Miami defense carries its offense

PITTSBURGH -- Miami linebacker Sean Spence didn’t hesitate to say yes when asked after the Hurricanes’ 31-3 win over Pittsburgh if he was playing on a championship defense. Spence, of course, was one of the main reasons it looked like one.

The problem?

Miami offensive lineman Orlando Franklin said the Hurricanes are “real far away” from being a championship-caliber offense.

Miami got exactly what it needed on Thursday night -- a throwback defensive performance in a nationally-televised road win against a respectable BCS opponent. It helped the Hurricanes move past their loss at No. 2 Ohio State and should give them a boost of confidence heading into next weekend’s game at Clemson.

But Miami also got a double dose of the one thing it’s been trying to eliminate -- turnovers. Quarterback Jacory Harris has now thrown six interceptions in two games, and while not all of them have been his fault, it’s a trend that has to stop if Miami is going to take the next step under coach Randy Shannon and play for an ACC title this year.

Miami has proved so far to be a good team, not a great team -- one that can afford to make mistakes against average teams like Pitt, but isn’t ready to beat the elite teams like Ohio State.

“We’re real far away,” Franklin said. “We need to get better each and every week and we have to do the little things. We have to concentrate on the little things and execute more and just do our job. That’s the real importance of this thing -- we have to be able to do our jobs and not worry about what the other person is going to do. Trust the other person is going to do the right thing.”

The defense already has that trust.

“I believe in the guy next to me, and the guy next to me he believes in me,” said Spence, who finished with a game-high nine tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. “That’s all you need. We have a lot of great players on defense. We’re great in depth and execute, so I think we’re a championship defense.”

It looked like it against Pittsburgh. The Panthers had three turnovers, converted just 4 of 15 third downs, were 1-of-3 in the red zone and were sacked five times for a loss of 45 yards. Pitt punted eight times.

Miami’s defenders spent most of the game in Pitt’s backfield, stifling the run and chasing quarterback Tino Sunseri out of the pocket if he wasn’t already flat on his back. The Canes had nine tackles for losses, and looked much more fundamentally sound in their tackling than they did against Ohio State.

“As a defense we played great, executed,” said Andrew Smith, who had two sacks for a loss of 14 yards. "We gang tackled, all 11 hats on the ball. At practice we kept emphasizing everybody wrap up, everybody drive back, and tonight it showed up on the field.”

Miami did show improvement in the red zone, where it struggled at Ohio State. This time the Canes were successful in all four trips inside the 20-yard line. Harris also had a much better second half, completing 8 of 10 passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns.

Shannon said the mistakes on offense are correctable, and said the offense isn’t that far away from playing at the level it needs to.

“We’re not that far away at all,” he said. “You can see that we have playmakers. I think that LaRon Byrd made some key catches in the game. I think the more we focus on getting things done on offense, the more we can be crisp and we’ll be OK.”

Until then, it can count on the defense.