[Injury report: Delaney out, Donaldson probable]
Finding it hard to appreciate Syracuse’s giant-killing ways? We expected as much.
To an audience of Hurricanes fans, talk of last Friday’s stunning upset of No. 2 Clemson will go over like a lead balloon painted orange.
Mention “Syracuse” in South Florida and you’ll stir up memories the Big East and beat-downs in the Orange Bowl, when the Hurricanes were between dynasty years but still had their way in that mini-rivalry. UM was 11-2 in those games from 1990 to 2003, losing only when Donovan McNabb found Miami in a couple of down years.
Both programs are refreshed, and climbing up the ACC ranks. It’s hard to root against Dino Babers, an energetic and likable presence who runs a fast-paced attack. But Mark Richt, 14-4 since taking over at his alma mater, is a fine story, too.
His team’s roster has flaws, lacking experience and depth in the secondary and at running back, and several injured players who would be contributors. But after a pair of last-minute wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech, the Hurricanes (5-0, 3-0 ACC) are the eighth-ranked team in the country, and the only ACC team that has yet to lose. They’ve won their last 10 games, the second-longest streak in FBS.
Ripe for an upset, or just getting started?
Syracuse hopes it has the answer, but the Orange could have its own set of issues Saturday (3:30 p.m., ESPN). Their quarterback could pick on that aforementioned group of defensive backs, but at least UM’s defense is used to running around in the humid, high-80s weather. Hard Rock Stadium isn’t the Carrier Dome. It’s also not the Orange Bowl, but while some rag on Miami fans for not packing the new stadium, those who showed up for last week’s monsoon were loud, proud, and according to Miami players and coaches, a big factor in helping secure a win. When it started pouring, only one team was comfortable.
The matchups, and a prediction:
When Miami passes
Malik Rosier has proven his ability to adjust, settle down and play winning ball — but blood pressure among Canes fans would be lower if he figured things out earlier. In the first halves of his last two games, he is 13-for-32 for 125 yards and a touchdown. Take out the scoring drive in the final two minutes of the first half against Georgia Tech — a pressure situation, Rosier’s specialty — and those numbers look a lot worse: 7-for-25 for 49 yards.
That kind of start against Syracuse could be disastrous, given how prolific the Orange attack has been. Rosier will find holes — Syracuse plays man-to-man, and especially if Ahmmon Richards is healthy, may not be able to match UM’s receiving skill — but this is a better defense than the one that allowed 8.9 yards per attempt last year (125th nationally, worst in the ACC). The best quarterback Syracuse faced this year, North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley, had his worst performance of the season in a 33-25 win. The Wolfpack beat Cuse on the ground. Miami may have to do the same, but should have enough to win through the air. Edge: Miami
When Miami runs
Travis Homer went for 170 yards and a touchdown (adding another score via reception) in his first career start last week. As long as he stays healthy, UM will be OK. The line may be improved with the probable return of true freshman right guard Navaughn Donaldson.
Defensively, Syracuse has been excellent at getting teams off the field on third down; it ranks third in opponent success rate (23.91) and has allowed just 8-of-36 conversions in ACC play. Miami’s offense is 97th on third down (34.48), and was a season-low 2-of-12 last week against Georgia Tech.
Against weaker competition, Syracuse looked great against the run, opened the floodgates against N.C. State (256 yards and three touchdowns on 47 carries) and looked slightly better in close home wins over Pittsburgh and Clemson the last two weeks (combined 4.74 yards per carry). If Syracuse’s run defense travels — and it didn’t when they went to Raleigh last month — they’ll be in the game. Edge: Miami
When Syracuse passes
The Canes’ season-high for sacks in a game is six, set last month at Duke. They also had 11 tackles for loss. They’ll get every chance to duplicate those numbers against another high-tempo, throw-first attack. Eric Dungey is a veteran version of Duke’s Daniel Jones, whom Miami shut down. But he’s better, and has better receivers. Steve Ishmael, a Miami native who’s sure to be fired up, has a nation-best 62 receptions, and fellow senior Ervin Phillips is third (56).
Only two teams have attempted more passes (316) than the Orange, and those two have made more than their share of plays. The Hurricanes absolutely must win up front, because it’s doubtful their young-and-bruised secondary can shut down Babers’ air-it-out attack on its own. Dungey threw for a season-high 8.4 yards per attempt and three touchdowns against Clemson, which boasts arguably the best defensive line in the country. Edge: Syracuse
When Syracuse runs
Dungey is most of Syracuse’s run game, which has given local fans pause (he seemingly gets knocked around every game). He owns the team’s longest play from scrimmage this year, a 74-yard rush against Central Michigan. If Cuse gets going on the ground, it’s nearly impossible to stop them through the air.
Syracuse has run more plays (599) than anyone, and as such leads the nation in third-down attempts. However, the Orange are 51st in conversion rate (41.79). Miami’s third-down defense has been below average (80th nationally, 40.23 percent) but that’s mostly because of its first two games. UM is 14-of-47 (29.8) in ACC play, which is fifth in the conference and No. 1 among teams that have faced Georgia Tech (which UM held to a season-low 4-of-13).
The Orange aren’t efficient (3.58 yards per carry, 108th nationally) but in that win over Clemson, picked up nearly as many first downs on the ground (11) as they did through the air (12; five were penalties). Edge: Miami
If the conditions turn soggy on Saturday, Miami will not mind. Kicker Michael Badgley went 4-for-4 and booted the winning 24-yard field goal, as his teammates were able to get the snap down in the slop. Syracuse kicker Cole Murphy is 12-for-14, including a 48-yard miss at N.C. State. UM has allowed four kickoff returns of more than 30 yards, but Syracuse has surrendered one of 60-plus. Neither side has allowed a punt return of longer than 20. The Orange are slightly more explosive on kickoff returns, while Braxton Berrios has been productive returning punts. Overall, slight edge to UM for being more used to outdoor conditions. Edge: Miami
Hard to dislike what Babers is doing, recruiting speedy athletes to play an exciting system. He admitted this week that Miami has more of said personnel, and he’s correct. Halftime adjustments have been key for UM, and should be again Saturday as the Hurricanes try to figure out another basketball-on-grass offense. For the players, it’s a welcome change from cut blocks and option pitches. Richt and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz have mostly pushed the right buttons this year. Edge: Miami
This could be another tight one, which means the college football world is likely to keep questioning whether Miami’s really that good. Assuming this week provides few answers, don’t expect any next week on the road against a North Carolina team that’s in awful shape. Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, to start November, is where we’ll find out what Miami’s truly made of — unless, of course, Syracuse brings the Hurricanes down to earth. This is a game a good team should win: at home, against a 17-point underdog that’s riding high off an upset. The bet here is Miami runs its win streak to 11 games, even if it takes another minor miracle. Miami 31, Syracuse 24.
More Miami-Syracuse 2017: