By J.T. Wilcox | Staff Writer
MIAMI (CBS Miami) – Miami’s defense hasn’t had the best year.
In the grand scheme of things, the Hurricanes defense has given up just under 27 points per game and is allowing opposing teams to gain an average of 413 yards per contest.
Those numbers rank 70th and 76th respectively in the country among FBS schools.
Opponents have scored 20 points or more in all but one game this season – Miami’s 45-0 season-opening win over Bethune-Cookman – and fans still shudder when they think about what happened against Clemson.
Narrowing it down, UM’s defense has had issues with open-field tackling this season, which is why 194 of the yards they give up on average comes from running plays.
So a visit to ACC Coastal leading No. 23 North Carolina (8-1, 5-0) with their 12th ranked offense will put the Canes (6-3, 3-2) defense to the test Saturday in Chapel Hill at 3:30 p.m. televised nationally on ESPNU.
The Hurricanes, which has defeated the Tar Heels in their past two meetings, need a victory to keep their hopes of winning the ACC Coastal Division title alive, while UNC can claim a share of the Coastal Division title and a trip to the league championship game with a win over Miami and a Pittsburgh loss at Duke.
Tough Road Test
North Carolina’s offense has been impressive all season.
Since its 17-13 season-opening loss to South Carolina, UNC has scored 26 or more points in every game this year – including hanging 66 on rival Duke last week.
The Tar Heels point man is senior quarterback Marquise Williams. Williams is a dual-threat weapon under center, having thrown for 2,117 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine games while also rushing for another six scores and 558 yards – second best on the team.
Last week against Duke, UNC’s Williams accounted for nearly 500 yards of offense by himself, tossing four touchdown passes and running for another in the process.
Canes much maligned defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said he knows Williams’ versatile skill set presents a problem for any defense.
“You have to be disciplined – especially on the back end,” D’Onofrio said. “You have to deal with the fact that [Williams] can throw a really good deep ball and they have people that can go get it. You have to be disciplined going against their run game…being disciplined in the run lanes or against designed runs or quarterback scrambles.”
“Obviously it presents a big challenge…but it’s a matter of practicing, understanding who you’re playing, what their strengths are and being focused on taking those things away,” D’Onofrio added.
North Carolina’s receivers look they could have played hoops for Roy Williams, 6-foot-4 Quinshad Davis leads the team in receptions with 36; 6-foot-4 Mack Hollins is tops in receiving yards (553) and touchdowns (7) and is averaging a team-best 26.3 yards per catch and 6-foot-5 Bug Howard is right behind him at 18.5.
The shortest guy in the group – 5-foot-10 Ryan Switzer – is second in receiving yards, receptions and touchdowns and he has accounted for Carolina’s longest play from scrimmage, an 89-yard reception.
Williams’ play at quarterback has also been aided by the emergence of sophomore running back Elijah Hood. The Tar Heels back has rushed for 813 and 11 touchdowns this season on 137 carries.
“They’ve always been a team that could score a lot of points,” D’Onofrio said. “They get explosive plays all over the place…they’ve got a lot of good players to spread the ball around to. Also, their running game has improved and that has helped their offense overall.”
Miami’s defense has been able to counteract the amount of yards given up by being proactive in turning teams over.
UM has 18 takeaways this season – 10 interceptions and eight recovered fumbles – which the Canes offense has turned into 47 points.
Creating turnovers against the Tar Heels will be paramount, as UNC is a team that has cashed in on 88 percent of their trips to the red zone.
Miami’s defensive backfield will be welcoming the return of junior cornerback Artie Burns this week.
Burns, who missed last week’s game for personal reasons following the burial of his mother, leads the team in interceptions this season with five and is widely regarded as one of the better cornerbacks in the nation.
D’Onofrio confirmed Burns return earlier this week.
“He’s in, he’s in. We expect him to play,” the defensive coordinator said. “He’s in and he’s ready to go. It was his decision not to play last week. We told him that we support him; we knew that there’d be a time where he’d have to take care of himself and his family. We told him that we have his back.”
North Carolina, like Duke, employs a lot of no-huddle and quick-tempo schemes into its offensive game plan.
The quickened tempo gave Miami’s defense issues against the Blue Devils – accumulating three illegal participation penalties – as they had problems subbing players in and out of the game, especially when the play was furthest away from their sideline.
Miami interim head coach Larry Scott said the team has tried its best to simulate the fast tempo in practice all week – including working on their substitutions and alignments.
“You have to do it as best you can by creating the atmosphere – starting in the meeting rooms with quick answers, everything has to quicken up,” Scott said.
“Everything has to be sharper. You do the best you can to re-create it, but when it’s their offensive system and how they operate, you never quite get it to the actual speed that it’s going to be in the game. But you put your kids on alert, and you train them to the fact that it’s going to be fast and we have to be alert.”
For Canes cornerback Corn Elder, the game plan for going up against the Tar Heels is simple.
“Do your job,” Elder said. “They have a lot of big play threats, so we have to eliminate the big plays and make them drive the field. Their tempo can be an issue and it can put pressure on the defense…because they line up quick so you have to find the ball, get the call and be ready for the next play.”
“We have a lot of talented players on this team and we’ve been playing well the past couple of weeks,” Elder added.
“We’re ready for the opportunity in front of us.”