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UM defense silences offenses and critics

Season of domination started with defensive doubts.

By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 30, 2001


CORAL GABLES -- As a rather anonymous member of the offensive line, Ed Wilkins has a pretty good idea how his counterparts on Miami's defense feel. All game, little glory.

It goes with the territory when your team has a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback in Ken Dorsey and a 1,000-yard rusher in Clinton Portis. Offense sells.

But Miami's defense has delivered.

"Our defensive players worked extra hard in the summer, and they knew coming in they would be the big question mark," Wilkins said. "And they've come through. There was all this talk about our high-powered offense. They knew they would have to stand out. They were looking for their time to shine, and now they are shining."

And now they are being mentioned as one of the best defenses in UM history.

The No. 1-ranked Hurricanes (10-0) wouldn't be in position to play for the national championship were it not for the defense. In consecutive 50-plus-point efforts, the defense set up several scores and dominated Syracuse and Washington.

And when the offense took a rare day off, it was the defense that stood up to Boston College three weeks ago, thwarting a late rally and coming up with an interception that saved an 18-7 victory.

"They have a lot of guys who are going to be playing on Sundays," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "They're not out of position often and, when they are, they have the speed to make up for it."

Said Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni, whose team was shut out by Miami: "They're very comparable to the days of Cortez (Kennedy), Russell (Maryland) and Warren (Sapp). I don't know how many teams in America have that kind of defense."

Heading into Saturday's game at 14th-ranked Virginia Tech (8-2), the Hurricanes have the nation's best scoring defense, yielding 79 points or an average of 7.9. If they give up 20 or fewer at Virginia Tech, the Hurricanes will break the school and Big East record for fewest points given up. Miami's 1991 national championship team allowed 100.

With a 65-7 victory over Washington, the defense became the first in school history to hold eight opponents under double-digit scoring. The Hurricanes also have recorded three shutouts. The last time they had more than two was 1956.

Miami has given up 11 touchdowns, the nation's best. No one else in Division I-A has fewer than 13.

The defense has allowed just five touchdown passes and has returned five interceptions for touchdowns.

"We pride ourselves on getting turnovers, stripping the ball, getting interceptions," said defensive lineman Jerome McDougal, who returned an interception for a touchdown against Washington. "We do it in practice. We think we're going to score when we get our hands on the ball."

UM's defense was not expected to be this dominant. There figured to be a dropoff after the departure of NFL first-round picks Dan Morgan and Damione Lewis from last season's 11-1 team. All of the front seven players are underclassmen.

And the Hurricanes also are working under a new defensive coordinator. Former Miami player and assistant Randy Shannon was hired from the Miami Dolphins when Greg Schiano took the head-coaching job at Rutgers.

The system is not new, but Shannon allows his cornerbacks to play more press defense instead of giving receivers room off the line of scrimmage. And defensive linemen are asked to make plays rather than hold up blockers from linebackers.

The formula is familiar to those who know Hurricane history: recruit speedy players at all positions, while using depth to build experience and give the starters a break. After NCAA probation reduced Miami scholarships in the mid 1990s, that talent and depth is returning. That is evident in the seemingly interchanging nature of the defensive linemen and the pressure they get on the quarterback.

"I think it's made a big difference," said cornerback Phillip Buchanon, who has not allowed a touchdown pass. "It makes my job a lot easier. I look back and the quarterback is sacked and I don't have to cover anymore. They're doing a great, great job."

And there is plenty of speed, too. "Trust me, those Miami kids could finish 10th in the NCAA track championships," Washington coach Rick Neuheisel said.

If there is an area of concern, it might be the rushing defense. The Hurricanes allow an average of 129.3 rushing yards, which ranks 37th in the country. Florida State, not exactly known for its running game, amassed 214 on the ground against Miami.

Virginia Tech thrives on the running game, averaging 197.5 yards.

With a victory over the Hokies, Miami would be headed to the Rose Bowl to play for the national championship on Jan. 3. Maybe then, the defense would get to take its bows.

"People don't realize how good we are because of our offense," cornerback Markese Fitzgerald said. "But we don't complain about that. We know how good we are."

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