Canes ‘D' Taking Positive Strides

It was a step in the right direction. But according to senior linebacker Jonathan Vilma the University of Miami defensive unit is still a work in progress. "We were a lot better this time," said Vilma, minutes after the Hurricanes had taken care of East Carolina 38-3 in the Orange Bowl. "But we're not there yet. There are still some things we need to correct to be considered a top flight defense."

Vilma's critics not withstanding the Hurricanes D held East Carolina to 229 total yards and showed the type of aggressiveness that had been missing so far this season to help UM pull away from the Pirates.

Against Florida, the Hurricanes' secondary had a couple of miscommunication problems that led to two Gator touchdowns, while the defensive line was repeatedly pushed off the ball in the first half by an experienced UF offensive line. UM managed to force one turnover – a game-clinching interception by defensive back Al Marshall - in the come-from-behind victory over Florida.

This time around the Hurricanes defense responded by forcing five turnovers, including three in the fourth quarter that led to touchdowns.

The sight of UM defenders flying around the Orange Bowl and making plays made Hurricanes coach Larry Coker a happy man. Coker was pleased to see the defense play with a lot more urgency and at the same time turn in a fundamentally sound performance - especially in the second half.

"I was proud of the way our defensive guys turned it up in the second half," said Coker. "The one thing is we created turnovers. When you do that you give yourselves a chance to do some things. Obviously we were able to do that."

Despite not being able to shake East Carolina until the final quarter, in large part because of inconsistent play on offense, the Hurricanes defense made its presence felt almost immediately against the Pirates.

After holding the Pirates to two consecutive three-and-out offensive possessions of the game that resulted in punts, junior safety Sean Taylor stopped a ECU drive inside UM territory with his second interception of the season. Taylor's interception did not produce any points for the Hurricanes as they were forced to punt three plays later. But that would change in the fourth quarter as the Hurricanes defense created turnovers in succession. Up 17-3 early in the fourth, UM defensive end Baraka Atkins forced a fumble on a sack of East Carolina quarterback Desmond Robinson. The ball was covered up in the end zone by junior defensive tackle Santonio Thomas for a touchdown.

On the next ECU offensive possession, UM junior defensive back Antrel Rolle sacked Robinson, forcing a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Bryan Pata. Two plays later, reserve running back Jarrett Payton scored on a 48-yard run. The Hurricanes weren't done as defensive back Glenn Sharpe picked off a Robinson pass that preceded a Derrick Crudup to Darnell Jenkins TD pass. Sophomore Javon Nathan forced ECU running back Kevin Fain to fumble, defensive back Marcus Maxey recovered the ball for Miami's fifth recovered turnover of the game.

"It was a positive step," said Sharpe. "Something we can definitely build on for the rest of the season."

But like Vilma said after the game, Coker put the defense's outing against the Pirates in perspective and warned that there is a lot of work to be done. East Carolina came into the game ranked near the bottom in total offense in all of Div. 1, while Robinson had fumbled three times the previous week in a loss to West Virginia.

Miami did allow three runs of 20 yards or more in the first half- an indication to Coker that the Hurricanes defense is still an unfinished product.

"We were a lot better in some areas but its going to take some time before we get where we want to be as a defensive football team," said Coker.

With that in mind, the Hurricanes must now focus on stopping a very capable run offense – among other things - Saturday night at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass. when they meet Boston College (2-1). The Eagles, coming off a 24-14 road victory over Connecticut, should provide the Hurricanes run defense with a stern test. Senior tailback Derrick Knight, who is averaging 156.7 yards a game as the Big East's leading rusher, ran for 170 yards against Connecticut.

"I'm not too concerned because we've seen this type offense before," said Coker. "That's basically what our team does with the fullback and running back and those things. Its not like we've never seen teams that run like this before."

Whatever tricks the Eagles may have on Saturday the Hurricanes have certainty figured them out in the past. UM leads the all-time series 21-3 and holds a 13-game winning streak over the Eagles since 1985.

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