Miami-Pitt 2017: Breaking down the matchups, score prediction

DURHAM, NC – SEPTEMBER 29: Ahmmon Richards #82 of the Miami Hurricanes celebrates with teammates after a touchdown against the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 29, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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Nine Miami teams have gone undefeated in the regular season. That list includes the mighty Canes of 1926, a group of freshmen that went 8-0 after a major hurricane caused havoc in South Florida.

Ninety-one years later, a slightly more veteran Miami team can turn similar fate into a familiar feat.

The second-ranked Hurricanes (10-0, 7-0 ACC), who spent September sidetracked by Hurricane Irma, October walking a tightrope of near-losses, and November announcing their presence as a playoff contender, can close the first unbeaten regular season in 15 years by beating Pittsburgh (4-7, 2-5) at chilly Heinz Field (noon Friday, ABC). A win would extend the nation’s longest winning streak to 16 games.

“Our record says we’re perfect, but we had opportunities to lose games and made plays,” safety Jaquan Johnson said. “That’s what we’re looking at. We’re not looking at the Ws. We’re looking at how we can get better each and every day.”

Miami went without losses in 1933 and 1950, though they tied in three of those 17 combined games. When fans think of Undefeated ‘U,’ they think of 1986-87, 1991-92 and 2001-02, all back-to-back regular seasons without a loss.

Is this the beginning of something so great? Greater? Let’s have that conversation in a couple weeks, after Miami faces Clemson in the ACC Championship.

But first, Pitt:

When Miami passes

At this point in the season, Miami knows what it has in Malik Rosier. He will throw an interception (five in the last three games), but quickly shrugs it off. He has been especially dangerous with his legs of late, which keeps UM’s offense moving. Braxton Berrios has been the most reliable receiver, but the Hurricanes spread it around more than most teams; in every game this year, between six and 10 receivers have recorded a catch, and that’s with Ahmmon Richards missing three games with an injury.

While Pitt’s pass defense does a decent job of forcing mistakes (49th in opponent completion percentage), hits often go along way. The Panthers are 113th nationally in yards per game allowed, and only three teams have allowed more catches of 30-plus yards. A big-play team like Miami can have a day-after Thanksgiving feast on that. Edge: Miami

When Miami runs

Rosier has rushed for an efficient 5.35 yards per carry and three touchdowns in UM’s last three games. He is three touchdowns from setting a UM single-season record for total touchdowns (31). Travis Homer — who is 151 yards away from 1,000 in a shortened season — has been a revelation as UM’s lead back, while DeeJay Dallas has shown flashes of great promise, though he needs to improve his pass-protection.

Pitt had some awful performances in the first half of the year, allowing well over 6.0 yards per carry to Penn State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, but seems to have tightened the screws. In its last four games, against Duke, Virginia, UNC and Virginia Tech, Pitt has allowed 3.34 yards per carry. Linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu (11.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks) has been productive. Edge: Miami

When Pitt passes

Confident quarterbacks can expose holes in Miami’s coverage, which might be a concern if Miami makes the playoffs and draws Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield or Alabama’s Jalen Hurts. Neither second-stringer Ben DiNucci or third-stringer Kenny Pickett, both of whom may play, will stress the Canes in that manner. Pickett, a true freshman, was sacked four times last week against Virginia Tech, but had an efficient day (15-of-23, 242 yards, touchdown, interception). DiNucci, a sophomore, completed 4-of-8 passes for 54 yards with a touchdown and a pick. Senior Jester Weah (6-3, 210) is a threat on the outside.

The Panthers are 106th in tackles for loss allowed per game, and 107th in sacks. They’ll have to be a lot better if they want to stop the Canes. Even after Virginia’s Kurt Benkert sliced them up for a half last week, Miami still ranks seventh in opponent passer rating. It is first in sacks and interceptions per game and fourth in tackles for loss. Senior Trent Harris is second in the ACC in sacks (8.0). Edge: Miami

When Pitt runs

Junior Darrin Hall was on fire before fizzling last week. He 254 yards against Duke, with touchdowns of 79 and 92 yards, and topped 100 yards against Virginia and North Carolina. He had eight touchdowns in that span. Virginia Tech held him to four yards on 15 carries in last week’s 20-14 loss, which ended when the Hokies drove him backward on a goal-line stand. Pitt averaged 1.83 yards per carry that day.

Miami creates negative plays all over the field, and once the Turnover Chain comes out, it doesn’t typically go away for long. Miami’s stretch of games with four turnovers gained ended last week, when it forced three. Edge: Miami

Special teams

Pitt punter Ryan Winslow ranks second in the ACC in average (44.6 yards per punt), but kicker Alex Kessman is 3-for-7 on field goals in his last four games (10-of-18 overall). Quadree Henderson, a junior, has seven career kick return touchdowns and has taken two punts to the house this year (80 yards against Georgia Tech, 75 against Virginia). He has burned Miami before, too: he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown last year, and broke an 89-yarder as a freshman in 2015. Miami’s punter (Zach Feagles) and kicker (Michael Badgley) are reliable, Braxton Berrios is smart and sure-handed as a punt returner, and freshman kick returner Jeff Thomas has potential. Its coverage teams must corral Henderson. Edge: Miami

Coaching

Miami’s current winning streak began Nov. 5, 2016, with a 51-28 win over Pitt at Hard Rock Stadium. Mark Richt’s staff has made all the right moves since then, creating a winning culture in Coral Gables. Pat Narduzzi’s team has taken a step back after the graduation of standouts James Conner, Ejuan Price and Nathan Peterman. Pitt, which has beaten Miami twice since 1976, can only play spoiler. One familiar face on the Panthers’ sideline: defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, Lane Kiffin’s predecessor at FAU.

Prediction

Fun fact: the Hurricanes are the highest-ranked team to play at Heinz Field in 16 years. The last team that was ranked higher than No. 2: top-ranked Miami, which blew out Pitt in its national title season of 2001.

This Miami team shares a few traits with their predecessors: fast, physical and confident, and loaded with NFL talent. When they play their best, these Hurricanes can dominate. But this team is four quarters from 11-0 because it has been fortunate. They were going to be late for a meeting, but every stoplight on the road turned green. They tripped and fell, but that only made them notice a $20 bill on the ground everyone else hustled past. Hard to see that luck running out now.

Miami 37, Pitt 13

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