This week, I enlisted the help of Matt Porter, who covers Miami football for the Palm Beach Post to help preview this week's game between the Panthers and Hurricanes. Here are Matt's responses to a couple of questions...
1) How has Miami adjusted to the loss of Duke Johnson? Is the Hurricanes' offense still as dangerous as it was when he was playing? What guys have stepped up in his absence?
Not too many teams in college football could be the same after losing a weapon like Johnson, who was really coming into his own as a sophomore. If he still qualified for the national leaders, he would rank seventh in all-purpose yards per game (174.1) and 15th in rushing (115). But he was gone after the Hurricanes' eighth game, when he broke his ankle against Florida State. Big loss, since he was the team's top kick returner, ball-carrier and had developed into a strong and willing blocker. He was becoming the 25-to-30-carry featured back the Hurricanes hoped he would be. They now hope he returns healthy and strong for his junior season.
The run game has suffered mightily since Johnson left. Miami is rushing for around 97 yards per game in his absence; with Johnson, it was around 215. What hasn't fallen off is the return game, and that's thanks mostly to the emergence of freshman Stacy Coley. He's smooth and quick and averages about 27 yards per return. He's also earning more trust as a pass-catcher. He has all the makings of a future No. 1 wideout -- at this level and the next.
2) What is the scouting report on quarterback Stephen Morris in his senior year? He seems to have all the physical tools, but has had some trouble putting it all together and becoming a game-changing quarterback. Is he the kind of guy that can put the offense on his back in Johnson's absence?
That assessment is mostly accurate. Morris won't hurt you with his legs (even less to this year after suffering an ankle injury Sept. 21) but has the arm strength to make any throw. He's most dangerous when going over the top of the defense to his fast group of receivers, especially junior Phillip Dorsett (who should return from a knee injury after a five-game absence). But Morris is inconsistent in his decision-making and his execution, and that means it's hard to know exactly what to expect.
Miami's comeback wins over Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest came largely on the strength of big plays from the defense and the running game, not Morris. UM fans don't like to hear this, but Morris struggled most of this season with the ankle, which hurt his ability to plant off his back foot and drive through the ball on short throws. He and his coaches spent the season trying to fix his mechanics, and it seemed to affect him mentally for most of the year. But then I think back to the UNC game, in which he threw four picks and three of them were bad – one on a rollout where he forced a ball up the sideline into lock-down coverage, instead of just tossing it away. Stuff you don't want to see from a senior. It's going to be interesting to see who drafts him, where and why.
3) Miami has given up at least 180 rushing yards in each of its last four games. Why have teams been able to run the ball so easily on the Hurricanes? Has the defense been a problem all year? Are there any specific weak points or strengths?
The defense was one of the worst in football last year, finishing 120th in yards allowed and 108th against the run. It looked good to start the year – but that was because three of Miami's first four opponents were pitiful, and the other was Florida, which turned the ball over five times. Once it faced ACC opponents, last year's problems resurfaced: lack of a pass rush, weak up front, ineffective play at safety and linebacker, shoddy tackling. Those issues, coupled with the soft coverages used by defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio and teams had plenty of space to operate – and rack up big numbers. If he was being honest, UNC tight end Eric Ebron might tell you he improved his NFL draft stock by leaps and bounds against the 'Canes.
Miami lives and dies by the turnover, and that doesn't make for consistent play. Last week against Virginia, UM scored three touchdowns as a direct result of turnovers, beginning with Tracy Howard's pick-six on the game's first play. Pitt would do well to not take risks – UM will give them plenty of yards.
4) How much big-picture optimism is there around the Miami program right now? Al Golden seems like a good coach and the NCAA sanctions are finally out of the way, but there has to be some disappointment losing three of four after their undefeated start. How close is Miami to getting back to being "The U" and competing on a national level?
Many Hurricanes fans let the 7-0 start get to their heads, getting high off the win over rival Florida (which was then healthy and ranked No. 12) and forgetting that the early part of the schedule was soft (and the defense was mediocre). But the 'Canes kept winning and teams ahead of them kept losing, leading to the program's first No. 7 ranking since 2003. While losing to Florida State was crushing – especially since Duke Johnson went down – it was also understandable because FSU is a juggernaut. But UM should not have lost by that much to Virginia Tech – talent-wise, the teams were close to even – and the Duke loss, as good as Duke is playing right now ... losing to Duke will never sit well with UM fans. So, those three losses were hard for fans to take, but Al Golden's job is secure as it could be. He has a top-five recruiting class lined up, and everyone around the program believes he will take the program to the top within a couple years.
But expectations are a funny thing, right? Golden might win an ACC title and leave. Who knows. Longtime Miami fans will always compare every team to those of the 1980s, early '90s and early 2000s. The 'Canes may never be that good again, but this is a strong program that has a chance to make some national noise soon.