Virginia Tech and Miami face off tomorrow night in the biggest game in the ACC Coastal since at least 2009. With that said, Jackson Pugh goes “Inside The Enemy” to preview the Miami Hurricanes.
1. No Walton, No Problem…. At Least at Home
Last season, Miami RB Mark Walton was one of college football’s shining stars: he ran for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2016, while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Coming into 2017, many thought Walton was poised to become one of the best running backs in the ACC, and he did not disappoint. Through Miami’s first four games, Walton ran for 107 yards per game and scored 3 touchdowns. Then the Florida State game happened, where Walton and the Miami faithful were reminded of the tough-luck nature of football. In the blink of an eye, Walton’s season was over, as he sustained an unfortunate ankle injury. (http://ESPN.com)
You would think the ‘Canes running game would have suffered significantly after the injury, right? In came backup RB Travis Homer to prove that statement wrong. Immediately after Walton’s injury, Homer ran for 170 yards the next week in a hard-fought game against Georgia Tech. Homer has averaged 107 yards rushing in the three games since the Walton injury, helping Miami stay undefeated at 7-0.
However, if you thought Homer’s rushing numbers looked a little skewed, especially with the aid of his 170 yard performance, you are right. Miami has inexplicably ran the ball much better in Hard Rock Stadium than anywhere else.
In their four home games, Miami has rushed for 223 yards per game, as opposed to a beyond woeful 94 yards per contest on the road. Unfortunately for the Hokies, this game will be played in The Sunshine State. It will be interesting to see how Tech’s excellent front seven will match up against this Miami running game.
2. The Dominant Pass Rush
The Scorpions would like the way this Miami defense is playing, because the U is rocking opposing quarterbacks like a hurricane. The school that produced great defensive players such as Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp, and Ed Reed is starting to show signs of brightness on that side of the football again.
While Miami has let offenses move the ball a little bit, ranking 52nd in total defense, 82nd in rush defense, and 71st in 3rd down defense, they have still managed to allow only 18.7 points per game, which is 3rd in the ACC and 19th in the nation. The reason for the latter statistic being as good as it is: the dominant pass rush. (NCAA.com)
Miami is 4th in the nation in sacks per game, with 24 QB takedowns in 7 games. What’s interesting is that Miami does not have one player with more than four sacks, but has seven players with two or more sacks. This means that the ‘Canes pass-rush has been a team effort, which is a credit to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
The fact that the linebackers have contributed to the sack total, with Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney contributing 5.5 QB takedowns, shows that Diaz has drawn up some good blitz packages. The last time Virginia Tech faced a tough blitz package was against Clemson, who leads the nation in sacks and has heralded defensive coordinator Brent Venables. If Josh Jackson reads tough blitz packages the way he did against Clemson, the Hokies offense may be in trouble Saturday night.
3. Turnover Chain Doing it’s Service on Both Sides of the Ball
In response to only forcing 19 turnovers in 2016, head coach Mark Richt decided to take a new approach in 2017. Any Hurricane player who recovers a fumble or intercepts a pass gets to put a gold chain around their neck, with a large, metal U gleaming in the Florida sun. So far, the experiment has worked: Miami currently ranks 25th in total takeaways, with 16. Consider the fact that the U has played only played 7 games, so the Hurricanes are forcing 3.6 turnovers per game, as opposed to just 1.5 per game last season.
Leading the charge is cornerback Michael Jackson, who has 4 interceptions on the season. The way he makes the Hokies feel is not very good, as he has told his opposing receivers to just beat it. It will be interesting to see if Cam Phillips can rock his world on Saturday night. Alright, that’s enough of those thriller jokes.
Anyhow, while Miami is forcing plenty of turnovers, they are also not committing a whole lot of them either. Quarterback Malik Rosier has done an excellent job securing the football this season, throwing only 4 interceptions thus far. The ‘Canes have the 5th fewest giveaways in 2017 with 6, which has helped them rank in the top 10 in turnover margin. I
nterestingly, another team that does an excellent job protecting the football is Virginia Tech, as they also have only had 6 giveaways in 2017. If both teams continue to not beat themselves, then Saturday night could be one of the biggest thrillers of the college football season.
4. 3rd Down Struggles has caused a Reliance on Big Plays
The Miami offense has been solid this season, ranking in the top 20 in yards per game while averaging a respectable 32 points per contest. However, one of the biggest weaknesses for Miami has been their inability to sustain drives. Thus far, the Hurricanes rank 119th in 3rd down conversion percentage, with an abysmal 30.7%. Last week against a porous North Carolina defense, Miami went 4-17 on third down, which is only a 23.5% efficiency. As a result, Miami has been forced to find another way to score points, big plays.
Miami scored in Chapel Hill last week primarily via three plays: a 78-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Thomas, a 51-yard touchdown pass to Chris Herndon and a 49-yard pass to DeeJay Dallas that led to a touchdown. Mark Richt spoke of his team’s need to sustain drives on offense, after the game.
“It’s good we’ve got playmakers. It’s good we’ve got a scheme that breaks guys out and give them opportunities to make plays on-on-one,” said Richt. “What a lot of defenses are trying to do is pack the box and play a lot of man coverage and we have to have guys that can make plays and thankfully, we do have the skill set to do that. It’s better than not making big plays and not scoring touchdowns. I think we’d all rather control the ball a little bit more and have a drive that has 10, 12 plays and all that kinds of things.” (Sun Sentinel)
5. Star Player (and Star Scholar): WR Braxton Berrios
Miami’s passing game has been on point, and much of that has been thanks to 5’9”, 186-pound WR Braxton Berrios. The senior certainly excels on the football field, as he leads Miami in receiving with 415 yards and 6 touchdowns, while also returning punts for 147 yards. However, Berrios excels off the field as well, with a 3.96 grade point average in the classroom. He is a Campbell Trophy candidate, which is given to the college football player that excels the most on the field and in the classroom.
Mark Richt has loved everything that the senior leader has done. “He has been awesome,” said Richt. “Pretty spectacular, actually. A lot of college kids are missing out what it’s like to be that senior leader. I’m really happy for him.” (Miami Herald) Other than Gary Jennings of West Virginia, Berrios will be one of the toughest receivers the Hokie Defense has faced thus far. It will be interesting to see how Adonis Alexander handles this matchup, or how Bud Foster will scheme to stop the ‘Canes passing attack.