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Notre Dame vs. Miami: Keys to an Irish Win

By · December 29th, 2010 · 1 Comment
Notre Dame vs. Miami: Keys to an Irish Win

Notre Dame faces Miami in the Sun Bowl New Year’s Eve. The game marks the first meeting between the two teams since 1990 and is a preview of three future contests—a neutral site game at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2012 and a home/away series in 2016 and 2017.

In many ways the two teams are heading in opposite directions. The Irish enter the game on the heels of an improbable three-game win streak having outscored Utah, Army and USC by a combined margin of 75 to 22 behind a resurgent ground attack and a defense that has allowed only one touchdown—a two-yard drive by the Trojans—in the last 15 quarters of play.

Meanwhile, Miami has dropped three of their last five including a 24-19 loss to a 4-8 Virginia squad and a 23-20 overtime defeat at the hands of South Florida. The late-season slide cost head coach Randy Shannon his job, and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland will be leading the Hurricanes in the bowl game.

Overall, Miami boasts the same 7-5 record as the Irish with wins over (FCS) Florida A&M, Pittsburgh, Clemson, Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, and Georgia Tech, and losses to Ohio State, Florida State, Virginia Tech and the aforementioned Cavaliers and Bulls. The 12-team slate comprises the 35th most difficult AVR strength of schedule against which the Hurricanes have generated the 48th best offensive TPR and 12th best defensive TPR.

Miami, Version 2010

Stoutland is in his fourth year as the offensive line coach after occupying the same position at Michigan State for seven seasons. It remains to be seen whether Shannon’s dismissal will be a distraction or a point around which the players rally, but improvement in several fundamental areas is needed for the Hurricanes to play up to their potential and Stoutland has his work cut out for him.

Miami averages 8.1 infractions per outing (114th ranked) and racks up 66.9 penalty yards per contest (112). The squad certainly lacks discipline, but—without a doubt—the biggest problem has been turnovers. The Hurricanes rank 117th in turnovers lost with nine lost fumbles and 23 interceptions. The defense has been advantageous forcing 28 takeaways (16th best in the country), but the -4 turnover margin ranks 80th in the nation.

Offensively, Miami has gained nearly 47 percent of available yards with a three and out on only 18.1 percent of meaningful possessions, i.e. they have little trouble moving the ball. But over 22 percent of meaningful drives have resulted in a turnover including eight red zone turnovers in 50 appearances.


Mark Whipple is in his second year as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and has 28 years of coaching experience to his credit. Whipple employs a pro-style offense that frequently operates from a two-back set but also spreads the field on occasion.

The Hurricanes have been balanced in their production but are primarily a run-first team with a passing attack built off the ground game. Miami ranks 26th in both rushing yards per game and yards per carry and 27th in yards per completion, the latter a strong indication of the ability to downfield, particularly off play-action. The unit hasn’t been very efficient, ranking 64th in third down efficiency and 90th in red zone touchdown efficiency, and at least part of the problem has been the aforementioned penalties and turnovers. Despite these self-inflicted mistakes, Miami has moved the ball well with 4.2 red zone appearances (38th ranked) and 22.3 first downs (25) per game.

The ground attack is spurred by a three-man backfield rotation of senior Damien Berry, redshirt freshman Lamar Miller, and true freshman Mike James. Berry is the leader and primary starter of the group, but each has at least 66 carries as the three have combined for 1,882 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns at 5.4 yards per attempt. Additionally, all three backs tip the scales in excess of 210 pounds and have the ability to wear down opposing defenses by pounding the ball and rotating fresh legs. Miller and James have performed especially well in the fourth quarter averaging six and 6.5 yards per carry in the final period of play.

Blocking for the three-headed running attack is a big (average 6′-5″ and 316.4 pounds), but relatively young and inexperienced offensive line. The unit endured a bit of personnel shuffling earlier in the year before settling into a consistent starting five that has performed well both opening running lanes and protecting the quarterback.

The anchor of the unit is left tackle Orlando Franklin, a senior and three-year starter with 37 career starts. But the remaining four are all first-year starters who have combined for only 51 starts. Guard Harland Gunn and center Tyler Horn are both redshirt sophomores who have started all 12 games this season as has sophomore guard Brandon Washington. Former Notre Dame recruit and true freshman Seantrel Henderson rounds out the group starting at right tackle over the last nine games of the season.

Stoutland hasn’t officially announced who will start under center but conventional wisdom suggests it will be Jacory Harris. Harris was the starter last season and started the first eight games this year before a concussion against the Cavaliers sidelined him for the remainder of the game as well as the next three contests.

The junior signal caller has earned a reputation for erratic play over the course of his career and the 53.9 percent completion rate, 121.7 passer efficiency, and 10 interceptions he generated in his eight starts did little to dispute it. The alternative is true freshman Stephen Morris whose performance wasn’t markedly different over the final five games (50 percent completion rate, 117.5 passer efficiency, eight interceptions). Morris also suffered an ankle injury during practice this week and may be unable to play Friday.

The primary receiving target for Harris and/or Morris is Leonard Hankerson. The senior wide out has been the leading receiver in each of the last two seasons, catching 66 passes for 1,085 yards (16.4 yards per reception) and 12 touchdowns this year. Hankerson’s size (6′-3″, 205 pounds) makes him a prime target in the red zone and his dependability has made him the preferred option on third down. Junior wide receivers Travis Benjamin and LaRon Byrd form the second and third receiving options combining to haul in 77 passes for 1,093 yards (14.2 yards per reception) and four touchdowns.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Hurricane offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Miami’s 2010 opponents excluding Florida A&M).

2010 Miami Offensive Efficiency

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2010 Miami Total Offense

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2010 Miami Rushing Offense

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2010 Miami Passing Offense

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The Hurricane defense is led by second year defensive coordinator John Lovett. Lovett is a veteran coach with 19 years of coordinating experience at Ole Miss, Auburn, Clemson and Bowling Green, as well as a reputation for developing standout secondary players and strong pass defenses. The 2010 Hurricanes are no exception.

The Hurricanes operate from a 4-3 base set with a philosophy primarily devoted to two things: pressuring opposing offenses with a vertical, aggressive scheme and forcing turnovers. Miami ranks 2nd in attempts per sack, 1st in tackles for a loss per game, 22nd in attempts per recovered fumble, and 4th in attempts per interception.

Additionally, as is Lovett’s hallmark, the pass defense numbers are especially impressive as the Hurricanes have posted a 95.9 pass efficiency (2nd ranked), allowed a paltry 49.5 percent completion rate (2), surrendered only 5.9 yards per attempt (10), and allowed only seven passing scores (1). The performance in the total and efficiency categories mostly follow suit. Miami has allowed only 317.2 yards (16) and 19.7 points (21) per game, and rank 13th in third down efficiency and 3rd in red zone efficiency.

The defensive unit is led by Colin McCarthy and Sean Spence, two active, veteran linebackers each with three years of playing experience. McCarthy ranked second on the team in tackles and tackles for a loss last season and ranks first and fourth in the same categories this year while Spence ranks 16th nationally and leads the Hurricanes with 17 tackles for a loss. Each have posted at least 100 tackles combining for 206 stops, 26 tackles for a loss, and 3.5 sacks. Rounding out the linebacker corps is Ramon Buchanan with 50 tackles and 5.5 tackles for a loss.

The defensive front, led by end Allen Bailey, has good size (average 6′-4″, 286 pounds) and athleticism. Bailey led the team in sacks and tackles for a loss in 2009, leads the team in sacks this season with seven, and leads defensive linemen in tackles (43) and tackles for a loss (11). Olivier Vernon occupies the other end position while the interior of the defensive line is manned by Marcus Forston and Micanor Regis. Together with reserve linemen (and sometime starters) Adewale Ojomo and Josh Holmes, the Hurricane front four has accounted for 46.5 of the team’s 103 tackles for a loss and 25 of 37 sacks.

The backend of the defense features six players with significant playing time and production. Although not a full-time starter, sophomore safety Ray-Ray Armstrong leads the secondary in stops with 71 including 4.5 tackles for a loss. Armstrong is also tied with fellow safety Vaughn Telemaque and corner Ryan Hill for the team lead with three interceptions. Brandon Harris starts at the corner position opposite Hill, corner DeMarcus Van Dyke also contributes, and safety JoJo Nicolas has started the final eight games ahead of Armstrong. The unit is athletic, particularly Armstrong and Harris, with safeties that play well against the run and corners that can play on an island.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Hurricane defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Miami’s 2010 opponents excluding Florida A&M).

2010 Miami Defensive Efficiency

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2010 Miami Total Defense

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2010 Miami Rushing Defense

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2010 Miami Passing Defense

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Adding It All Up

Offensively, Miami isn’t overly flashy, but they can be effective when things are clicking. The offensive line has played well, Berry, Miller and James are all viable options at running back, and the per-catch averages of Hankerson and Benjamin are ample evidence of the ability to stretch the field. Whipple wants to be successful running the ball, parlay the success on the ground into an efficient and explosive passing attack (a few shots downfield are virtually guaranteed), and mostly task his quarterback with managing the game.

The Hurricane defense is at least a top 20 unit that features a stout front four, active linebacker corps, and athletic secondary. Lovett has a defensive line that can tie up offensive linemen and routinely apply pressure without committing extra defenders, and linebackers that run very well to the ball. Miami is one of the nation’s top units against the pass, on third down, and in the red zone, but the aggressive, vertical nature of their play can leave them vulnerable to a competent rushing offense.

Keys to Winning


  1. Build an early, sizeable lead. Much of Miami’s undoing has been the play of their quarterbacks. Harris’ poor performance has been well documented while Morris hasn’t been any better. The Hurricanes have the ability to run the ball and are efficient in the passing game when the run is effective, but won’t have the luxury of leaning on Berry, Miller and James and asking their signal callers to only manage the game playing from behind. The Irish must avoid turnovers, be consistent on offense, and take advantage of red zone opportunities in the early going to force Whipple away from his preferred game plan.
  2. Ball protection is critical to a victory. The Hurricanes have certainly had problems with turnovers but the Irish haven’t exactly been immune to coughing up the ball—Notre Dame gave away 69 points off 24 turnovers during the regular season. Miami’s opponents forced 20 turnovers that resulted in 79 points in their five losses, but the Hurricanes reversed the trend in their seven wins turning 23 takeaways into 65 points. The Irish can’t afford to give the ball away to an offense that has been advantageous.
  3. Run the ball…a lot. Miami ranks 10th or better in 11 of the 13 pass defense categories listed in the table above, excels pressuring the passer, has only surrendered seven scores through the air, and ranks 5th in 10-plus yard passes allowed. Moreover, the Hurricane defense held 10 of 12 opponents below their per-game average in passing yards, 11 below their per-attempt average, and nine below their passing efficiency total. The performance against the run, however, hasn’t been nearly as dominant. The Hurricanes rank 81st in rushing yards allowed per game, 60th in yards per attempt, and 101st in 10-plus yard rushing gains. Additionally, Miami allowed six opponents to rush for 150-plus yards, three to rush for 200-plus yards, and six to average four-plus yards per carry. Quarterback Tommy Rees has proven capable of making mistakes and will be facing a defense built to pressure the passer and force interceptions. The apposite offensive strategy is a heavy dose of running backs Robert Hughes and Cierre Wood.


  1. Stop the run, particularly on first down. For the Irish, this game could come down to one aspect: stopping the run. The success (and failure) of the Hurricane offense has been mostly tied to their ability to establish the run and use it as the basis for throwing the ball. The run/pass splits for Miami in their seven wins are 59/41 overall, 65/35 on first down, and 67/33 on open downs compared to 47/53, 54/46, and 58/42 in their five losses. The production and efficiency on the ground in the winning outings isn’t decidedly different from the losing ones, but the efficiency throwing the ball certainly is—the Hurricanes average a pass efficiency of 142.4 in their wins compared to 87 in their losses. Moreover, stopping the run on first down is vitally important. Miami ranks 12th in first down yards per carry and averages 7.2 yards per first down rush on scoring drives compared to five yards per attempt on non-scoring possessions. Similar to the pass efficiency trends noted above, the first down completion rate on scoring possessions is 75.5 percent compared to 39.1 percent on non-scoring drives. If the Hurricanes are allowed to run the ball effectively on first down Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will be forced to commit an extra defender to the box, make his secondary vulnerable to downfield throws, and fail to place the burden of execution on the inconsistent Hurricane signal callers.
  2. Mind Hankerson on third down and in the red zone, watch the deep ball. Regardless of who lines up under center, Hankerson is the favorite receiving option on third down and in the red zone. The senior wide receiver was targeted on 41 of 125 (32.8 percent) third down pass attempts—almost twice that of the next favorite target—with 24 receptions and 14 first downs. In the red zone the numbers are even more preferential. Hankerson was the target on 19 of 46 (41.3 percent) throws, six of which went for scores. No other receiver has more than eight red zone receptions or one red zone touchdown. Additionally, Hankerson averages 16.4 yards per reception while Benjamin averages 17.5 yards per catch. Both are legitimate downfield threats, and Whipple will certainly try to stretch the field vertically to empty the box.
  3. Avoid goal-to-go situations. Miami has struggled in the red zone but not in goal-to-go situations where their strong rushing attack is a potent weapon. Whipple has called a run on 35 of 45 goal-to-go plays (run/pass split of 78/22) with only three negative gains and 13 rushing touchdowns in 22 opportunities (59 percent). The Hurricane front five and trio of backs are well-suited to run the ball between the tackles—even on a short field—and the Irish defense must avoid these situations.


Miami is a team that doesn’t play as well as the sum of their parts. The Hurricanes have plenty of talent but routinely shoot themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers. With the uncertainty and transition surrounding the program there are plenty of question marks and the outcome of the game could largely be decided by the players’ psyche. Will Stoutland have his troops focused and prepared or will the same things that have plagued the Hurricanes all season continue to be their undoing? If it is the former, the Irish are in for a fight.

The winning formula for Notre Dame is simple: continue the strong, late season defensive play—particularly against the run—and utilize a recently developed downhill running game to exploit the weakness of the Hurricane defense. The team that runs the ball more effectively, takes pressure of their quarterback, and minimizes turnovers will win the game as both defenses will attempt to pressure the opposing passer into making costly mistakes.

Ultimately, the late season trend of the two teams continues and the Irish edge out a hard-fought victory.

Notre Dame 20, Miami 17



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