Time for Miami to look like top-10 team

October, 23, 2013
10/23/13
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The NCAA is not going to take Miami out of its No. 7 spot in the BCS standings.

The Canes, however, will do that to themselves if they continue to play the way they have the past three weeks.

Miami fans were enraged last week at the suggestion their team was not top-10 material, in spite of the fact the Canes have now turned it over 12 times in the past three games -- the only team in the country to have at least four turnovers in three straight games this season and the first since East Carolina in 2011. Miami has also had four red-zone turnovers in its last three games. (The Hurricanes had two red-zone turnovers each of the last two seasons.) The defense has allowed 901 yards in the past two games, and quarterback Stephen Morris looked like he was throwing with a blindfold on in Chapel Hill. Miami needed everything it had to win on the road against a North Carolina team that is off to its worst start since 2006.

[+] EnlargeStephen Morris
Photo/Gerry BroomeStephen Morris is completing just 37.8 percent of his passes on third down and has six interceptions. He completed 58.2 percent of his third-down passes in 2012 with one interception.
And yet the Canes continue to climb in the polls.

Yes, this is the best team Al Golden has had at Miami. Yes, the Canes absolutely deserve credit for finding a way to beat UNC with Duke Johnson and Phillip Dorsett, two of their top playmakers, sidelined with injuries. It was a gutsy win against the stingiest Carolina’s defense has been all season. Backup running back Dallas Crawford had an MVP performance and the defense preserved the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds left to play. But there’s no way Miami is going to beat Florida State and Virginia Tech -- two teams ranked in the top 10 in the nation in turnover margin -- if it continues to turn the ball over at such an alarming rate.

Here’s the good news: Miami realizes this.

“It’s a big sense of urgency,” said Johnson, who was cleared to play in Saturday’s game against Wake Forest. “We have to cut down on turnovers because they cost games. We can’t keep putting our defense in situations like that where they just get off the field and we turn the ball over and they have to get right back on the field. When watching film, it’s little details you don’t really take to heart that coaches talk about, just the little things. That’s what we have to get better on, as far as maybe holding the ball with two hands or making the right decision when throwing the ball -- either throw it away but don’t throw it into coverage or just protect the ball at all costs.”

According to ESPN's Stats & Information group, Morris has six interceptions on third down this season, tied with Western Michigan’s Tyler Van Tubbergen for the most in the FBS. Van Tubbergen is the only player with a worse touchdown-to-interception differential than Morris on third down (minus-4).

Miami is a top-10 team by default right now. That’s the biggest flaw in the human polls; teams move up when others move down regardless of what they looked like on the field.

Florida State and Virginia Tech, which have two of the best defenses in the country, will continue to expose those weaknesses in the passing game because both have stellar run defenses and will force Morris to win with his arm.

No. 2 Florida State is ranked third in the country in scoring defense at 12.3 points per game. Look at what the Seminoles just did to Clemson and veteran quarterback Tajh Boyd. The ability to control the line of scrimmage up front and pressure Boyd into mistakes played right into the secondary’s hands -– literally.

It won’t get any easier against the Hokies, who arguably have a better defense than Florida State. Virginia Tech has snagged 13 picks this year; Florida State has had eight. Miami wouldn’t have beaten UNC last week if it weren’t for its running game, and Virginia Tech has the ability to slow that down. The Hokies are allowing just 2.52 yards per rushing attempt and rank second nationally in total defense, allowing only 256 yards per game.

Ask Virginia Tech how hard it is to win when losing the turnover battle.

It was their Achilles’ heel last year. This year? The Hokies have lost only one fumble in seven games, and that came on special teams. Logan Thomas has six interceptions this year, while Morris has eight. According to ESPN Stats & Info, in the last four weeks, 16 teams have averaged at least three turnovers per game. Those teams are a combined 12-34 and Fresno State is the only other team with a winning record besides Miami.

Miami can do better, and the Canes know it.

“We can be a lot better,” Johnson said. “The turnovers leave a big gap in the offense. We have yet to put together a full game. Every game we’ve had turnovers, a lot of miscues, a lot of miscommunication we can get better at.”

Miami is a top-10 team. Now it's time to start playing like one.

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