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After watching his defense suffocate quarterback Marcus Vick en route to a 27-7 thrashing of third-ranked Virginia Tech last Saturday night, Miami coach Larry Coker asked rhetorically, "Who was the star? I coached them, and even I don't know." Observers have been wondering the same thing about the Hurricanes' D all season.
For a program that has produced such luminaries as Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this year's defense is largely anonymous--yet it has been as dominant as any in the school's recent history. In crushing the Hokies' national-title aspirations, while keeping alive their own ( Miami, 7-1, rose to No. 4 in the latest BCS standings), the Hurricanes held Virginia Tech to 167 total yards. It marked the fifth straight game in which Miami had held an opponent to less than 200 yards. On the season the Hurricanes lead the nation in total defense (214.8 yards per game) and are second in points allowed (10.4). Says offensive line coach Art Kehoe, a former Miami player who in 27 years with the program has seen his fair share of talent, "Our defense is scary." In fact, if they continue at the current pace, the Hurricanes would set a school record for fewest yards allowed per game.
Facing relentless pressure from linemen Javon Nanton, Thomas Carroll and Orien Harris, Vick, who entered the game having completed 69% of his passes, finished eight of 22 for 90 yards, lost four fumbles (three on sacks) and threw two interceptions. Linebacker Rocky McIntosh (10 tackles, two sacks) and safety Brandon Meriweather (nine tackles, one for a loss) often wound up in Tech's backfield on blitzes. The mobile Vick never got untracked, finishing with seven yards on 17 carries while being sacked four times. "He's fast, but our guys are fast too," Hurricanes defensive end Baraka Atkins said afterward. "Our defense is composed of 11 guys who play as a team."
Atkins is one of nine returning starters from Miami's 2004 defense, a young, injury-plagued unit that allowed 466 yards per game during one four-game stretch in a disappointing 9-3 season. No wonder the defense entered this season with such little acclaim. "You don't see a lot of Butkus or Lombardi [candidates]," says defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. "All you see is a bunch of guys doing their job, and sometimes that's what makes the best team."
Adds Atkins, "There is no jealously among us, but we're all in a competition. Each one of us likes to make more plays than the other."
With a more experienced unit this year, Shannon has been able to change his schemes more frequently (against Virginia Tech, the Hurricanes used coverages and blitzes they had been practicing since the start of fall camp but hadn't shown in their first seven games), and he has kept his players fresh with frequent substitutions. Even McIntosh, Miami's best linebacker, never plays more than 40 snaps. "This season we've put an emphasis on everybody getting an opportunity to make plays," says Shannon, "but not doing something to be selfish."
The Hurricanes are maturing fast on the other side of the ball as well. A line that gave up nine sacks in an ugly 10-7 season-opening loss to Florida State allowed just one against a Virginia Tech defense that entered the game with 25. Even after losing leading rusher Tyrone Moss to a knee injury in the first quarter (he's expected to miss the rest of the season), Miami had scoring drives of 82 and 73 yards. Sophomore quarterback Kyle Wright, a first-year starter, showed great patience, and Moss's replacement, sophomore Charlie Jones, ran for 97 yards on 24 carries. "They've just been stellar," Wright says of his linemen. "I've barely been hit the past couple of weeks."
With the resounding win, the Hurricanes avenged consecutive losses to the Hokies--including a 31-7 defeat in Blacksburg two years ago that ended Miami's 39-game regular-season winning streak--and moved into first place in the ACC's Coastal Division. Victories over Wake Forest (4-6), Georgia Tech (6-2) and Virginia (5-3) would set up a rematch with Florida State in the ACC championship game on Dec. 3. "We've grown tremendously as a team [since the Florida State game]," says defensive lineman Kareem Brown. If Brown and his cohorts continue to grow, they may lose their anonymity.