NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Next up-Miami. After a bye week to rest some tired and sore bodies, Notre Dame (4-0) is ready for its next opponent and this week it happens to be the Miami Hurricanes (4-1). The talk and the hype – the “noise” as head coach Brian Kelly has called it – gets louder at Notre Dame with each new notch in the “W” column.
“We have to really just avoid all that stuff and really know who we are and remember most importantly, you know, what got us to this start,” Irish captain Manti Te’o said at his own press conference this week. “We thought of it as the importance of being 1‑0, the importance of beating Navy. And after Navy, it was the importance of beating Purdue. And after Purdue, it was the importance of beating Michigan State, and then Michigan and now we have Miami.”
“So we take it day by day, week‑by‑week, game by game, and I think when we look back at the end of the season, we will see how we've done. But so far we have done pretty good at just taking it game by game.”
It can sound like tired coaching speak, but it’s true. Not every win has been pretty to this point, but they are all wins. The Irish got out of game mode last week, but this week’s game will be the first of eight in as many weeks to close the regular season. Last week’s bye also gave the players a chance to see their next opponent on TV.
“Oh my gosh,” defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore exclaimed when asked how to summarize the Miami offense. “They’ve got dynamic receivers and they’ve got a great quarterback in Stephen Morris.”
“I think I was a freshman back when we played them back in Texas (in the 2010 Sun Bowl), but he’s matured a lot and he has some great weapons around him. The running backs are probably one of the best two we’ve seen so far and their offensive linemen are huge and they can move.”
Lewis-Moore’s recall was correct on all counts. He was a freshman when Notre Dame and Miami met in the Sun Bowl, Morris (also a freshman then) has matured since splitting time that season, he does have dynamic receivers and great weapons around him, and his “huge” offensive line tips the scales at better than 311 pounds a man.
Morris split time with Jacory Harris behind center that season, but he took the majority of Miami’s Sun Bowl snaps, going 22-for-33 for 282 yards with two touchdown passes and an interception in Notre Dame’s 33-17 victory. He passed for 1,240 yards with seven TDs and nine interceptions as a true freshman that year, while completing just under 54-percent of his passes.
Just two weeks ago Morris’ numbers were looking downright pedestrian with 633 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He has exploded over the last two weeks though in wins over Georgia Tech and North Carolina State with a total of 1,002 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception.
“He has really improved his game and has done a real good job in leading his team,” Te’o complimented of Morris. “He has a lot of weapons around him, and he knows how to throw the ball around. He's seen some success so far, and I'm sure he'll continue to see success throughout his season.”
“For us, we have just got to be ourselves. We have to get after him when we pressure and when we don't, we've really got to stay in our zones and stay in man, whatever the call is.”
What makes Morris a bigger challenge to defend is his added dimension of mobility. He has only rushed for 31 net yards, but he has only been sacked seven times this season and five of those sacks came in Miami’s 52-13 loss to Kansas State. Morris’ ability to keep his eyes down field and keep plays alive adds an extra dimension the Irish secondary must account for.
“(Having) discipline in your eyes more,” Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson said of what the key is do defending his receivers with a quarterback like Morris at the helm. “Just staying on your keys, you’ve gotta keep your eyes on your guy the majority of the time. And basically just not giving up at the top of the route.”
Phillip Dorsett and Rashawn Scott are Morris’ top two receiving targets. Dorsett leads the ‘Canes with 28 receptions, 464 yards and three touchdown catches. Like Morris, his production has exploded in the last two weeks with 16 catches, 375 yards and all three touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets and Wolfpack. Scott has 17 receptions for 326 yards and two TDs.
Dorsett stands just 5-foot-9 compared to 6-foot and 5-foot-11 for Irish corners Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, respectively. Scott is 6-foot-2, with fellow receivers Allen Hurns (6-foot-3) and Davon Johnson (6-foot) all at least as tall as the Irish DBs as well, but they all bring an extra element the Irish defense will have to account for.
“One thing that’s caught my eyes is the speed compared to the other teams that we’ve played for sure,” ND safety Zeke Motta said of Miami’s offense.
That speed allowed Morris to complete seven passes of 40-plus yards in last Saturday’s 44-37 win over NC State. The biggest of the plays was a 62-yard touchdown pass to Dorsett that proved to be the game-winner.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to improve ourselves,” Jackson said of defending a different level of speed than he has seen so far this year. “They have a great receiving corps that’s a lot more speedy than usual. It’s just a great opportunity.”
“I feel like we have a great challenge in the secondary. It’s a great opportunity. We’re preparing for it with each day of practice and I feel like we’ll be prepared by game day.”
In addition to the speed of the players, Miami will try to dictate the tempo of the game with a speedy no-huddle pace. The Hurricanes have had 26 scoring drives this season and 12 of them have used less than two minutes to reach pay dirt.
“I think if there's any defense that knows how to go against a no‑huddle offense it would be us,” Te’o said. “Our offense doesn't go into a huddle, doesn't have a huddle and it's pretty up‑tempo. So it's something that's not new for us. It's obviously a different aspect to the game but it's nothing new for us.”
Miami’s offense also brings a solid backfield into the equation with running backs Duke Johnson and Mike James. Johnson leads Miami with 359 rushing yards (6.9 a carry) and five touchdown runs. The freshman also has 15 receptions for 147 yards and another score that make him someone who must be accounted for out of the backfield.
“Duke Johnson is a very explosive running back,” Te’o said of the two-time ACC Rookie of the Week. “He's a very dynamic player who he will make plays catching the ball, running the ball and on special teams. So for us, we have just got to ‑‑ everybody's got to get to the ball, especially with Duke.”
“He'll jump cut and he'll split defenders, so everyone has to get to the ball and everybody has to do their best and play within our scheme; realizing that Duke has the chance to break it at any time.”
James is a senior who has totaled 278 yards on 60 carries (4.6) with three touchdown runs. He has 10 receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown of his own out of the backfield.
“Mike James is their leader,” Te’o explained. “Obviously they have Duke Johnson, he's a dynamic player. I think you know that. Mike James, he's a real good player. He's a try hard guy who always drives his legs through contact and that poses something that defenses could have some trouble with that. But you know, definitely he's somebody that is a weapon for them and somebody that we have to look out for.”
The Hurricanes have what is the most diversified offense the Irish have faced so far. It could end-up being the most diverse challenge they will see all season – a mobile quarterback with a strong arm completing nearly 60-percent of his passes, fast receivers with speed, a big offensive line, and dual-threat running backs.
“(They are) the best group of skill players - the best unit that we have seen thus far,” Te’o said of the Miami offense. “They do a lot of things well. They have a great coach that has changed the mentality at the University of Miami, and they have a quarterback that has seen some success so far and has done pretty good.”
“As a defense we have to do what we do and come out and play hard for four quarters. As an offense we have to keep just like I said, being us and getting after it for four quarters and we'll see what the scores are.”
Te’o and the Fighting Irish defense know the challenge, now it is just a matter of if they are ready for it. The “noise” will only get louder with another “W”.