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Getting defensive: No. 19 Miami's defense is showing early season glimpses of greatness

There was a play in Miami's one-sided win over Pittsburgh where linebackers Colin McCarthy and Sean Spence ended up tackling each other, and still managed to deal the Panthers an 18-yard loss.

That's how it's going for the Hurricanes right now.

Stingy and swarming again, Miami's defense has given up just three touchdowns through its first three games, two of them coming on drives of 19 yards or less, and is ranked ninth nationally entering this weekend's games after allowing a mere 252 yards per contest.

"Best we've played in a while," defensive lineman Allen Bailey said after Thursday's 31-3 road victory over the Panthers, Miami's former Big East rival. "Everybody's flying around, everybody sees the ball, tackles for losses, sacks, interceptions. Pretty good."

That might be an understatement.

Defense was supposed to be a question mark for Miami this season. Would there be enough playmakers on the defensive line? Will the linebacking corps finally live up to potential? Is the secondary going to continue being suspect, as it was at key times last season?

So far, anyway, the 19th-ranked Hurricanes (2-1) have provided emphatic answers on all those fronts. At least in Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt's eyes, anyway — his team didn't get a first down until late in the second quarter against Miami.

"It's a good defense," Wannstedt said. "A real good defense."

Ohio State scored three touchdowns against Miami on Sept. 11, each of them on two-play drives, two of them spanning 19 and 15 yards after the Hurricanes' offense gift-wrapped easy scores after turnovers. The other was an 80-yarder, helped considerably when two Hurricanes botched assignments on what became a 62-yard pass from Terrelle Pryor to DeVier Posey.

In Miami's two wins over Florida A&M and Pitt, the Hurricanes have given up one field goal in 24 defensive possessions.

"We've been saying this for the last two or three years," Miami coach Randy Shannon said. "We've got competition now at a lot of positions. When you've got competition, that changes everything."

Shannon, who was the coordinator when Miami perennially ranked among the nation's best in just about every defensive category during the early 2000s, insists there's plenty for the Hurricanes to improve upon.

Tackling has been suspect, a consistent problem in recent years. Pitt getting a 33-yard gain when faced with a second-and-28 situation Thursday night left him appalled. And until a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions against the Panthers, Miami forced only two turnovers in the season's first 11-plus quarters.

Still, going into next weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Clemson, there's momentum.

"We played great," defensive end Andrew Smith said. "We all gang-tackled. All 11 hats on the ball."

Smith had three tackles for loss and two sacks against Pitt. Already, the Hurricanes have posted 34 tackles for loss as a team, the highest total so far in the nation. And maybe the best of the Miami defensive bunch so far as been Spence, the linebacker who had nine more tackles against Pitt, giving him 24 for the season — his best start in his three years at Miami.

"That's Sean, man," said cornerback Ryan Hill, who had an interception in Thursday's win. "That guy, I hear a lot of guys say he's undersized. To be what he is, he has a knack for the ball."

There's a lot of Hurricanes with that knack so far this season.

The last time Miami held two of its first three opponents to three points or less was 1989, when the Hurricanes went on to win their third national championship. Miami's defense is off to a better start, at least in terms of yards allowed, than any team in the ACC. And going into the weekend, only three schools — Alabama, Oregon and Rutgers — have given up fewer touchdowns than Miami's three.

"We know we've got a lot to work on," Shannon said. "We can get better."