The Miami Hurricanes are a brand name in college football, and possibly the brand name for anyone under 35 years old. ESPN made documentaries -- plural -- about their rise to dominance. The University of Miami won collegiate championships in 1983, '87, '89, '91, and '01. Even today, after a somewhat down stretch in recent Miami history, 23 teams in the NFL have a Cane on the roster.
It wasn't always that way for the Canes. Miami started its football program in 1936 -- in 43 years they only finished the season ranked in the AP five times (high of 6th) and never reached double-digit wins. Then Howard Schnellenberger was hired in 1979. Since then, Miami has finished the season ranked in the AP poll 25 times, with 15 of those in the Top 10. From 1986 to 1992 the Hurricanes never finished a season ranked outside the Top 3, with four of those seasons being under former Cougar head coach Dennis Erickson, who left Pullman for Coral Gables in 1989.
Wazzu isn't playing that dominant program in El Paso; they're playing a Miami program that hasn't won a bowl game since 2007 and hasn't won more than nine games since 2003. More specifically, they're playing a team going through a coaching transition with a lot of youth on the roster who all thought they should be in a better bowl game.
Miami started the season going into year five under Al Golden. Golden played tight end for Penn State in the late 80s and early 90s and had a cup of tea with the New England Patriots in 1992. Following his playing days, he bounced around as a linebackers coach before being named defensive coordinator by Al Groh at the University of Virginia in 2001. He did enough there to get the head coaching job at Temple in 2005.
He took a hapless Temple team that even the Big East didn't want to nine wins in 2009 and eight wins in 2010, after which he was offered the job at Miami. Golden's high-water mark at The U was a nine-win 2013 that culminated in a blowout loss to Teddy Bridgewater and the Louisville Cardinals in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Golden was dismissed mid-2015 after the worst loss in program history (58-0 to Clemson).
Tight ends coach Larry Scott was promoted to interim head coach, and under his leadership the Canes got on a roll to close out the season, winning four of their last five games. Scott first joined the Miami staff in 2013, and before that he spent seasons coaching the offensive line, running backs, and tight ends at his alma mater, South Florida.
The Hurricanes were more than happy to scoop up a perfectly fine Mark Richt that Georgia discarded, and there's a real sense of optimism for a return to national prominence in South Florida. Richt won't fully take over until after their bowl game, so it'll be Larry Scott calling the shots in El Paso.
The Miami Hurricane Offense
Offensive coodinator James Coley is known as an ace recruiter. He spent six years -- '97 to '02 -- as a high school coach in Miami before joining Nick Saban at LSU, where he served as a graduate assistant under OC Jimbo Fisher. Coley followed Saban to the NFL and worked as an offensive assistant, coaching receivers and running backs for the Dolphins. After the NFL, he spent five seasons at Florida State with Jimbo Fisher, three as the offensive coordinator and two as the recruiting coordinator.
The Hurricane offense is partitioned evenly, with 34 pass attempts and 32 rush attempts per game, despite having wildly more success in their passing game. The Canes rank 117th nationally in rushing yardage per game (119.5) and 112th in yards per carry (3.64). They rank 12th in passing S&P+ and 27th in yards per game (281.9).
The Canes typically work out of shotgun and are fairly formation diverse, but the real versatility comes with alignment. Miami will basically show these three formations (they have quite a few others, but these are the main ones), and does a lot with how they align their skill players. Trips can work a traditional looking 3x1 (with all the variations of who's on the LOS), or they'll sub in one of their tight ends on the backside for a stronger run look.
Their 2x2 set is as variable as WSU's. Inside guys can both be up on the LOS, off the LOS, or staggered in a base look. They'll also stack them on or just outside the numbers, spreading a defense out. The 2x1 is similar, but uses a tight end out of an 11 personnel package.
Miami will move the running back to either side of the quarterback, depending on defensive alignment, and does utilize some pistol sets as well -- almost exclusively for inside runs. Tight ends were occasionally used in the backfield as fullbacks, or off-set in Wing-T alignment in these sets.
When Miami stacks receivers in 11 personnel, it almost always indicates inside zone or power run. When the tight end is on the two receiver side, the Hurricanes pull the backside guard and run power between the tackles (orange above). I didn't catch them not run inside -- or play action -- in this formation with the TE to the twins side in four games.
This 2x1, 11 personnel set is their main rushing formation, so they do play action off it as well, albeit somewhat rarely. Whenever they do, play action-slant was a big one for them, similar to Cal.
Stacked receiver sets do a couple things for you; they spread out a defense -- creating space inside for run lanes -- and they make identifying WR #1 and #2 difficult for the secondary. Most zone defenses key receivers based on how close they are to formation. The outside receiver is #1, next inside is #2 and so on. How a defense reacts in their zone is based on reading these receivers, and stacking them forces those keys to be identified after the snap. Fortunately, Miami virtually always crosses their stacked receivers a few yards into their routes; the back receiver will be a de facto WR #1 and the front receiver a WR #2.
Miami will run "smash" routes all day. A smash concept is fairly simple; outside receiver occupies the flat and the inside receiver runs a corner over the top. This concept is featured in a large, almost overwhelming, majority of Miami's dropback, and play action passing game.
The play against Clemson resulted in a sack, but the top two receivers run smash, which you'll see over and over in the Sun Bowl. The Canes pull the backside guard to help sell play action (like you should), but he ultimately can't get to the Clemson defensive end (who happens to be a sack specialist and arguably their best lineman) on the other side of the formation.
They also have a variation that looks like this:
Here you see the same concept, but with WR #3 running the corner and #2 running the slant. I'd expect to see this variation a few times against Wazzu's nickel package. The Nickel could get caught chasing #3 to the outside, leaving the slant wide open off his back hip, or the safety could have a hard time getting to the corner on the sideline if he's not on his game. This concept has a lot going for it for Miami against the Cougar base defense. The Canes also looked to hit that slant pretty regularly, which is likely quarterback Brad Kaaya's first read on the Nickel here.
Whether it's out of 2x1, 2x2, or 3x1, smash is extremely common in their offense, and extremely productive because of one receiver: Stacey Coley (No. 3). Coley will predominantly line up inside (and the middle WR in a trips set) and runs that corner route about as good as anybody can. This is their most common "big play" route and receiver. Coley is their leading receiver -- 645 yards -- with 44 receptions, and if less than a third of those receptions came off corner routes, it wouldn't be by very much.
Fortunately, WSU has some really decent corners that have seen this before. You cannot play against the smash route more expertly than Marcellus Pippins does here against Cal's Jared Goff:
Facing an intermediate passing situation on third down, Miami usually looks for Rashawn Scott (No. 11). They love to isolate him on the backside in either 2x1 or 3x1 formations and throw a comeback at the sticks. This play is close to automatic with them in those situations, but works because Scott is a really good receiver and Kaaya is excellent with ball placement. Anytime the Canes face seven-to-ten yards on third down and isolate Scott, it's a pretty safe assumption they're looking his way on a comeback route.
Miami doesn't do anything offensively WSU can't handle schematically. How the Cougs operate out of their base nickel sets up pretty well against what Miami does in its passing game.
The rub is if Wazzu can keep Miami from hitting explosives, which their offense leans on somewhat substantially. Limiting Coley on that corner route will be pivotal, but Miami has a similar guy in Herb Watters (No. 6) that can do the same things. Also keep an eye on tight end David Njoku (No. 86) who has made his fair share of big plays on seams, crosses, and corners this season.
Miami's run game isn't complicated. Kaaya has a ton of liberty in the play-calling and will often be at the line directing the offense before the snap. The Canes utilize two runs -- inside zone and power -- almost exclusively. There's some stretch runs and outside zones every so often, but it's all predominantly inside. This plays directly into the strength of WSU's rush defense. The Cougs were gashed by long runs all season, but those were typically zone-read or outside zone breakdowns, and Kaaya isn't exactly a running threat. The Coug D was generally solid against things inside.
Coming up tomorrow: Scouting the Miami Hurricanes defense.