Nobody would blame Miami for destroying the game tape from its defensive performance against Nebraska a year ago.
The Canes were abysmal against the run, giving up 343 yards rushing in a 41-31 loss to the Cornhuskers. While coach Al Golden has insisted for months that his team has turned the page on last year, it is hard to ignore the obvious.
For Miami to be good this year, its defense must be good this year. For the defense to be good this year, its defensive line must be good this year.
That is why the rematch Saturday is such a huge litmus test for the Canes. They must prove they are better against the team that gashed them the most a year ago. Or many will be crying “same ol’ same ol’” once again.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re looking forward to the challenge,” said Miami nose tackle Calvin Heurtelou, the only Miami starter back from the group that opened against Nebraska in 2014. “We just have to be physical and that’s what we plan on doing.”
That has been a mantra for years now, but Miami has not quite gotten there.
In the offseason, Golden and his coaches talked about how the line would be improved this season because it is bigger and deeper. Yet last week against Florida Atlantic, the Canes gave up several big runs and looked out of sorts in the first half. So much so that a Miami fan heckled defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio as he went into the locker room at halftime, with the score tied at 17. D’Onofrio responded before linebacker Raphael Kirby held him back from going any further.
Miami eventually won 44-20, but the Canes gave up 223 yards on the ground -- and a whopping 6.8 yards per carry. Three runs went for 20 or more yards. Miami ended up with three tackles for loss. Not encouraging signs going into a game against a team that wants to pound the football, and did so with great success in 2014.
“There’s no question about it, we tackled better in second half,” Golden said. “I think the misses in the first half were explosive plays. The misses we had, they went for big ones. We hadn’t let up too many of that length in a while. That got our guys’ attention, and obviously we learned from it.”
Heurtelou added, “Just a few holes that happened due to people not doing their jobs.”
This has been a similar refrain for many years, and desperate fans are eager to see the type of dominance up front that used to be a trademark in Miami. Nebraska provides the perfect opportunity.
This is a different team than the one the Canes saw a year ago. Ameer Abdullah, who had 229 yards alone last year, is gone. Terrell Newby is the new man in the backfield. There is a new coaching staff with Mike Riley, and the Huskers have tried to be more balanced.
But they also return quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who ran for 96 yards on Miami last year and threw two touchdown passes. Armstrong only has 11 carries this year, so Golden is a little unsure about what to expect considering the coaching and scheme change.
“What we have to be prepared for, if he stands back there, we are going to have to keep him in the pocket,” Golden said. “If he moves we are going to have to get him pulled up and of course if he runs, we can't give him those explosive plays that we gave up a year ago.”
If that type of performance is repeated, the questions surrounding Miami and Golden will only intensify.