The amount of subplots surrounding this week’s showdown between Miami and Duke couldn’t have been less expected eight days ago. Over that span, the Canes were rocked by sixth-ranked Clemson, 58-0. A day later, head coach Al Golden was fired and tight ends coach Larry Scott was promoted to the interim position.
Quarterback Brad Kaaya suffered a concussion in the loss to the Tigers, and while all were hoping he’d be ready to go, the sophomore wasn’t even able to make the flight to Durham, so Malik Rosier will get the start.
Regarding the Canes’ family, cornerback Artie Burns lost his mother Dana Smith on Monday night; Smith seen as a team mom to many on the team and many Hurricanes taking her death hard. Burns surprised teammates by showing up for practice on Wednesday and made the trip north with teammates, playing this weekend in his late mother’s honor.
As for Miami fans—who have recently taken a lot of criticism for banners flying on game day and general lashing out—they were able to raise over $40K for the Burns’ family in half a day, by way of a successful crowdsourcing campaign.
The Canes sit at 4-3 on the season and are 1-2 in Atlantic Coastal Conference play. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils are undefeated in conference and can further their quest to win their second Coastal Division crown in three seasons with a win over Miami this weekend.
CANES VERSUS BLUE DEVILS : HOW WE GOT HERE
Clemson dismantled Miami last week. Prior to that the Canes bounced back from a road loss to Florida State with a well-crafted win over an average Virginia Tech team. Many hoped Miami was turning a corner and was back in the Coastal race; an upset the Tigers not expected, but a competitive showdown didn’t seem like too much to ask for.
As a result of the shutout, the Canes are in disarray; the seven games this season completely scattered and impossible to decipher.
Who is this Miami team? The one who no-showed early-on in scrimmage-type games against Bethune-Cookman and Florida Atlantic? The squad that came out gangbusters against Nebraska, only to blow a 23-point lead and surviving overtime? The one who fought against the Seminoles, or bounced back against the Hokies? Or the pathetic, lifeless squad that looked like the Washington Generals to Harlem’s Globetrotters when getting worked by Clemson?
Furthermore, what does this week mean—Golden gone, Kaaya out, an interim coach at the helm and a back-up quarterback making his first start for a team rattled by the loss of their coach and the mother of a beloved teammate?
Across the field, Duke is coming off a four-overtime, 45-43 win at Virginia Tech and has one loss on the season; falling 19-10 at Northwestern in late September. Duke topped Georgia Tech, 34-20 weeks back and hung in there for a 9-7 win against Boston College.
The Blue Devils got an early leg up on the Canes by way of Atlantic Division scheduling; the Canes taking on Florida State and Clemson from the other side—both resulting in losses—while Duke landed Boston College and Wake Forest.
Some offensive inconsistency for the Blue Devils this season; only scoring 10 in the loss to the Wildcats and three field goals against the Eagles. Shellackings of North Carolina Central and Army get thrown out the window, while the win over the Hokies was 24-24 at the end of regulation and 21 points were scored by Duke in overtime.
When Miami joined the ACC in 2004, all the talk revolved around the Hurricanes and Seminoles going toe-to-toe in the conference title game—which hasn’t happened in 11 tries and doesn’t appear to be in the card this season. Conversely, Duke has emerged as a true threat in the Coastal—going 9-4 last season and 10-4 the year prior, winning the division.
Miami topped Duke 22-10 last season at Sun Life Stadium—a bit of a revenge game as the Blue Devils outlasted the Canes in the fourth quarter the previous year, 48-10, en route to their division crown.
Miami won the 2012 shootout, 52-45—the first year the rivalry was no longer one-sided. Prior to that, a 49-14 Canes win in 2011, 28-13 win in Durham in 2010, 34-16 in 2009, 49-13 in 2008 and 24-14 in 2007.
A quirky match-up between the two conference rivals in 2006; Miami hanging on for the 20-15 victory by way of a goal-line interception. The Canes had 13 players suspended in the wake of an on-the-field brawl against Florida International—almost resulting in an upset by an 0-6 Duke squad.
Almost a decade later, Miami returns to Durham—short-handed, albeit under much different circumstances. How will that play out for the Canes and Blue Devils in 2015?
KEYS TO VICTORY : MIAMI
Seems the ultimate goal for Scott is to get his team to shake it off, play loose and to dive completely into game day; a true safe-haven as the field is the only place the Canes will be able to block out the noise and shake off what has been a brutal week all around.
Duke is a two-touchdown favorite and no one is expecting much out of Miami this week; Kaaya out, Rosier under center, Burns with a heavy heart, players upset about Golden and Scott coaching his first game. The Canes need to properly channel those lowered expectations and use it as fuel for an upset.
From the get-go there’s been talk that offensive coordinator James Coley had separate packages for Rosier—and while it didn’t make sense to waste, thrust into action hen down 28-0 to Clemson—the Canes have had all week to get Rosier ready, to improve his timing with receivers and to creatively bring a different flair to the offense the the one Kaaya brings.
The Canes have some talented receivers, a handful of capable backs and an offensive line, that while spotty, has had some decent moments this season. There’s no reason Rosier can’t be plugged in and find success. Utilize his legs. Move the chains. Keep Duke’s offense off the field. Capitalize in the red zone and pick up more third downs.
The Blue Devils are a sound team with a solid coach, but they don’t boast the talent of Clemson or Florida State. Virginia Tech took them to the wire and Boston College held them to single-digit points. Cliche as it comes across, Miami just needs to check the drama at the door and come out to play football.
A common theme all year, but can’t shy away from it; the Hurricanes need to commit to running the football with Joe Yearby and Mark Walton—and a lack of Kaaya will force that. A big part of Coley’s plan thus far has been asking his sophomore quarterback to suck it up 35-plus times per game, at the expense of selling out on the run.
As a result, defenses keyed in on Kaaya late—especially Florida State, who batted down to passes on the Canes’ final drive, knowing the ground game wasn’t a threat.
From a game-planning standpoint, Miami will have to abandon much of what it did the past seven weeks and come with a new approach that plays to it’s personnel this week. What has been on Kaaya’s shoulders now needs to be distributed to Rosier, the running backs and receivers making more of an effort to block for backs and create opportunities for an inexperienced quarterback.
Regarding the receivers, somebody will have to play that go-to role. Where an experienced player like Kaaya goes through his progressions and finds those third and fourth options, a less-experienced quarterback like Rosier will most-likely lock on to the guy he has the most chemistry with.
Rashawn Scott was injured against Clemson, but should he return for Duke, would be a likely option for Rosier due to his route running and experience. If not Scott, the only is on a Herb Waters or Stacy Coley to beat their men and create opportunities for Rosier to capitalize.
Look for tight ends Standish Dobard and Chris Herndon as options, too—tight ends quickly becoming easy options for inexperienced quarterbacks looking to dump the ball off.
Defensively, a monster question mark as no one knows what to expect with Golden gone and Mark D’Onofrio still calling the shots. What message has Scott passed down to defensive coaches regarding Miami’s philosophies over the next five games.
Behind closed doors, what did Scott—a tight ends coach—feel about the Canes’ non-aggressive defensive scheme? Will he be involved in the defensive game planning and overall process? Does Miami let loose a bit; a new devil-may-care attitude that comes from a 4-3 record, coaching change, lowered expectations and remaining coaches either attempting to audition for their next jobs, or simply wanting to go out with a bang?
The Canes have zero reason to play tight defensively and any 3-4 scheme that has been in play the past five years; that sure as hell won’t be the defense Miami’s next coach runs.
In short, can the Canes’ defense find a way to let loose a little bit today and over the next few weeks? Will Scott have any say, or will everyone play it safe—business as usual with D’Onofrio calling his typical shots?
KEYS TO VICTORY : DUKE
Take advantage of no Kaaya and D-up. The Blue Devils only give up an average of 14 points and 151 passing yards to opposing offenses—ninth in total defense, surrendering an average of 281 total yards-per-game.
If Duke plays their game defensively; coupled with a generally mistake-free, effective, efficient offense—it should handle a Miami team that will show up without it’s best overall player.
Miami’s defense generally has its hands full with dual-threat quarterbacks and Sirk seems primed for give the Canes fits. Hard to imagine head coach David Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils’ staff not breaking down defensive film on Miami and coming up with ways to let Sirk be Sirk.
Open things up for Sirk but exploiting Miami’s 102nd-ranked rushing defense by running the ball with Shaq Powell. Powell hasn’t done much this season, but should be licking his chops with the Canes coming to down.
The Blue Devils have a lot of options offensively. If the Canes come after Sirk, Powell can shine. If they look to lock Powell down, Sirk can pick them apart. Duke simply needs to bring its offensive balance to the table today and come at Miami’s elementary defensive schemes, taking whatever the opponent gives them.
Solid offensive line play by way of center Matt Skura and left guard Lucas Patrick. Miami’s front seven doesn’t generally get much of a push and if these two play up to their potential, Sirk should have ample time to read the Canes’ defense and do his thing.
THE PREVIEW : HOW IT SHOULD SHAKE DOWN
Such a tough week for Miami across the board. While the fan base has been celebrating Golden’s dismissal and daydreaming about this program’s next leader, there’s still five games of football left, starting with this weekend’s tough road game at Duke.
The next few weeks should be easier to predict as the nation will have a better understanding for who the Canes are under their interim head coach. Southern Cal recently knocked off third-ranked Utah at home, 42-24 under newbie Clay Helton, weeks after Steve Sarkisian was fired. South Carolina also bounced back with a win over Vanderbilt, ending a two-game losing streak in which Steve Spurrier stepped down.
Who is Miami without Golden, three losses down—yet this week also without Kaaya—adding to the adversity? Conversely, which Duke team shows up—one that’s been in a few dogfights the year, or the well-oiled machine that came together solidly in a win over Coastal-favorite Georgia Tech?
The x-factor many continue mentioning; Miami has the athletes and if those kids come to play, they can hang with Duke—even without Kaaya. That said, the Canes have been a fragile bunch in years passed when it comes to adversity or season-defining losses.
If a 30-26 setback to Florida State ripped this team’s heart out last year—leading to a four-game losing streak—what’s the result of that 58-0 beating Clemson delivered?
Miami is playing for more than just a win this week. It’s playing for it’s former coach, injured quarterbacks, interim head coach and a player’s mother, brothers and family. That in itself should give the Canes a boost—but against a sound Blue Devils team, hard to believe that’ll be enough.
Won’t be the blowout some are predicting, but have to believe Duke keeps rolling and outlasted a battered, bruised and abused Miami team on Saturday in Durham.