NCF Nation: Al Golden
For the ACC to cause a permanent shift in the league’s national perception, all of those teams need to take a step forward and break free from a sustained stretch of mediocrity. However, no program can alter the ACC’s image quicker than five-time national champion Miami, which is why it’s pivotal for the Hurricanes to close 2014 strong against South Carolina in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl and build momentum for 2015.
For much of the past decade, it’s been a house of straw.
Fourth-year coach Al Golden also needs some positive vibes heading into the offseason following a late-season collapse that saw the Canes drop their final three games -- the last two in a fashion so ugly it was fair to question Miami’s coaching and motivation. A winning record and 7-6 looks a lot better than 6-7 with a four-game losing streak. A win won’t quiet the unrest among the fan base, but it will keep Golden’s warm seat from intensifying. Canes athletic director Blake James reiterated Golden is his coach, but another 6-6 season and sub-.500 conference record next year, which would be his third in five years, could have Miami searching for another coach in hopes of duplicating its early 2000s success.
Miami is best suited among those four teams to make the jump to the 10-win plateau, too. It begins with true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya, the conference’s top rookie and one of the league’s best signal-callers already. He threw for just shy of 3,000 yards and tossed 25 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions.
The Canes are sufficiently stocked on offense around him, even if star tailback Duke Johnson bolts for the NFL. Freshman Joe Yearby ran for 489 yards with a an average of 6.1 yards per rush, and the offensive line will have four full- or part-time starters return in 2015.
The defense could take its lumps, but the unit improved dramatically this season and, while the team did not look like a top defense at times, still managed to finish the season ranked 14th nationally in total defense.
A break in scheduling also should benefit Miami in a crucial season. Nebraska makes its return trip with a new coach, Louisville drops off the schedule and Clemson, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech all travel to Miami.
“Look at Mississippi State last year,” said junior defensive tackle Calvin Heurtelou, pointing to the Bulldogs’ 7-6 record in 2013. “We got a chance to come in and win seven games. With the young talent we can easily turn things around.”
This bowl season, no 6-6 team needs a stronger finish than Miami for the sake of the program, its coach and its conference.
But there are many other questions looming over a program that underachieved in 2014, one that ended the regular season on a three-game losing streak -- including dispassionate losses to Virginia and Pitt.
The most immediate question that comes to mind: If Miami could not get up for a home finale against Pitt, what will get the Hurricanes motivated to win in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Lousiana, against an average South Carolina team that was among the most disappointing in the country?
Miami athletic director Blake James tried to put a positive spin on the bowl assignment, saying in a conference call with reporters Monday, "I'm confident Al and our guys will be ready to go and go out there and play a great game. There's a lot of things to look at as a real positive and a lot of things for our guys to get excited about, just going against an SEC opponent right away."
James realizes this, saying multiple times, "We have to get better. 6-6 isn't acceptable at the University of Miami. We need to get better as a program."
How exactly will that happen? James was asked whether coaching changes outside Golden could be in store once the bowl game is over. He said any staff changes would have to come from Golden, not him. James was also asked whether he has lost any confidence in the coaching staff over the last year.
"After the bowl game, I'll reflect back on the entire season and talk with Al about it," James said. "As I've said numerous times, he's our coach. He's going to continue to be our coach. He knows we have to get better, I know we have to get better so I have to talk to him about what I can do to support his efforts to getting better because at the end of the day, that's the expectation for the University of Miami football program."
A win would obviously be a big boost to morale, because 2015 is shaping up to be a critical year for both the Canes and Golden. Miami is losing its best defensive player in Denzel Perryman and potentially its two best offensive threats in Clive Walford and Duke Johnson, who has to decide whether to return or enter the NFL draft.
Quarterback Brad Kaaya showed tremendous grit, determination and growth in his first year as a starter. He presents the biggest reason for optimism. As he noted, "For us, the bowl game is important to getting some momentum for next year. We can get some good bowl practices in and let that carry into next season and guide us to next year."
Miami has an opportunity to build around its first bona fide standout at the quarterback position since Ken Dorsey. What will the Canes do with that chance? Golden is not in danger right now, but another 6-6 season changes that completely.
Golden has been through the ringer at Miami. James and the administration have waited patiently as the NCAA cloud cleared. But that cannot be used as an excuse much longer. Not when Miami so clearly had the talent to be much better than 6-6 this season. That is why so many among the fan base have lost faith in Golden and the coaching staff.
They see the players on the field, and they see the record, and it simply does not compute. They see how Miami took Florida State to the wire, and they see what happened against Virginia and Pitt, and it does not compute.
"I'm disappointed any time we lose. It probably maybe stung a little bit more in those last two because I felt we made such great progress through the Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, North Carolina games and even in that Florida State game," James said. "I felt coming out of there that we'd be able to go out and perform at a high level and I didn't see it from my vantage point in those final two weeks. That's something Al and the guys will be working on. We need to get that fixed and be ready to go in Shreveport."
If not, what already is a long offseason will feel much, much longer.
Miami presented itself like the South Beach Strip with its flash and style and swagger, but it was cosmetic. The Hurricanes were passable in a middling conference, far removed from the glory days of "The U."
However, it's not just smoke and mirrors in Miami for the first time in a long time, though. There's substance to this team, and it's OK to believe in Miami, which has never played in an ACC championship. You won't be burned this time, because the Hurricanes have a quarterback. In fact, he's their best QB since Ken Dorsey, and his name is Brad Kaaya.
Kaaya is Miami's 6-foot-4, 209-pound all-business true freshman quarterback. He committed to the Canes in May 2013 without much national fanfare, unlike recent predecessors. Kaaya was a Southern California kid and unbeknownst to most Miami fans at the time of his pledge. He wasn't the local stars Jacory Harris and Robert Marve were, nor did he have the national profile of Brock Berlin or Kyle Wright. UCLA and USC didn't think enough of Kaaya to offer him a scholarship until after his senior season began.
Yet as a freshman, Kaaya has started every game for Miami and was within minutes of making the Hurricanes the Coastal Division favorite Saturday. After just 10 starts, he is already one of the ACC's five best quarterbacks and leads the conference in quarterback rating, passing touchdowns and yards per attempt.
It was his poise against the reigning national champions that stood out most Saturday.
"He's doing a good job. We're asking him to do a lot. That's a big stage and a big moment. I think we certainly can take from this that it's not too big for him. He grew up a lot this season," Miami coach Al Golden said.
Miami has lacked talent at nearly every position since falling from its perch atop college football, but it was never more evident than at quarterback. Promise rarely turned into production, and now the Canes have that with Kaaya.
"He was on the money with just about everything," FSU safety Tyler Hunter said.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher called Kaaya a "heckuva player."
With a capable quarterback and the team's clear leader, the rest of the Hurricanes are taking shape around Kaaya. It has been a long process for Golden in Coral Gables, but Miami is putting together a roster with the ability to win an ACC title. At the top is Kaaya.
Football is a quarterback-driven sport, and Miami hasn't been right with the players behind the wheel in quite some time. Marve, Harris and Wright never lived up to the hype, and Berlin and Stephen Morris were serviceable but not much else.
Miami isn't looking to 2015 with three games left on the schedule, but the future is bright with Kaaya. Most of the offense will remain intact in 2015 (and 2016), and while the defense will lose key seniors, there is renewed confidence and consistency in defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio's scheme.
The talent gap between Florida State, the ACC gold standard, and Miami was not as wide as it has been recently. The Canes left Sun Life Stadium with the feeling it let the Seminoles off the hook. They did, failing to put away a resilient Florida State team early. Part of that is a lack of depth as Golden dealt with NCAA sanctions and putting his own stamp on the program.
The bigger part is that those close losses are routine for a team learning how to win. They struggle to close out wins and make the necessary plays late in games, but it's all part of the process. Florida State went through the growing pains early in Fisher's career and it appears Miami is doing the same. Fisher admitted last week this was a better Miami team than the 7-0 squad he throttled in 2013.
"I'm not giving you a laundry list of 15 things and they all had to happen [to win]. We just needed a couple things," Golden said. "We're crushed from it, but there's so many positive things."
The positives begin at quarterback, and they could end -- finally -- with an ACC title.
Big wins are expected. So are championships. And that is why there is more pressure on Miami coach Al Golden than there is on Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher headed into their showdown on Saturday. That might not make much sense on the surface because Fisher needs to win out to get Florida State into the College Football Playoff.
But Fisher has succeeded where Golden has not. Fisher has his signature victories on his résumé.
“For everybody, to win this game would be big,” linebacker Denzel Perryman said. “The past four years, we've been coming up short, so to have that win would be big for us and the coaches and the program, To have that W is always great momentum.”
When the senior class signed with Miami, there was no way to envision being winless against the Seminoles.
“Of course not, you come to Miami to beat Florida State,” offensive lineman Shane McDermott said. “It’s been four years, and we haven’t beaten them. it’s been a rough road in that sense, but we have a great shot coming up this Saturday. It’s my senior year, so we’d really like to get that win.”
Given the way both Florida State and Miami have played of late, the oddsmakers have made the Noles slim favorites, bolstering expectations for a close game and potential Hurricanes win. If Miami gets blown out, you can bet the Golden critics will be out again, the way they were after Miami lost to Georgia Tech to drop to 3-3.
A group of fans flew a banner over Sun Life Stadium the following week during the Cincinnati game, reading “Fire Al Golden.” Prominent alumni started questioning the direction of the program. But all those critics have grown silent during the Canes’ three-game winning streak.
Golden has had plenty of people come to his defense, too, from former receiver Michael Irvin to former running back Mike James. Athletic director Blake James remains firmly behind him as well.
“Coach Golden’s done a tremendous job,” McDermott said. “He stayed here throughout all our NCAA storm, and he handled every single thing with class, and he’s really showed love for our university. There’s been a lot of yapping going on around the program, but he just ignores it. That’s one great quality he has. Every single day, he goes to practice, and he wants to make us the best possible team he can. We’re starting to become that.”
Golden has hung signs up around the football facilities that say, “Ignore the Noise.” Despite disappointing results against Louisville, Nebraska and Georgia Tech, Miami has the No. 11-ranked defense in the country (312 ypg) and is on pace to have its best rushing performance since the 2001 national championship team.
On the flip side, Miami has lost three of its four toughest games this season. Of its six wins, only one is over a power-five team with a winning record -- No. 21 Duke.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Golden said. “Obviously, you open the season with an inexperienced quarterback at two very difficult places to play at Louisville and Nebraska. So I think we learned a lot from that. Certainly, our quarterback has learned a lot. He’s done a better job protecting the ball, and he's grown throughout the season. It’s a great challenge coming up.”
Golden and Davis do have one more thing in common. As McDermott alluded to, both coaches had to deal with NCAA sanctions at the start of their tenures. Davis eventually beat Florida State after five straight losses, and set the program up for its fifth national championship.
But 15 years later, there seems to be more impatience from many Miami supporters, desperate to get back to national prominence the way Florida State has over the past three years. Golden and his players are desperate to win, too. They try to “ignore the noise” but they are not completely blind and deaf.
They know the perception. They know they have to win this game.
“Of course, you get angry, but you turn that into fuel and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to prove everyone wrong here,'" McDermott said.
Their opportunity to prove it comes on Saturday.
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.
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."
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Earlier in the week, Willie Byrn said he expected an air of desperation between his Virginia Tech team and Miami in Lane Stadium on Thursday night.
One team played with desperation.
The other looked desperate for answers.
With each team needing a win to stay alive in the Coastal Division, Miami dominated from start to finish, playing its most complete game of the season in a decisive 30-6 win. Duke Johnson was unstoppable, running for a career-high 249 yards as Miami racked up 364 yards rushing -- the most ever given up by a Frank Beamer-coached team.
The defense, meanwhile, played with an unmistakable edge, holding Virginia Tech scoreless until the final 1:30. It added up to the first road win of the season for the Canes, and it came at the best time imaginable.
"No one wants to go on the road and lose. No one wants to take a plane ride somewhere and not come back with a W," Miami offensive lineman Shane McDermott said. "We take pride in that. This is an ACC Coastal game and we wanted to execute. We needed to execute to keep alive in the Coastal. We came out and did that."
For Virginia Tech, it looked about as hopeless as it has over the last three uncharacteristically weak seasons. That might seem like a harsh assessment, but this team has regressed after showing some early glimmers at Ohio State. Indeed, that victory in September continues to confound many. How could Virginia Tech look so good in that game, but so bad in its four losses?
After falling behind 24-0, three third-quarter fumbles sealed their fate against Miami. Now, the Hokies are staring at a 1-3 deficit in ACC play, strange and uncharted territory for a program that has made its name as the Coastal flag bearer.
As bad as it has been for Virginia Tech, the Hokies have never before been 1-3 in conference play, calling into question not only why this team has failed to progress, but how much progress can definitively be made as long as Beamer is in charge.
Yes, there are some terrific young players. But Miami also has terrific young players who have gotten better each week. Take the quarterbacks, for example. Miami freshman Brad Kaaya looks nothing like the player that started the opener against Louisville. Three times in the last four games, he has not thrown an interception and is finding ways to make plays.
While he was not asked to do much against the Hokies, Kaaya made some good throws and did not get the Canes into any trouble. Michael Brewer, a transfer from Texas Tech, does not have nearly the same type of command. Perhaps it is because Kaaya has a much better supporting cast. But there is no denying Kaaya has made improvement. Brewer does not give Virginia Tech an edge at the position.
"It wasn't a pretty picture all night, but I saw some things we can certainly build on," Beamer said afterward, trying to put an optimistic spin on the night. "We are going to be a better football team. We have a lot of good players on this team. I look forward to the future because I think we are going to be pretty good."
While that might be true, the reality is Miami ran circles around Virginia Tech in every imaginable way -- and Beamer is being judged not on potential in 2015 but what he has in front of him now. The Miami coaching was better; the play calling was better; the game plan was better; the talent was better.
Miami's problem this season has been an inability to put everything together in one game. Finally, the Canes got the best out of their offense and defense. Maybe that was due to the Hokies, not exactly a juggernaut this season. But after weeks of criticism and questions, Miami and its coaches deserve some credit.
They got the most out of their players in a place that has vexed the program since 2005. What awaits next is tougher: sustaining that edge, effort, drive and intensity for the final four games.
"We're getting better," coach Al Golden said. "We had really good practices leading up to this game, good attitude, everybody concentrating on what they need to concentrate on and block everything out. We've got a long way to go. But I think the guys have made a commitment to get better each week and each day and are staying positive."
The Canes are winless away from home this season; and they have not won in Blacksburg since 2005. In order to change that narrative and get back into the Coastal Division race, the objective seems pretty simple. Play better on the road.
However, one common thread emerged in each -- close games turned into double-digit losses thanks to untimely turnovers that turned momentum the other way. Of the eight turnovers Miami has committed on the road, seven came in its opponents’ territory.
Among the costliest:
- With the game tied at 7 against Louisville in the second quarter, Miami forced Will Gardner to fumble deep inside his own territory. The Canes faced a first-and-goal at the 7, the perfect opportunity to quiet the hostile road crowd. But Stacy Coley fumbled on the first play. Miami never got closer to the end zone.
- Down 24-21 against Nebraska late in the third quarter, Duke Johnson fumbled inside Nebraska territory. The Cornhuskers picked up the ball and returned it 57 yards for a score.
- With the game tied at 14 against Georgia Tech midway through the second quarter, Brad Kaaya threw an interception from the Jackets 27. Miami scored a field goal the rest of the game.
Turnovers always hurt, but giving the ball away in such critical situations is painful, especially with a freshman behind center. Kaaya has thrown nine interceptions, third worst among ACC quarterbacks who have started every game this season. He has not thrown an interception in two games this year -- his last two home games against Duke and Cincinnati.
The good news for Miami, though, is that Kaaya already has played in front of two electric prime-time crowds at Louisville and Nebraska. Virginia Tech is known for its wild Thursday night atmospheres, but there may not be a full crowd at Lane Stadium. Since he already has been road tested, Kaaya should not show many jitters.
Even better news rests with the Coastal Division, where every team has at least one loss. At 1-2 in ACC play, Miami is only one game behind Duke, Virginia and Pitt -- all 2-1. Miami already has a head-to-head win over the Blue Devils, which could help if there is a tiebreaker down the road.
“Maybe when we got back from Atlanta, we had some guys that maybe didn’t understand how early it was in the race,” coach Al Golden told reporters in Miami on Monday. “Based on what’s transpired since then, maybe they’re believing now. Maybe they have a little more faith that this thing is far from over. We’ve got to take care of our business and not worry about anything else. It’s a one-game season right now and when we get back from Blacksburg, it’ll be another one game season. That’s all that matters.”
Winning on the road matters, too. Miami will have a tough time winning the division if it keeps falling flat away from home.
At this point, a nonconference win against a mediocre opponent is not going to present many answers to the bigger picture -- trying to get into the ACC championship game. Miami sits 1-2 in conference play, and that slow start has given critics a reason to start hollering about coach Al Golden and defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio.
We are not just talking about fans. Prominent alumni have joined the growing chorus wondering whether Golden and D’Onofrio are doing enough to coach up their players. Phillip Buchanon, Joaquin Gonzalez and Brett Romberg, who all played on the 2001 national championship team, have voiced their frustrations, either on the radio or social media.
There is little doubt, then, that the Thursday night game at Virginia Tech next week is a must-win, not only to tamp down the outrage but also to climb back into the division race. Miami sits 1½ games behind Virginia, but in the topsy-turvy Coastal, no lead is safe.
Having said that, the Canes cannot afford to drop a third league game -- not with back-to-back games looming in November against Florida State and Virginia.
Playing in Virginia has not exactly brought a tidal wave of good feeling. The last time Miami won in Blacksburg was 2005; in Virginia it was 2008. So you can see why the pressure is on the preseason Coastal favorite to hit the road and actually win -- something the Canes have yet to do this season.
Miami has dropped its first three road games, the first time that has happened since 1995. The reasons have varied. In the opener against Louisville, the offense was a shell of itself as Miami started true freshman Brad Kaaya. Against Nebraska and Georgia Tech, the Canes could not slow down the run -- particularly maddening because the defense seemed out of position and improperly aligned on multiple occasions.
But there were two similar threads in all three losses, issues that have plagued Miami in all its games this season. In the three road losses, Miami turned the ball over eight times and converted just 6 of 28 third-down opportunities.
“We’ve been prepared,” Golden said Wednesday on the ACC coaches' call. “At Lincoln, we go down and move the ball and score, and at Georgia Tech, we do the same thing. There’s a lot of little details about why we didn’t win those games, but it wasn’t for the fact of being on the road. We didn’t have many procedural penalties in either of those two games or anything that would indicate there’s an issue.
“[Virginia Tech’s] a great challenge for us. Our guys are going to be excited about going into that environment. They know what it entails and what you have to do to win. It’s not going to change our preparation. We know the environment we’re going into and the type of team we’re going to play.”
Miami has not done much better holding on to the ball and converting on third down at home, where the Canes have played only one Power 5 team in four games. No surprise, then, that Miami ranks No. 13 in turnover margin and No. 14 in third-down conversions in the ACC.
Couple those offensive issues with an inconsistent defense that still has problems with its front seven and it is easy to see why Miami is 4-3.
“There’s a lot of things we need to improve and a lot of things we’re working on,” Golden said. “There’s a lot of positives, but our focus this week is to eliminate the issues and things that are holding us back.”
While the NCAA investigation into the program concluded last year, the Hurricanes are still trying to get out from under its cloud. That is a valid point to be made in defense of Golden, though fans and alums are tired of hearing excuses.
They are desperate for Miami to be a winner again. The longer it takes, the more vocal the critics will get.
So today's Take Two topic: Which is closer, Nebraska or Miami, to a return to the top of college football?
Take 1: Mitch Sherman
I'll go with the Huskers, though almost by default as Miami continues to feel its way through the new world order in college football, having lost five games or more in six of the past eight seasons. Sure, Miami uses a proven recruiting formula under Al Golden, but that's the problem. Florida State does it better. And so does half of the SEC.
Some might make similar claims about Nebraska. After all, the Huskers play in the Big Ten, where Ohio State resonates more deeply with recruits, and Penn State has seized momentum in recent months.
At least the Huskers have stability. Say what you want about coach Bo Pelini's lack of championships, but his teams have played in league title games three times in his six years, and he's never won fewer than nine games. Those 9-4 and 10-4 records do little to soothe the feelings of Nebraska fans who long for the glory years, but that era is long gone.
This week, Nebraska can take some solace in knowing that it's closer, by the numbers, to regaining elite status than Miami. And the weak Big Ten, despite conventional logic, might help Nebraska, which has upgraded its talent while others in the conference have not.
A win over Miami would complete an unbeaten nonconference season. Hurdles remain in the league, but for the Huskers, a re-emergence nationally is closer than many envision.
Take 2: Matt Fortuna
Looking down the road, though, I think the Hurricanes have the more direct path back to their glory days, or at least at getting closer to what they once were. For one: Location, location, location. There is simply too much talent in Miami for this program ever to fall on down times. Golden, in his fourth year, has taken advantage of this, on pace for his fourth straight top-15 recruiting class. Let's not forget that this was also a program that was operating under the black cloud of the Nevin Shapiro scandal for two-plus years.
The same argument that the Big Ten provides a clearer path for Nebraska can be used for the ACC and Miami; the Coastal Division is a mess. But the most promising aspect for the Canes may be just that: promise.
Yes, fans want more out of this regime, which has lacked some punch at times. But there is still time to clean things up and for Miami -- which, we should note, has had some pretty awful luck with injuries offensively -- to improve. What Pelini has done in Lincoln is no small task, and I do think he is taken for granted, but I wonder if he has maxed out there. That may be tough to accept for a fan base that is so used to dominance, but as you said, that era appears gone.
What isn't gone is the talent in Florida, and in the Southeast. By virtue of its location, and by surviving a potentially program-crumbling scandal, Miami at least has the upside to make a return to the top of the college football world a possibility in the not-so-distant future.
Unfortunately for Kaaya, it seems everybody around him let him down.
The offensive line was overmatched and played poorly, contributing to Duke Johnson's ineffectiveness. Kaaya looked like a jittery freshman. But perhaps most troubling of all, the coaching staff put together too conservative a plan and seemed ill prepared to adjust at what Louisville was throwing at them.
Coach Al Golden admitted Tuesday there is a fine line between throwing open the entire playbook on the road in a hostile environment and making sure to call enough plays to get a new quarterback comfortable. But he admitted that perhaps more could have been done to help Kaaya out.
"That's a fair criticism. We probably could have or should have opened it up a little more for him, just based on where he is as a player and his mind," Golden said.
Kaaya made his share of mistakes in his debut, but so did those around him. He threw two interceptions. But worse, Miami had two trips inside the Louisville 10 yard-line and came away with just a field goal. The first time, Kaaya noted an opportunity to catch Louisville offside. So he rushed a bubble screen to Stacy Coley, unintentionally throwing a lateral. Louisville recovered.
That one was on Kaaya.
The second time, Miami put together a long drive that started at its own 5 with some big plays from Johnson and Phillip Dorsett. Down to the 12-yard line, Miami advanced to the 5 and needed 3 yards to get a first down. Miami called a third straight running play and settled for the field goal.
That one is on the coaches.
"I was of the mind-set we were going to get a first down in four downs," Golden said. "I was not counting on a 2-yard loss on third down. Even if we just block it correctly and get back to the line of scrimmage, I'm probably going for it there. It didn't turn out that way because we missed an assignment."
The offensive line was an issue throughout the course of the game. One ineligible man downfield penalty negated a big play from Johnson late in the game. Lorenzo Mauldin and Deiontrez Mount seemed to set up shop in the Canes backfield. Kaaya was only sacked twice, but he was hit countless others.
"We clearly did not protect him well enough," Golden said.
Louisville followed a similar blueprint in the bowl game meeting between them last year, despite a new scheme and staff change. The Cards were physical and aggressive, and got after the quarterback. Yet Miami did not seem ready for what the Cards would do. When it became clear that this Louisville defense was playing much quicker, especially off the edge, Miami never adjusted.
Kaaya was not perfect, but he showed why he was an elite prospect out of high school. Some of his throws were perfect, especially the 31-yard pass to Clive Walford that set up his touchdown. You saw the glimmers that gave Golden the confidence to go with a true freshman over fifth-year senior Jake Heaps. Kaaya finished 17-of-29 for 174 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Not great, but not awful either.
"There's always things to get better at," Kaaya told reporters after the game. "I did some good things and I did some bad things, but I just feel like there's always a place to improve."
There is room to grow for everyone on the team. But for Kaaya to reach his true potential, he is going to need his coaches to get him there. They need to step up their game, too.
The offensive line.
Only a handful of teams escaped Week 1 without questions at the position. Wake Forest was abysmal. Miami was not much better. Syracuse and Virginia Tech had breakdowns in goal-line situations. Louisville struggled in pass protection. Clemson had zero yards rushing in the second half.
Not even Florida State was immune. The Seminoles returned four starters and were touted as the best offensive line in the country going into the season, but they sure did not look it last week.
“On run blocking, I don’t think we were as physical as we needed to be, which was very rare,” coach Jimbo Fisher admitted during his press conference this week. Fisher singled out just one offensive lineman -- guard Tre' Jackson -- for his performance. The others? “We didn’t play up to our potential.”
Just how ugly did it get at times up front in a tight 37-31 win over Oklahoma State? According to ESPN Stats & Information, Florida State running back Karlos Williams was contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on 52 percent of his rushes. Last season, he was hit at or behind the line on just 24 percent of his rushes.
Virginia’s running backs also failed to find much traction against UCLA last week. Kevin Parks and Taquan Mizzell combined to carry the ball 27 times. Thirteen of those carries went for 2 yards or less. Take away the longest run of the day, Parks’ 17-yarder to open the game, and the two averaged a combined 2.7 yards per carry.
The numbers weren’t any better for Clemson, which had just 88 yards rushing in a 45-21 loss to Georgia. In the second half, the Tigers racked up a measly 15 total yards of offense, but lost all their rushing yards thanks to four sacks (Clemson gave up five in all). The Tigers are thin at tackle but do get help back this week with the return of left guard David Beasley, who was suspended for the opener.
There weren’t any bright spots in run blocking or pass blocking at Wake Forest and Miami, either. The Deacs were completely overwhelmed in a loss to ULM, allowing six sacks and finishing with minus-3 yards rushing. Even if you take away the yards lost to the sacks, Orville Reynolds had 37 yards rushing.
Miami did not anticipate the total breakdown it saw on its offensive line against Louisville on Monday night. But there the Canes were, getting manhandled up front the way they did in the bowl game last year to the Cards.
Not only were there few running lanes for Duke Johnson, freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya was under constant pressure all night and four penalties were called on the line -- including a costly ineligible player downfield that negated a long pass down to the Louisville 3.
“We didn't play with great pad level ... sometimes we were looking around instead of attacking and executing,” Al Golden said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. “There was a period in the third quarter we stared coming off the ball better, but we started to let negative plays wipe them out.”
Syracuse and Virginia Tech had problems ramming the ball in from the goal line. After recovering a fumble at the 2, it took the Hokies seven tries to score a touchdown. After the game, coach Frank Beamer joked, “Did that look as bad up there as it did from the sideline?”
The Orange were no better on the goal line in a double-overtime win over Villanova. They had five chances to score from the 1 in extra time and were denied all five times. It was easy to see how much the ejection of quarterback Terrel Hunt impacted the ground game. Take away Prince-Tyson Gulley’s 65 yard run and Syracuse averaged 2.2 yards per carry.
What we saw in Week 1 may end up being a minor blip. But it is pretty easy to see what many teams will be working on during practice over the next few days. Shoring up the offensive line should be a priority just about everywhere.
The Cards beat Miami the last time they played, nine months ago in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. "Beat" might not be a strong enough word to describe what happened in Orlando, Florida. Louisville embarrassed Miami, a school in a bigger conference with more football tradition and much more at stake, too.
Nobody on either side has quite forgotten the 36-9 final. Louisville linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin still has a “U” logo hanging in his room with a big red X through it. Miami players, meanwhile, talk about getting revenge, about feeling “disrespected” in the bowl game. Animosity between the two already is jacked up, and they haven't even played a league game yet.
It's easy to see why the ACC selected this as its prime-time Labor Day showdown. The subplots are so juicy, it's hard to pick the juiciest one. Is it the bitterness between the sides, exacerbated by all the Florida players on the Louisville roster who want to show Miami what it’s missing? Is it the Miami disrespect card, exacerbated when former quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did the throat-slash gesture late in the bowl game last year?
Is it Bobby Petrino making his return to the Louisville sideline? Is it Miami starting true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya? Is it Miami running back Duke Johnson finally returning to the field after missing the end of last season with a broken ankle? Is it Louisville’s official ACC debut?
The matchups might be completely different, the Louisville coaching staff and schemes might be totally different, but that does not change just how much both teams look back on what happened in December.
Louisville wants a repeat. Miami wants revenge.
“The guys just want to come back and do it again,” Mauldin said. “It was a great feeling, and they just want to feel like that again. The preparation leading up to it has been good. I feel like we’re going to have a lot of fun on Monday night.”
Miami coach Al Golden tried to downplay his team’s emotions, saying: “Louisville played really well. They had an exceptional team. They had a team that -- they only lost a couple times in two years, so that was a great team, played really well. But no, in terms of our program and their program, this is a different team for both, and clearly we have to take care of our business, not worry about anybody else's.”
Petrino, who was not even on the sidelines for the Louisville win last season, had a different view. He said his players do have extra motivation going into this game, a rare rematch that pits the same teams in a bowl and season opener.
“I think that's human,” Petrino said. “Got a lot of guys from that same area that played against a lot of players on their team in high school, have known each other for a long time. It's going to be real important for us to focus on the process, focus on our performance one play at a time.”
It sounds like a cliché, but Mauldin said the team has worked on trying not to get too emotional leading up to kickoff because “when you get too riled up, you can forget what you learn, and you don’t want to get complacent.”
The Louisville defense will have a far different assignment in this game. Priority No. 1 is stopping Johnson, who has the ability to change the game with one play. Then, the Cards can focus on rattling Kaaya, a wild card in the matchup. Louisville has no tape to study on him, so it has just been focusing on the offensive scheme. The defense will have to adjust on the fly to what Kaaya brings to the table.
Miami also faces unknowns on the Louisville offense. Will Gardner replaces Bridgewater, and leading receiver DeVante Parker is out. Petrino runs a vastly different scheme than former coach Charlie Strong did in the bowl game. Coaching adjustments are always important, maybe more so in openers, when there are so many unknowns.
Still, there is enough from both sides to go on. Most especially, all that emotion.
The suspension was one of the worst kept secrets in college football, initially reported by multiple news outlets in early August. Olsen was the projected starter headed into fall camp, but the suspension changed the quarterback competition. Miami coach Al Golden will start true freshman Brad Kaaya over transfer Jake Heaps.
Olsen is not scheduled to make the trip to Louisville. In addition, receiver Rashawn Scott is out for the game with a shoulder/clavicle injury. Interestingly, Miami did not list injured quarterback Ryan Williams (knee) on the injury report.
The teams play Monday night (8 ET, ESPN).
That was not an empty promise. The Deacs needed to replace their departed senior quarterback, and they had no experienced players on their roster. Why not give the freshmen a shot?
Sometimes they rise to the challenge, like John Wolford. Clawson started hearing reports about Wolford from his upperclassmen before fall practice even began. They told him, “That freshman is really good.”
Once practice began, it became pretty clear he was more than good. Clawson decided early in camp that Wolford would be his starter, beginning tonight at ULM (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU). He is not the only coach who has gone that route.
Three true freshmen quarterbacks have an opportunity to play in Week 1, the most in the ACC since 2010. Brad Kaaya earned the starting job in Miami, while Deshaun Watson is expected to play when Clemson takes on Georgia on Saturday.
According to research gathered by the ACC office, this could be the first time in league history that two true freshmen quarterbacks open the season under center.
Watching a youth movement unfold at the position is not unexpected. The ACC lost nine starting quarterbacks to either graduation, the NFL draft or transfer. Only Jameis Winston, Anthony Boone and Terrel Hunt return as unquestioned starters.
In Wake’s case, the Deacs have turned to true freshmen quarterbacks the last two times they had to make a decision. Tanner Price started nine games for Wake Forest in 2010 and never relinquished his starting job. But he did not open the season as the starter.
Wolford will be the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in school history.
“He gives us our best chance to win,” Clawson said. “He is our best quarterback, so I can’t worry about whether he’s a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. In a perfect world, you always love to have the guy be in the system one or two years before he plays. But we’re going to put the guys out there who give us the best chance to win. And he clearly won the job. He’s playing at a high level. I don’t think those things suddenly disappear once you play a game.”
Both Clawson and Miami coach Al Golden have described their new starting quarterbacks as very even-keeled, an important quality to have considering both players have to make their first career starts on the road.
Clawson said Wolford is “the same person every day. There’s not a lot of reps where you’re shaking your head saying, ‘What's he thinking about?' He is as ready as any true freshman I've been around.”
Miami faced a different situation than Wake Forest. The Canes had hoped to start senior Ryan Williams, but he tore his ACL in the spring and is not healthy enough to play. Redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen was next in line, but he is serving a suspension. Kaaya beat out senior transfer Jake Heaps during fall practice and will start Monday night against Louisville.
“I think that's probably where we got the most confidence from him, just his overall depth and understanding of what we were trying to get done and his ability to get us in the right play at the line of scrimmage. Without that, it would be hard to name him the starter, but he certainly demonstrated to us all training camp that it wasn't going to be too big for him.”
Clemson, meanwhile, plans on starting senior Cole Stoudt but coach Dabo Swinney says Watson will play. What type of role Watson will have remains to be seen. What Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris plan to do with Watson provides a level of intrigue we are unaccustomed to with this offense.
When Swinney was asked whether he knew when Watson would go into the game, he smiled and said, “When we put him in, that's the perfect time to put him in.”
Stoudt is actually the last true freshman to play quarterback at Clemson, back in 2011. The last Clemson true freshman quarterback to start a game was Nealon Greene in 1994.
Watson may bring intrigue, but he has to wait a few more days to get his shot.
Wolford gets the spotlight tonight.
You're forgiven if this entire exercise seems foreign. But at least 10 of the ACC's 14 teams will start new faces under center when games kick off next week. And there is a good chance that four of those 10 will have quarterbacks who began their college careers elsewhere.
"I really don't know," Miami coach Al Golden said of the surplus of ACC quarterback transfers. "We liked where we were in the spring, and clearly Ryan [Williams] went down the week before the spring game. It's really not a function of not being confident in the guys that are on campus. It's more a function of just wanting to get a guy that has been in the game and has the experience."
Golden acknowledged the quarterback market has been busier than usual, particularly in his league. He brought in former BYU and Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps this summer after Williams, the Hurricanes' No. 1 quarterback, suffered a right ACL injury that will keep him out for an indefinite period of time. (Williams, naturally, began his career elsewhere, at Memphis.)
Heaps, eligible immediately as a graduate transfer, is battling true freshman Brad Kaaya to start Miami's opener.
"I think the quarterback position has grown in terms of talent over the last few years," said Heaps, who set several freshman records at BYU in 2010 before losing his job both with the Cougars and later at Kansas. "There’s a lot of great, quality quarterbacks in college football right now and they all want a chance to play. That’s where you’re seeing a lot of these guys transfer. They’re in their situation but they know they can play somewhere else so they make those moves and try and find the best situation for them and in some cases it works out, in others it doesn’t. Just knowing they have that opportunity is first and foremost.
"Sometimes things just don’t work out. Recruiting is the way it is and sometimes a situation isn’t what you think it will be when you get there. It’s been a unique trend in the last little bit, but I think if a guy has an opportunity to go play, he should go explore that."
Likewise, fellow Coastal member Virginia Tech turned to the free-agent route following an underwhelming spring from its three quarterbacks, welcoming Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer (and two true freshmen) to the race to replace Logan Thomas and kick-start an offense in need of a jolt after just 15 wins in the past two seasons. In an odd twist, Brewer, who has two seasons left to play after graduating from Texas Tech, was recommended to the Hokies' staff by Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who coached Brewer back at Lake Travis (Texas) High.
Brewer brings with him a nearly 71 percent completion percentage from his limited action with the Red Raiders, including 440 passing yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
On the other side, in the more daunting Atlantic, a pair of second-year coaches are turning to former Gators quarterbacks to command their offenses.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio goes back with Tyler Murphy, a fellow Connecticut native whom Addazio had initially recruited to Gainesville, Florida, during his time as an assistant there. Jacoby Brissett transferred to NC State shortly after coach Dave Doeren was hired there, sitting out last season and taking enough initiative behind the scenes to earn the starting nod before spring ball this year.
“Last year we brought in Brandon Mitchell [from Arkansas] through the one-year loophole, and then at the end of the year, Pete Thomas and Manny Stocker left to go to [Louisiana-Monroe and UT-Martin]," Doeren said. "While that was going on, Jacoby transferred here from Florida. So I’ve seen about all of it that can go around. It’s just part of what recruiting is now. Guys want to play and people don’t want to wait their turn much anymore."
Murphy, who transferred in January, has one year to add some pizzazz to an Eagles' offense looking to spread the field more after last season's run-heavy approach. He spoke often with Brissett (who has two years left at NC State) back when both were still weighing their options when departing Florida.
The familiarity was more than enough to reunite Murphy with Addazio, who said a guy like Murphy probably should have gone to BC in the first place.
"Being a New England guy and growing up around BC, I watched a lot of BC and Matt Ryan in the early 2000s," Murphy said. "So it feels good to be a part of this institution, this program and I'm looking forward to the season."
Florida State could see a pair of its former quarterbacks start against each other next week, as Jake Coker transferred to Alabama one year after Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher was supportive of both, with Trickett being familiar with WVU (his dad used to coach there before moving to FSU) and Coker heading to his home-state program after backing up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Fisher likened the rash of quarterback departures to that of college basketball transfers, because both are possession-dominated athletes.
The graduate-transfer rule, popularized by Russell Wilson three years ago, has only added to that. And, in many ways, it has been a boon for both sides.
"[It] gives some opportunities for guys that are worried about situations like Tyler's," Addazio said, referring to Murphy's injury-shortened 2013. "He's like, 'I've got one shot at this thing. I want to go where I feel like I've got the best opportunity to be the starter.' So you're seeing a lot of this right now. I like this opportunity."