After North Carolina gashed the Hurricanes for more than 500 yards of offense, Miami defensive coordinator Lance Guidry knew he would need to make some changes and corrections for when Clemson came to South Florida.
He decided to make a substantial alteration. For much of the game, Miami would play with three linemen and three linebackers instead of its typical 4-2 setup in the defensive front. The move worked, as the Hurricanes (5-2, 1-2 ACC) held the Tigers (4-3, 2-3 ACC) to 17 points in regulation and picked up a 28-20, double-overtime win.
“Sunday night, after watching them on film, in my head, I’m like, ‘OK, we’ve got to get as much speed on the field as we can,'” Guidry said. “So I started thinking if we put three linebackers on the field with three down linemen, we can do more. We can drop in coverage differently, we can match up on tight ends, we can bring different pressures. I’ve done it before, but it’s been a while back that I did it.”
The move was necessitated by more than just strategy as the Hurricanes are battling injuries to two starters on the defensive line. Veteran Akheem Mesidor, who last played against Texas A&M, is expected to return soon, but sophomore Nyjalik Kelly is likely out for the season.
Additionally, Guidry knew Clemson would be well-versed in Miami’s previous defensive schemes because the Tigers were coming off a bye week.
“So just watching the film and breaking them down, I’m like, ‘You know, this is the week,'” Guidry said. “They’ve been working on us for two weeks for what they’ve seen because they had an open week. I said it’s the perfect time to jump into it because when it gets to Saturday night, they haven’t seen anything that we’re going to do.”
Work on the new defensive scheme started early in the week. The Hurricanes had extra walk-throughs with defensive coaches to try to make the transition as smooth as possible.
“It was easy switching over to it,” fourth-year junior linebacker Corey Flagg Jr. said. “The coaches, the way they coached it, they simplified it for us. Did extra walk-throughs, too, after meetings. That helped. It was a smooth transition.”
Guidry credited the defensive assistant coaches for teaching the new scheme quickly, and he praised the players for picking it up and being willing to change roles. Veterans Branson Deen and Jahfari Harvey saw their playing time drop to 19 and 16 defensive snaps, respectively. But Guidry said players were “unselfish.”
Rueben Bain Jr., Leonard Taylor III and Jared Harrison-Hunte played the largest roles on the defensive line in the win, while Francisco Mauigoa, Wesley Bissainthe, K.J. Cloyd and Flagg received dozens of snaps each at linebacker spots.
“Wes is what we called our ‘Hank.’ He really took over for the ‘Jack’ (defensive lineman) into the boundary, and then K.J. played the Will and (Mauigoa) played the Mike,” Guidry said. “And then Flagg came in and played both. So they got a bunch of snaps, and we needed them, too. I was kind of a little worried because they play on special teams, so that was a lot of snaps they played the other night. but they held up well. I was proud of them. They did what we needed to do.”
The defensive front responded with arguably its best performance of the year. After allowing 235 rushing yards to the Tar Heels, the Hurricanes held the Tigers to just 31 yards on the ground. They sacked quarterback Cade Klubnik five times.
Players put up strong individual numbers, too. Bain earned ACC defensive lineman and rookie of the week honors after making eight tackles with two sacks and a forced fumble. Harrison-Hunte had a pair of tackles and earned strong marks in run defense from Pro Football Focus.
Taylor, lining up at nose tackle, had one of his best games of the season. He notched five tackles with two tackles for loss, earning an 87.4 defensive grade from Pro Football Focus.
“When I’m in the nose, I kind of like that package because I really get to dominate the center,” Taylor said. “It’s a good scheme. I like it a lot.”
The linebackers all played well, too. Mauigoa and Cloyd had six tackles each and notched two and one tackles for loss each. Bissainthe had four tackles. Flagg had five and two tackles for loss, including one on the game’s decisive play where Flagg dragged Klubnik out of bounds to end the game.
“We knew it was going to be something that offense couldn’t handle,” Bissainthe said. “Just going out there and making it happen, making plays. We’re all athletic, so we’re all able to make plays and be great off it.”