Opponent Outlook: Notre Dame, Miami scramble to find success

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Floundering football teams are everywhere on Notre Dame's schedule.

Texas, Virginia, Michigan State, Stanford and several more are proving that misery really does love company.

And then there's Miami, Saturday's opponent for the 2-5 Irish.

The Hurricanes (4-3, 1-3 ACC Coastal Division) are in the midst of a three-game losing streak after a 37-16 loss Thursday to Virginia Tech.

Susan Miller Degnan, Hurricane football beat writer for the Miami Herald, looks at some of the reasons for the midseason collapse.

• What has been new head coach Mark Richt’s impact on the Miami program this season?

Three weeks ago, before Miami dropped three consecutive games, this would have been a bit easier to answer. But basically, it’s the same answer until proven otherwise. Mark Richt has had a palpable impact on the program since he was hired last December. There has been a marked improvement in player attitudes, energy, conditioning, discipline, the assistant coaching staff, community relations, as well as higher expectations.

Richt runs a very structured, tight ship, and his coaches are energetic and detail-oriented. Defensively, the changes have been amazing. New coordinator Manny Diaz turned a read-and-react, 3-4 defense that could barely pressure the quarterback, into an aggressive, 4-3 defense that has often been a terror and significantly better in just about every area – despite being really young.

The players are in terrific physical shape and their attitudes have been phenomenal to this point, unlike at times in the past.

Also, Richt has given a lot of his time to the community and reached out in ways former coach Al Golden never did.

• How much of Miami's struggles against Virginia Tech stemmed from several defensive starters being unable to play because of injuries?

A good deal of them, but definitely not the majority. The injuries on defense have been significant. At Virginia Tech on Thursday night, both starting defensive ends, a talented defensive tackle and a starting cornerback were scratched from the lineup with injuries.

The defensive ends – Chad Thomas and Demetrius Jackson – were each major contributors. Texas graduate transfer cornerback Adrian Colbert and defensive tackle Courtel Jenkins are back playing but had knee surgeries during this season. Also, tackle Anthony Moten, who played end against the Hokies, has already had to overcome a dislocated shoulder this season, while junior defensive end Trent Harris, who started last game, had a broken hand for several weeks this season.

The result has been a lot of freshmen or inexperienced players being thrown into the mix with barely time to breathe or anyone to replace them. The lack of depth has taken its toll. Still, the Hurricanes are first nationally in tackles for loss (71), 16th in team sacks (22), and 12th in scoring defense (17.3). Pretty impressive considering their situation.

• What has been the root of the problems (eight sacks against the Hokies) with the offensive line?

Good question! The offensive line, beset with debilitating injuries last season, came into this season healthy and a year more experienced. Thus, we media types were expecting big improvements. But these last three games have been increasingly awful, with quarterback Brad Kaaya being hit several times, even when he wasn’t thrown to the ground.

He was sacked three times by Florida State, twice by North Carolina and those eight brutal times by Virginia Tech. The guilty parties are spread among the linemen, but include more than just those five players. Sometimes the running backs and tight ends have failed to provide protection. And Kaaya, who is not mobile, needs to get rid of the ball quicker or just throw it away instead of putting it up for grabs.

• What are positives area the Hurricanes can depend on each game?

Tackles for loss – UM has more tackles for loss after seven games (71) than they had in 13 games last season (66); punting – the Canes have an excellent punter in senior Justin Vogel, second in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 44.1-yard average. Against Virginia Tech, Vogel had five punts for 239 yards (47.8 average), with three of them going over 50 yards.

• Since the start of the season, what has surprised you about this team?

The biggest surprise for pretty much all of us is how well the extremely young defense has played – all three linebackers, for instance, are true freshmen – and conversely, how the once-vaunted offense has had trouble scoring and sustaining drives the past few games.

Defensively, UM had its two most dominant players kicked off the team just before the season began, but their replacements have been outstanding. If not for all the injuries on defense, it would be a lot easier to overcome the unproductive offense of late (19, 13 and 16 points in Miami’s three losses). Kaaya has underwhelmed, his line has fallen apart and everything is upside down.

Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya (15) is sacked by Virginia Tech defensive tackle Woody Baron (60) during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

WHO: Notre Dame (2-5) vs. Miami (4-3)

KICKOFF: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Pick 'em