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Hurricanes’ pass defense appears up to challenge of WSU’s Air Raid

Miami safety Deon Bush, right, is know for his physical style of play.
Miami safety Deon Bush, right, is know for his physical style of play.

For Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, the joy of the college game is in its variety.

On Nov. 21, the Hurricanes overcame Georgia Tech’s triple option; a week later they beat Pitt’s pro-style offense.

Compared with that, preparing for Washington State’s “Air Raid” is just another day in the film room; make that three weeks in the film room, enough to bring D’Onofrio and his players up to speed on what they’ll face in the Sun Bowl on Saturday.

D’Onofrio said he’s impressed with the Cougars’ execution.

“They perform at a high level what the coaches want them to get done, and they’re extremely efficient,” said D’Onofrio, who added that he couldn’t compare WSU’s offense to anything he’s faced in five years at Miami.

Most worrisome for the ’Canes is the efficiency of WSU quarterback Luke Falk, who’s 418-for-591 for 4,266 yards, 36 touchdowns and just eight picks.

“He makes really good decisions and knows where he wants to go with the ball,” D’Onofrio said. “He can make all the throws.”

But while Falk’s passing is better than anything Miami has faced this year, the Hurricanes won’t have to worry about his running ability. Mobile quarterbacks have been their undoing, especially in blowout losses to Clemson and North Carolina.

It didn’t help that several linebackers were felled by injury. Going into the Sun Bowl, three sophomore ’backers are atop the depth chart. “We’ve had to adapt and overcome,” D’Onofrio said.

Actually, Miami has struggled to stop anyone on the ground, giving up 210 yards a game out of its 3-4 scheme. Also, the Hurricanes are among the worst teams in the nation on third down (opponents are converting at a 39.3 percent rate) and in the red zone (giving up scores 89.6 percent of the time).

Even as he studies the Air Raid, he’s worried about the combined 6.1 yards a carry the Cougars are getting out of Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington.

“You can’t fall asleep” against the run,” said D’Onofrio, a standout linebacker at Penn State who played two seasons in the NFL.

Miami’s defensive fortunes have mirrored the rest of the team. Last year, D’Onofrio’s unit ranked 14th in the country after holding opponents to 330 yards a game.

This year, they struggled early – another factor in the firing of Coach Al Golden following a program-worst 58-0 loss to Clemson on Oct 24. Since then, the defense has stiffened, especially against the pass.

The Hurricanes are 39th in the country in pass-efficiency defense (119.95) while giving up just 196 yards through the air. Their 15 interceptions have helped make Miami one of the best teams in the country in turnover margin at plus-13.

Even more impressive: the Hurricanes haven’t given up more than one TD pass in a game since Oct. 17.

“We have some guys on the back end who do a good job and the ability to make plays,” said D’Onofrio, who got six picks from all-ACC cornerback and NFL prospect Artie Burns, a solid year from corner Corn Elder and physical play from safety Deon Bush.

However, depth took a hit Tuesday when backup safety Jamal Carter was sent back to Miami for violating an undisclosed team rule. Carter has 48 tackles this season, ranking fifth.

Up front, the Hurricances have looked vulnerable on the edge, but linebacker Jermaine Grace is good in pursuit.

For defensive lineman Chad Thomas, beating the Cougars is all about “keeping our conditioning up, being relentless and keeping the pressure up.”

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