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Carolina Crumble Disrupts Coker Era

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  November 1, 2004 CORAL GABLES — In its first three and a half seasons under Larry Coker, the Miami football team rarely lost a game. The Hurricanes never lost to an unranked opponent, and their 41-3 record overall enabled Coker to establish himself as the fastest-starting head coach in college football history.

By falling in a 31-28 shocker at North Carolina on a last-second field goal, Coker likely saw his team fall out of the national championship race for the second season in a row. The coach has four career losses now and, to borrow a line from Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others.

Remember, in his rookie year of 2001, Coker went 12-0 and captured the national championship. In 2002, he went 12-0 during the regular season, then lost 31-24 to No. 2 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, thanks in large part to a controversial play in the end zone. Last year, the Hurricanes' two losses during an 11-2 campaign were to No. 10 Virginia Tech (31-7) and No. 18 Tennessee (10-6).

UNC? The Tar Heels were 3-4 heading into the Miami game, coming off seasons of 3-9 and
2-10. Their coach, John Bunting, was on the hot seat. Their most well-known ranking was that their defense ranked No. 116, or next-to-last in the entire nation. Their top two tailbacks missed the UM game with injuries. Two of their top defenders and their most dangerous receiver sat out while serving suspensions. They're playing 13 true freshmen this season, the second-highest total in the nation.

What's next? A Roy Williams-led Carolina team losing to Miami in basketball?

"North Carolina is a good program," Coker said. "They've recruited well, have phenomenal facilities, a great recruiting base there. Everyone in the coaching ranks talks about North Carolina being one of the top jobs in the country. From top to bottom, (the ACC is) without question a good league. You talk about parity in college football, there's a lot of truth to that. … (UNC) had two weeks to prepare for us and without question did a good job."

Miami suffered some ugly defeats during the Butch Davis era (1995-2000), but some of those can be explained by the probation-related complications Davis inherited because of the reckless indiscretions of the Dennis Erickson staff. (In the middle of the Davis era, UM fell to 5-6 in 1997.) One of Davis' only inexplicable losses came to an unranked East Carolina team during a 9-4 campaign in 1999, in a game held in N.C. State's stadium in Raleigh because of hurricane-related problems on the ECU campus.

During his six seasons (1989-95) at Miami, Erickson didn't lose a game to an unranked opponent. During his five seasons (1984-88) as the head coach in Coral Gables, Jimmy Johnson's only two losses to unranked foes came in his first season. One of those was to a strong Maryland team that finished the season ranked 12th in the nation. The other was on a Hail Mary pass by a Boston College quarterback named Doug Flutie, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy.

Some Miami fans will look at the team's recent loss to UNC as a painful aberration, a once-a-decade shocker that came under a bright moon on Halloween Eve. Others will look at the Hurricanes' performance under Coker during the past four years — zero losses, one loss, two losses, ??? — and wonder if the coach is headed in the direction of some unwanted trends.

Concerns: Offensive, Defensive Fronts

The biggest reason Miami lost to UNC was that the Tar Heels controlled the line of scrimmage when they had the ball and battled the Hurricanes to a stalemate up front whenever UM came into possession.

One place where Miami didn't have much proven depth heading into the 2004 season was on the offensive line, and the unit performed poorly against a Carolina defense that had just yielded a school-record 669 yards in a 46-16 loss to Utah. The Hurricanes protected quarterback Brock Berlin extremely well (no sacks) on passing plays, but they created little room for tailbacks Frank Gore and Tyrone Moss, and the Tar Heels limited UM to a season-low 77 yards on 23 carries.

"We were surprised we couldn't run the ball better (against UNC)," Coker said. "We didn't block them very well. That was pretty obvious."

Line coach Art Kehoe is considered by many the best in the college ranks, but even he has had trouble patching together an effective group in the aftermath of a season-ending knee injury to star left tackle Eric Winston, then a multiple-game blow to starting right guard Tyler McMeans. They were arguably the two best run blockers on the team.

Defensively, star cornerback Antrel Rolle uncharacteristically gave up a 35-yard touchdown pass to pint-sized UNC receiver Mike Mason, but the much bigger problem was a front seven that often was dominated by a pretty strong Carolina offensive line.

UNC senior quarterback Darian Durant, well-protected all night long, completed 21 of 29 passing attempts for 266 yards and two touchdowns. Chad Scott, a third-string tailback who played his high school ball in Florida, ran for a career-high 175 yards on 25 carries. The Miami coaches had been impressed with the Tar Heels' blocking on film, but this was the same team that couldn't move the ball at all against Louisville or Utah.

"We didn't get off blocks," Coker said. "We got blocked. Plain and simple. They got their backs into the secondary, and there you have it."