone, North Carolina, where hostile spectators’ boos will echo off the Blue Ridge Mountains.
It was nine years ago that the Appy State Mountaineers upset No. 5 Michigan in Ann Arbor’s Big House, silencing approximately 109,000 stunned fans and prompting the Associated Press to change its policy and include smaller FCS schools in the AP Poll, which had been the exclusive domain of FBS teams. Appalachian State finished the season 13-2, won a third straight national FCS title and tied South Florida for No. 34 in the final poll.
Michigan won the 2014 rematch, 52-14, in the Mountaineers’ debut as an FBS member, but ASU remains a dangerous, outsized foe, and if not for a missed extra point might have upset No. 9 Tennessee at Knoxville instead of losing in overtime two weeks ago.
The No. 25 Hurricanes are wary and not expecting the same type of creampuff opponent they faced in winning their first two games by a combined total of 108-13 and hoisting the team back into the AP Poll for the first time since 2013.
“When you start thinking you’re pretty good is when you get whooped,” said Richt, who piped in loud stadium noise during Thursday’s practice. “First time non-verbal cadence. First time crowd noise against us. We’ve practiced it a lot, all spring, all fall. But we haven’t had the reality of the noise.”
Quarterback Brad Kaaya called Appalachian State “legit,” and said he’s preparing the same way he would if he was going to Tallahassee or Blacksburg, Va.
Linebacker Michael Pinckney said Tennessee underestimated the Mountaineers – a mistake he and his teammates won’t make.
“It’s going to be one of the toughest environments we’re going to be in this year,” running back Mark Walton said.
After many months of unbridled praise and bountiful optimism for the Richt makeover, UM finally gets to test what he has implemented, with much harder tests coming bam, bam, bam, bam, bam – at Georgia Tech, vs. Florida State and North Carolina, at Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame.
What is clear thus far is that Richt and staff have taken players back to the roots of their football experience. He’s allowed them to play instinctually, with aggressive abandon. He’s emphasized that success in this game comes from the ground up.
We see a team that is running and tackling and just plain attacking much better, and it starts at the line of scrimmage.
Manny Diaz’s 4-3 defense stops the run and harasses the quarterback. UM was ranked among the worst in rushing defense last season and felt handcuffed and hesitant in Mark D’Onofrio’s system. UM is currently ranked first in allowing just 69 yards rushing in the first two games. UM ranks first in sacks with 10, compared to 26 total in 2015, and in tackles for loss with 28, compared to 66 total in 2015.
Freshmen linebackers Pinckney, Shaquille Quarterman and Zach McCloud planned to “make a splash,” Quarterman said, and they are doing just that. Linemen R. J. McIntosh, Demetrius Jackson, Chad Thomas and Joe Jackson will have their hands full against ASU’s multiple spread offense that’s averaging 207 rushing yards.
“They really know what they’re doing, they doctor it up a million different ways with formations and motions and heavy alignments and unbalanced alignments so that is a massive challenge,” Diaz said. “First play of the season they got called for a 15-yard penalty because they took Tennessee’s defensive tackle and knocked him literally into the sideline, the wall of the stadium. They’re talking all week about trying to get after us.”
Richt and his assistants’ skill at instruction has also turned around the rushing offense. UM has leaped from 117th last year to No. 5 currently with 652 yards gained, primarily by Walton, Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards. The run game relieves pressure on Kaaya, who too often had to resort to airing it out last year. He’ll get to show off more of UM’s playbook against ASU’s defense, which is not its strength.
One area of continuing concern is UM’s tendency to hurt itself with penalties. UM was ranked last in 2015 with 1,094 yards (nearly the length of 11 football fields). This season, 15 penalties for 145 yards.
“Some of them there’s no excuse whatsoever,” said Richt, who intends to reduce playing time as a penalty for those penalized.
All this wonderful progress was achieved against Florida A&M and FAU. Appalachian State will provide clearer evidence. Richt is a realist. The gaudy stats won’t mean anything unless UM can beat the good teams, too.