Whether we’re talking Hurricanes or Hurricane Irma, it has been a fortunate year for Miami.
This team, forced to flee that September storm, has escaped trouble at every turn. Through schedule shifts and injury issues and games where they just couldn’t get it going until the final moments, the 10th-ranked Hurricanes’ resilience has been impressive, though it makes you wonder when – if? – the luck will run out.
We have our doubts about it happening this week, even though 13th-ranked Virginia Tech should be a bear of an opponent.
The matchups, and a prediction:
When Miami passes
The Canes want balance, sure. They want to be able to run the ball well. But they’re one of the most explosive and physically diverse passing attacks in the ACC, so why not own that? Miami has big-play threats everywhere, and the Hokies are somewhat susceptible. They force incompletions — no Power 5 team has a lower opposing completion percentage (44.9) — but can be vulnerable to giving up yards after the catch.
Miami listed no one on its injury report, aside from three players already known to be out for the year (running back Mark Walton, linebacker Jamie Gordinier and freshman receiver Evidence Njoku). That means Malik Rosier, who had shoulder trouble last week at North Carolina, could be good to go. Coach Mark Richt said he was full-go in practice. Richt didn’t say anything at all about Ahmmon Richards, who has battled a hamstring injury all year. That could be a good thing, since a healthy Richards makes an already productive passing game (nearly 300 yards per game) even more dangerous. Edge: Miami
When Miami runs
Don’t expect big numbers here, unless we see a reversal of trend. Teams have been stacking the box to take away the combo of Travis Homer and Rosier’s keepers, which has allowed Rosier’s receivers one-on-one coverage. Should the Hokies focus on shutting down the pass, UM’s lackluster ground game could get a little more shine. But probably not much.
Virginia Tech’s defense, as usual, is athletic and aggressive. Linebackers Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds are ultra-physical, sophomore defensive tackle Tim Settle (9.5 tackles for loss) is one of the ACC’s best run-stuffers, and defensive back Mook Reynolds is an active blitzer (8.0 tackles for loss). Over the last month, the Hurricanes are second-to-last in the ACC in yards per carry (3.58), and gaining just 0.89 yards on third downs (7-for-27 conversions) while rushing. Unless the offensive line takes a step forward — with starting right guard Navaughn Donaldson (ankle) back in the lineup, it could — expect more tough sledding. Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia Tech passes
Josh Jackson has been excellent overall, leading the ACC in touchdown passes (15) and ranking second in passer rating (153.88). However, seven of his TD passes have come against Power 5 competition. The son of former longtime Michigan assistant Fred Jackson, he has thrown four interceptions this year — two against Clemson, with its outstanding front seven and speedy secondary. Miami, which has forced 16 turnovers — 11 of them interceptions — in seven games, hopes to break out its Turnover Chain.
Jackson, like Rosier, has proven to be a winner in his first year as a starter. In his first start, a neutral-site season-opener against West Virginia, he led three second-half touchdown drives after WVU tied the score. The Hokies’ defense got the stop to win the game. Like Rosier, he’s a threat to run, but doesn’t typically do so for big yardage (a 46-yarder against WVU notwithstanding). Unlike Rosier, he doesn’t have a wealth of deep threats. Cam Phillips is one of the ACC’s best (692 yards, six touchdowns on 51 catches) but UM cornerback Michael Jackson (three interceptions) has allowed the ACC’s lowest passer rating (32.6) when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus. Teammates Trajan Bandy and Malek Young rank fourth and eighth, respectively. If Miami fixes some perimeter tackling issues, it will win this area. Edge: Miami
When Virginia Tech runs
The Hokies haven’t had a ton of success running the ball, with is good news, since Miami has appeared weakest in allowing big plays on the ground. Main ballcarrier Travon McMillan (353 yards, two touchdowns on 76 carries) is 22nd in the ACC in yards per carry.
Virginia Tech ranks 84th nationally in yards per carry (3.58), and dropped to 106th in October games (3.36). On the whole, Miami’s rush defense is middle-of-the-pack nationally (56th overall, 67th last month), and while seemingly every opponent has found room in the middle of the field, the Hurricanes know how to tighten up. Miami is the second-best team in the country when it comes to stuffing the run inside the red zone. Inside its own 20-yard line, UM has allowed 18 yards on 44 carries. Edge: Miami
The Hokies’ top cornerback, senior Greg Stroman, has broken two punt returns of 60-plus yards, including a 91-yarder. Clearly, he has the speed and shiftiness to impact the game. Miami senior Braxton Berrios, with two returns of 30-plus and one of 44, is no slouch. The Hurricanes have the edge in kick returns — freshman Jeff Thomas may be the fastest player on the field. In a battle of senior kickers, Miami’s Michael Badgley, a Lou Groza Award finalist who has gone 12-of-14 on field goals, has the edge on Virginia Tech’s Joey Slye (13-of-20). The punters? They’re freshmen, but Virginia Tech’s Oscar Bradburn is dealing with an enemy crowd, while Miami’s Zach Feagles is not. The Hokies have blocked three kicks/punts to the Hurricanes’ one. Edge: Even
Two offensively minded head coaches — Mark Richt and Justin Fuente — and two outstanding defensive coordinators — Manny Diaz and Bud Foster. Should be fun. It’s tough to find an advantage on either side. Edge: Even
Can Miami keep winning these one-score games? After what they’ve shown so far, why not? This is the most important Hurricanes game in several seasons. It should be the Hurricanes’ best performance of the season, in front of what should be a raucous home crowd. Miami 24, Virginia Tech 20
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