Porous defense continues giving Miami fits

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The numbers reveal an ugly reality about the University of Miami’s defense. They’re bad, and not in a cool, slang way.

Statistically, they could be the worst unit in the nation:

— Miami ranks 91st nationally in pass defense. That’s among 120 FBS schools.

— The Hurricanes are 116th in rushing defense, having allowed 1,504 yards.

— UM is 101st in scoring defense, allowing 34.7 points per game.

— The ’Canes are 118th in yards per game at 510.

The only thing the stats don’t show is Miami’s youth. Seven of the 11 starters are freshmen or sophomores, six of the 11 backups are the same classification.

The Hurricanes put on a brave face about their defense.

“It’s not youth,” junior safety A.J. Highsmith said. “It’s execution.”

But coach Al Golden puts the truth out there for all to hear.

“Young kids will break your heart,” he said.

Age won’t be an acceptable justification when Miami (4-2, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) hosts North Carolina (4-2, 1-1) on Saturday.

Miami, off to its first 3-0 conference start since joining the ACC in 2004, has to find a way to slow UNC’s offense, which is led by running back Giovani Bernard. His 262 rushing yards against Virginia Tech last week are the second-best total in among FBS players this season.

Bernard’s backed by an offense that averages 200.3 rushing yards per game, 486.7 total yards per game and 44 points per game.

“It’s really the most complete team I’ve seen on film so far,” said Golden, who has studied No. 6 Kansas State and No. 7 Notre Dame.

Miami’s defensive problems start up front. Their 4-3 scheme doesn’t have the game-controlling defensive linemen they had in their glory years.

But there are promising signs.

“I don’t think there’s any question our linebacking corps is improving,” Golden said.

Health is a big factor there. Sophomore Denzel Perryman (ankle) returned for last week’s 41-3 loss against Notre Dame. He had eight tackles against the Fighting Irish. It was the first time Perryman, freshman Eddie Johnson (four tackles) and sophomore Gionni Paul (nine tackles) started together all season.

Golden sees another positive with his defense.

“I don’t think our tackling is bad right now,” he said.

The problem there is many of the tackles are coming four, five or 12 yards downfield.

Locally, defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio has taken a lot of heat for the disappointing performance. Miami, known for producing NFL defensive studs such as tackle Warren Sapp, linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, has rarely ranked so poorly nationally.

The current defensive players can’t escape being aware of their low national rankings.

“Absolutely we take notice of that,” senior cornerback Brandon McGee said. “At the end of the day the coaches can only coach. They can’t go out and play.”

The players also say the rankings, and the local chirping, isn’t a bother.

“It’s only a matter of what my team says and what the coaches say, so it doesn’t really get to me,” freshman cornerback Thomas Finnie said. “I don’t really hear what the outside people say.”

Still, reality says the UM defense is downright bad. And that might not change for the rest of the season.

“It’s not like we’re hiding a bunch of fourth- and fifth-year seniors out on the scout team,” Golden said.

To compensate for that he’s come up with what he hopes is a good solution for his young players to deal with the poor defensive numbers.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just play on the field.”