- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Something was not right in the Nebraska game. The primetime audience knew it. Miami fans knew it. And you can be sure Mark D'Onofrio knew it, too.
The Hurricanes had given up season-highs in points (41) and yards (456). They had shown no answer for the Cornhuskers' ground game, which relentlessly pounded its way to 343 yards on 54 carries. They were on their way to a 2-2 start, and skepticism surrounding the program's direction continued to mushroom.
So D'Onofrio popped in the tape that week looking to tighten a systematic approach. What he saw was the source of all of his frustration.
"I looked at it and I said, 'You know what? We have too much freelancing going on, and we had the opportunities to make plays and we didn't make the plays,' " Miami's defensive coordinator said. "And I really showed it to the defense and took a good, hard look at it."
What has transpired since is one of the bigger in-season turnarounds throughout the country. Miami's oft-vilified defense finds itself ranked No. 11 nationally as it readies for Saturday's prime-time showdown with rival Florida State, as the Canes come out of a bye with seemingly as good of a shot as anyone at knocking the defending national champion off its throne.
Four wins in the five games since the letdown in Lincoln have boosted the unit's confidence. And it has all, in many ways, come down to the simplest of fundamentals:
If that sounds elementary, consider the layers to it.
"A lot of tackling is knowing where your help is and then trusting each other; there is an art to tackling," head coach Al Golden said. "We're just doing a better job of, A, knowing where our help is; B, following the ball to the unblocked players, because every defense is designed with obviously the ball getting to the unblocked players so they can make the tackle.
"We're using the sideline better on perimeter plays and not letting up explosive runs, which we did not do a year ago, and I think the kids are finishing better. They're bringing the technique to the game. They're playing with a base, their eyes are up and then of course we're getting after it. So those five elements are present right now. I can't say that that was always the case early in the season or certainly last year."
Depth has rounded into form throughout this season, too, with Golden praising the maturity and growth of first- and second-year players. Sophomore linebacker Jermaine Grace (4.5 TFLs, 2 fumble recoveries) and sophomore corners Artie Burns (2 sacks, 5 break-ups) and Corn Elder (1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) are among nine defensive freshmen or sophomores on Miami's two-deep. Late leaps have come from upperclassmen, too, with senior linebacker Thurston Armbrister leading the team in sacks (5), tackles for loss (7) and forced fumbles (2).
A safety who was a late, under-the-radar addition to Golden's first recruiting class, Armbrister moved to linebacker his sophomore year and has bulked up some 40-plus pounds during his time in Coral Gables, up to 241.
"He's got really good length, he's very versatile," D'Onofrio said. "He can play on the ball for us at the Sam linebacker, which is his primary position, but he does a nice job when he plays off the ball. And the thing he added this year that we hadn't done with him in the past is we have him rush on third down, and he asked to do that."
Armbrister, like everyone else on Miami's defense, failed to record a stop behind the line of scrimmage at Nebraska. That has all changed in the nearly two months since, starting with a win over Coastal Division-leading leading Duke that saw the Blue Devils score just 10 points in their lone loss of the season. The Canes recovered from the following week's setback at Georgia Tech, with D'Onofrio disappointed only in his unit's inability to create takeaways against the triple-option attack.
Miami has forced eight turnovers in its three games since, all 20-plus-point wins that were decided by the fourth quarter. Its 19 takeaways on the season are tied for fourth in the ACC and 20th nationally. The Canes are playing their best ball at the best possible time, and they might just be in position to turn the tide on their rivalry with the Seminoles while throwing a major wrench into the College Football Playoff picture.
"I just knew that we had to get our guys to execute, we had to get them to trust, and if we did that, we were on the right track," D'Onofrio said.
"I think we've played really, really well," he later added. "Yards per play and third down, we're taking the ball away, we're creating pressure. So I'm very pleased with where we're at. It doesn't mean anything if we don't play well Saturday night, but I think our guys are developing a lot of confidence because of the performance, demonstrative performance, both in practice and in the games."