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Sun Bowl 2015: Scouting the Miami Hurricanes defense vs. WSU

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If Miami rolls out the same kinds of coverage it used prominently during the season, the Cougs should have little problem making it a long afternoon for the Hurricanes.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Miami defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio is best friends with former coach Al Golden. D'Onofrio played inside linebacker at Penn State with Golden until '91, when he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. He was able to play two seasons at Green Bay before an injury forced him to retire. After stints at Georgia and Rutgers, D'Onofrio joined Golden at UVa. He coached linebackers, tight ends, and special teams over a couple seasons with the Cavaliers before leaving with Golden to be the defensive coordinator at Temple in 2006.

His Owl defense went from being ranked last in the NCAA to 17th in 2010.

The Canes are highly variable on defense, as you would expect with so many athletes on the roster. They predominately play a 3-4, and the reasons for that are similar to what Cougar fans heard from Mike Breske. When asked why he likes the 3-4 scheme, Golden answered, "Because we didn't have a million defensive linemen. We didn't have 16 defensive linemen. For the real big guys, the noses, you only needed a couple of those".

For all intents and purposes, Miami rolls with a front-seven. Whether you want to call one of the players a hybrid linebacker at the line of scrimmage or a defensive end at the line of scrimmage, it's really a matter of semantics. They do mix up personnel and use some different stunts up front whenever they have a smaller, faster guy in that spot.

Miami will bring pressure. They aren't as blitz-happy as some teams Wazzu has faced this season (OSU, ASU), but are probably a little more aggressive than the average team.

Coverage-wise, the Canes showed a base that featured mostly Cover 4 or Cover 3.

Canes_Cover4

This is a general look at Cover 4, or "quarters" zone coverage, which features two-high safeties and breaks the field up into four major zones over top, with backers responsible for the flats underneath. Quarters allows the defense to aptly defend multiple deep threats at the expense of interior zones. This coverage is highly susceptible to underneath crossing routes that strain the horizontal zones of linebackers and high/low route combinations that strain the vertical zone in a corner's quarter responsibility.

Canes_Cover3

For Cover 3 you can imagine the safety on the right in the Cover 4 diagram "rolling" up into the box when WSU shows a two running back formation. That strong safety will have flat responsibility as will the weakside linebacker out to the left. It has the same susceptibilities as Cover 4, but does add some strength in the run support. You can also see how the corners and strong safety could easily walk-up and transition this to man underneath with a single high safety.

It's hard to tell whether the Canes will opt for nickel against WSU or try their base coverage schemes. The ACC games we were able to watch with Miami didn't feature teams that spread it out similar to WSU and even then, most all were dynamic run teams, which changes how you'd approach a spread defensively.

Here's two ways they lined up against WSU's Ace formation:

Canes_DefAce1

Canes_DefAce2

Against Clemson (top), Miami goes for an odd front, moving one safety to the middle of formation and one deep over the field-side half (off-screen). Against Duke, the Cane defense is a little more straightforward, lining up in what is essentially a 4-2-5 or base nickel. They man-covered the two receivers at the bottom and played combination coverage to the field side with the safety over top, which is pretty standard. I'd hazard a guess that this is the more-likely defensive alignment against the Cougs.

From that same Duke game, we see Miami get diced for a touchdown on a slant in corners.

Canes_quarters

They'll played all variations of zone coverage, sticking a lot with Cover 4 and rolling to Cover 3 when they bring pressure -- where a strong safety essentially crashes to fill flat zone responsibility of a blitzing outside backer and the free safety deep drops to a middle third.

They also like to man-cover underneath with a single safety over top, especially on third down with mid-to-short yardage to gain.

Miami would frequently drop a safety and roll up into Cover 3 on motion out of the backfield too. They didn't adjust especially well to motions in general, and it will be interesting to see how well they handle WSU bringing receivers across formation fairly regularly and sprinting a running back out of a two-back set. This is one of those things where if Leach sees them fail to adjust well in-game, he could start hammering motion in his play calling.

WSU didn't face many straight Cover 4 (or Cover 3) defenses this year, and there's a good reason teams don't try that against passing offenses in the PAC-12: Both struggle at defending short-to-intermediate crossing routes ... which is basically Washington States' offense.

I'd guess if Miami doesn't start out playing man underneath in nickel they'll move into that pretty quickly, but I'm fairly curious to see what they try to do. We just couldn't find enough examples of them against spread passing offenses to get a good read on it, or see if they utilize typical combo coverages you see in nickel packages.

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With the Cougs on offense, you might see a few more 20 personnel sets (two running backs) than you have recently, to take advantage of Miami's (frankly) bad rush defense. And I'd venture there will be a lot of motion, along with their fly sweeps and reverses. What WSU does best -- stay ahead of the chains and methodically move the ball -- Miami is the worst at defending.

You don't ever want to overhaul what you do to fit an opponent, and this is really a case where Wazzu just should go out and do its thing.

We'll be back with the usual Pre-Snap Read for you on Christmas.