Miami defense faces scrutiny again

Miami has dealt with many breakdowns throughout its three-game losing streak.

But one stands out among them all: the defense. In particular, the play up front. Miami has gone from respectable against the run to flat out bad during its losing skid and has not been able to get any pressure on the quarterback.

Miami is allowing an average of 100 yards more per game on the ground in its last three games compared to the first seven. Perhaps most concerning? There is no push into the backfield.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Canes have made contact with the opposing runner in the backfield on only 9 percent of rushes in the last three games, compared to 17 percent in the first seven games. And only 15 percent of opposing rushes have been for zero or negative yards in the last three games, compared to 23 percent in the first seven games. They have been much worse stopping the run up the middle, too. They are allowing 4.4 yards per rush inside the tackles in the last three games, compared to 3.1 in the first seven games.

"We've been on the field too long. We're not as good on third-down defense as we have been. We're not tackling as well," coach Al Golden said about his inconsistent run defense. "We haven't been taking the ball away. All of that is exacerbated by the fact we haven't been as good as we need to be on third-down offense."

There is no doubt the Miami offense can help out the defense by staying on the field longer. But that cannot be the only explanation for all the missed tackles, nor does it completely explain why sack production is down.

Miami had 22 sacks in the first seven games, compared to only four in the last three. Now granted, the Canes have doubled their sack total from a year ago, but they only have 10 in six conference games, the time of year when these stats matter most.

Indeed, when you take a look at where Miami stands in the ACC stats for conference games only, you understand how the Canes have fallen out of control in the Coastal Division. Miami ranks No. 14 in total defense, No. 13 in rushing defense, No. 12 in scoring defense, No. 14 in third-down conversion defense and tied for last in sacks.

These numbers look strikingly familiar to last season, when Miami had one of the worst total defenses in the country. Many have begun to again criticize defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio for the recent performance, leaving Golden to defend him to local reporters this week. Golden himself has taken heat from some fans, suddenly wondering about the direction of the program after a 7-0 start. Golden is 20-14 now as Miami coach. His predecessor, Randy Shannon, was 19-15 through his first 34 games.

It might not be entirely fair to compare, when you consider Shannon did not have to deal with the NCAA mess that Golden has since arriving on campus (although Shannon did have to deal with a dearth in talent left by his predecessor, Larry Coker). And Miami did self-impose a postseason ban that cost it a spot in the ACC title game a year ago. Still, Miami raised expectations this season after its unbeaten start culminated with a No. 7 BCS ranking. Miami was a tenuous No. 7 at best, given the close calls Miami survived to stay unbeaten.

However, allowing 549 yards at home to offensively challenged Virginia Tech and losing to Duke for the first time ever in ACC play cannot be acceptable for this program. The Hokies had 100 more yards of offense against the Canes than its next best output against an FBS team. And given all the advantages Miami has in football, there should never be a scenario where the Hurricanes lose to the Blue Devils. That loss could very well end up being the difference between winning the Coastal Division and staying at home Dec. 7.

Having said that, Miami still has a chance to win 10 games -- starting Saturday against Virginia. For the Hurricanes to get there, they need a much better effort all around. Most especially its defense.