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October 15, 2011For many people, the image of Miami's offense is explosive pass plays for long touchdown throws.
Through the years, the Hurricanes' quarterbacks and wide receivers have been among the finest in college football.
Nevertheless, in all the great games between Florida State and Miami during the when both were elite teams, the one who ran the ball more successfully won the game.
Running right at Miami's defense on quick handoffs remains the best method for defeating the Hurricanes, who have built their defense around run-plugging tackles and undersized players with speed at the other positions.
On defense, one must reduce the effectiveness of the Hurricane's running game. Through the years Miami has had big, athletic offensive linemen and fast running backs.
Today's game between UNC (5-1, 1-1 in the ACC) and Miami (2-3, 0-2) at 12:30 at Kenan Stadium will be decided in this same way.
"I feel like we've done a good job in our run defense," UNC interim head coach Everett Withers said. "We've got a very big challenge this week with Lamar Miller and his running style and what they're doing on their offense.
"I always thought they were one of the better run teams, a lot like Virginia Tech, in this league. They have physical linemen, good backs that run downhill.
"So we'll fit our gaps, be smart, understand formations, leverage the ball because their backs can bounce the football," Withers said.
The reason it is so important to run right at the Hurricanes is their defense is built around two main principles: speed and an excellent ability to rush the passer. Jimmy Johnson instituted the tradition of speed first on defense when he coached the Hurricanes in the 1980s.
Laterally, it can be nearly impossible to run the ball against Miami. They chase down runners heading east and west. And if a team cannot run the ball, Miami will punish a quarterback having to rely on the pass alone.
The Hurricanes are fourth in the ACC with 14 quarterback sacks so far. They are third in the league in rushing offense, averaging 182.6 yards per game.
Miller leads the league in rushing at 134.5 yards per game.
"I think they are very similar to us," Withers said. "They have a lot of talent. They do a lot of things to help their quarterback. They have the leading rusher in the conference."
The Tar Heels want to run the ball and keep Miami's offense on the sideline as much as possible, Withers said. This has been the theme since UNC played Georgia Tech, yet the Tar Heels have not been as dedicated to the run as much as they claim.
One reason they have run infrequently at times yet been successful rushing is freshman running back Giovani Bernard. He has proven to be an effective and efficient runner. He is the first freshman in school history to have four consecutive games of 100 yards or more.
"Having success running the ball is a team thing," Withers said. "If we can run the football successfully, we'll have chances to win. That is a big focus."
Bernard is third in the league in rushing, averaging 109.5 yards per game.
"The moves he makes are on a dime," quarterback Bryn Renner said. "The last game, he made a jump cut that was unbelievable."
What the Tar Heels can ill-afford to do is have Miami maintain field position and possession of the ball in the manner in which Louisville did a week ago. The last thing a Miami opponent wants to do is fall behind on the scoreboard. That will unleash the Hurricanes' pass rush.
"We've got to get off the field on defense," Withers said. "We only had 18 plays for 62 yards [in the first half against Louisville]. So we have to get off the field on defense and keep the ball on offense. That fuels the sense of urgency that we need to be better."
The flip side to all this is that if UNC will run quick-developing running plays right at Miami and be successful, it will buy Renner time to throw the ball and his receivers time to get separation from the fast Miami defensive backs.
Renner's pass efficiency rating of 177.61 is fourth in the country, behind Heisman Trophy candidates Russell Wilson of Wisconsin and Andrew Luck of Stanford.
"I'm really proud of what he has done," Withers said. "He's done a good job of trying to lead this offense. I'm as pleased with him as I can be."
Renner will make the occasional mistake in trying to create a play, but overall his performance has been outstanding. He is completing nearly 75 percent of his throws. He has completed 99 of 133 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He has not thrown an interception in three of his last four games, and has gone back-to-back games without an interception.
For him to keep this streak going and maintain his proficiency, however, he is going to need the offensive line, Bernard and offensive coordinator John Shoop to dedicate themselves to successfully attackign the Hurricanes head-on with the running game today.