On the Defensive

After four games Miami had one of the best defenses in the nation. It had only surrendered 26 points to opponents and was shutting down opponents with numbers comparable to the best defenses ever at UM.

But then the Canes took on Louisville and that fell apart when the Cardinals ran the Hurricanes defense roughshod, nearly pulling off a monumental upset while posting 38 points and moving the ball up and down the field at will with five drives of 70 or more yards.

North Carolina State followed that up with the same formula - spreading the Canes defense with four and five-wide formations and peppering the defense with crossing routes. The Wolfpack also had T.A. McClendon who bulldozed the Hurricanes defense up front.

But both of those games saw Miami come away with victories, so one might have overlooked the flaws that became inherently magnified when North Carolina pulled off the biggest upset in school history Saturday night, stunning Miami 31-28 in Chapel Hill.

This time the defensive debacle came back to haunt the Canes as UNC gained 545 yards against the once feared defense that dominated its first four opponents.

So what in the world happened?

"It's a copycat league," UM coach Larry Coker said following the game. "Other teams see what worked the week before against us and they try to take advantage of it."

There are problems that go beyond it being a copycat league, so what's really going on?

"We haven't played with the energy necessary on defense like we did earlier this season," Coker said. "We don't have many seniors on the defensive side of the football. We are missing the leadership we have had in the past with guys like Sean Taylor, Jonathan Vilma, Ed Reed and Vince Wilfork."

Also something that has clearly hampered the Canes of late is sticking with their assignments and a lack of a pass rush on defense.

After amassing 14 sacks through the first four games, the defense has only been able to sack the quarterback twice in the last three. Even worse was on UNC's final drive no defensive lineman was able to lay a hand on UNC quarterback Damian Durant while he led the Tar Heels 65 yards in two minutes to give UNC the chance to win the game when it was clear they were actually playing for overtime.

The linebackers have also struggled of late being caught out of position too often. That comes with trying to do too much, consistently lining up late and not sticking to assignments.

The stats from the UNC game told the story as safety Greg Threat led the team in tackles with 17, a number far too big by any coaching standards because it means that more often than not the tackle is being made after the ball carrier has gained at least five yards.

"That's too many tackles for a safety," Coker said. "We have to do a better job up front."

And something the Canes have also been missing is that swagger they are so used to having.

"We have to play with more of an attitude," cornerback Kelly Jennings said. "We have to find that drive that we played with earlier this season."

With four games left on the schedule, including big time match ups at Virginia and at home against rival Virginia Tech, the Canes have to find that drive fast and they have no better an opponent for the revitalization of the defense than this Saturday's opponent, Clemson, which has the second worst offense in the conference and is 109th in the nation out of 117 teams.

The Tigers are coming in on a three-game winning streak, but it's not because of their offensive performances so if the Canes defense can return to form, Miami should win in a runaway, especially with how the offense has played over the past three games.

So where does it begin for the Canes?

"We need to get back to what we were doing earlier this season," Coker said. "We can't be late getting lined up as we have been. We have to tackle well and play with better technique."

With no great players on the defense according to Coker, the Canes must perform as a unit and play with the same ferocity and intensity that they exhibited in the first four games.

"We can't afford to not play with great energy," Coker said. "We have good players, but no great players on defense and playing with energy is what made us so tough earlier this season."

That sentiment was echoed by players who refused to put any blame on the coaches as has been heard throughout talk radio in the papers over the past week.

"We need to start making plays, making tackles," cornerback Kelly Jennings said. "It's us as players who have to do it and take it upon ourselves and limit their (opponents) plays. We'll get it fixed."

More importantly, the Canes defense needs to instill the fear in opponents that existed prior to the Louisville game and play Hurricane football.

"We have seen the film from the FSU game and from the UNC game and when you look at those two games, it's like watching a different defense," defensive end Thomas Carroll said. "I'd be scared to play that defense that played against FSU."

By the end of the first quarter against Clemson, we'll find out if teams have a reason to be scared of the Canes as they have been in the past.

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