Miami was 2-0 headed into Blacksburg last season. The Canes started the season unranked and unheralded, but after coming out on the right side of a shootout in Tallahassee and having crushed Georgia Tech’s triple option in a Thursday night showdown, the bandwagon got very full very fast.
After two games, first-year starter Jacory Harris was being mentioned as a Heisman candidate and the same critics who didn’t rank the Canes in the pre-season were now talking about Miami as a title game darkhorse.
Mark Whipple and his pass-happy offense were shredding defenses. Harris torched Florida State for 386 yards in the season opener; more than any Cane quarterback every laid on a Noles defense. A week later, 270 passing yards while the Miami D held the Yellow Jackets’ option attack to an ineffective 95 yards.
The formula was working and yards were being piled up as Whipple and this new-look Hurricanes offense was an unknown. Florida State came down to a dropped game-winner in the end zone, but Miami put up 38 points and 476 total yards and moved the ball through the air a variety of ways. Same thing the following week when Georgia Tech headed south.
Virginia Tech always plays Miami tough and in the wake of last year’s 31-7 beating, the excuses ran rampant. Fans blamed the rain while the media cited a team with an overinflated ego and big head due to the recent hype and 2-0 start.
At the end of the day, the Canes got worked by the Hokies because of a foolish game plan that simply wasn’t designed to work against a physical team like Virginia Tech. (Weak-armed quarterback, no commitment to the run while facing a hard-nosed defense on the road, in the rain? Bad call.)
Harris was harassed all day, being asked to carry his team as there was little focus on the ground game early last year. 9 completions on 25 attempts for 105 yards and an interceptions, isn’t going to cut it. Graig Cooper rushed for 59 yards, but after a bevy of sacks on Harris, Miami netted 59 rushing yards on the day.
Twenty games later, it appears that Whipple finally gets ‘it’ regarding the Canes ground game, finally relying on a stable of talented running backs instead gambling everything on his quarterback’s arm and accuracy, or lack thereof.
Damien Berry eventually became Miami’s premier back of 2009, but the then-junior didn’t take one snap against Virginia Tech. He didn’t play the following weekend against Oklahoma, nor did he see the field against Florida State or Georgia Tech. Berry was thrust into action week five against Florida A&M, carrying 14 times for 162 yards and a score.
As the year rolled on, Berry saw more carries and had his best overall outing in the season finale at South Florida, rushing 12 times for 114 hard-fought yards.
Berry has still been ‘the guy’ this season, but the emergence of Lamar Miller and Mike James has added another dimension to the Miami ground game, as did the injury sustained by Harris. With No. 12 sideline, Whipple’s hand was forced and in an effort to not pile too much on true freshman Stephen Morris, Miami has become a run-heavy team and the recipe has resulting in two necessary back-to-back wins.
Virginia Tech is the favorite and can lock up the ACC Coastal with a Saturday win at Sun Life, but this isn’t last year’s Miami squad. This isn’t even the same bunch Florida State worked over a month ago. In a matter of weeks UM has found an identity and have a working blueprint for how to succeed.
The Hokies always provide a challenge, but they’ll face a Canes squad that will be able to go toe-to-toe with them today, should the proverbial ‘A’ game be brought.
Tyrod Taylor is the type of quarterback that can give Miami nightmares, but having come off a week where disciplined, assignment football helped the Canes get out of Atlanta with a win, a similar approach is needed this weekend. Taylor can get you with both his arm and legs, but he’s been gotten before and it’s on this Miami defense to buckle down and make plays.
Miami needs to bring Virginia Tech’s game right back at them. Physical. Run-heavy. Set up the occasional big pass. Disciplined defense. Force turnovers. The Canes have morphed into a tougher, grind-it-out team last week against the Yellow Jackets and again, need to channel that vibe again this weekend.
The offensive line has been jelling and faces another challenge today with a tough Hokies front seven. Win the battle up front and the Canes will have three to four quality backs ready to run roughshod over their final ACC opponent.
It’s been another up and down season in South Florida, making it difficult to ‘predict’ where these Canes will wind up four hours after kickoff. If the squad who took on Clemson, North Carolina and Georgia Tech shows up, it should make for a hard-hitting, big play Saturday afternoon at Sun Life.
If it’s the candy Canes who limped through a win at Duke a week after bending over for Florida State, the Hokies are going to smell the weakness and eat ’em alive.
To Miami’s credit, there seems to have been a shift, though. An identity found. Stubbornness put on the shelf in lieu of an attitude of doing what needs to be done for the greater good.
It may be in Coach Whipple’s nature to rely on his quarterback’s arm to win games, but with the current offense he’s coaching, it’s the legs of several capable backs that need to carry the Canes to victory.
Ball control. Move the chains. Quality gains on first and second down, keeping Miami out of third-and-long situations. Success on the ground translating into more deep passing opportunities when opposing defenses are too keyed in on the run.
On the other side, disciplined football. Wrap up ball carriers. Harass the quarterback. Force mistakes.
Had this game been earlier in the season, an identity-less Miami might’ve been in trouble. But this is a new, new-look bunch of Canes; a throwback to more of that pro-style offense which always flourished in South Florida.
Virginia Tech is rolling south undefeated in ACC play, which seems a rarity. The Hokies are a quality bunch, but always seem to slip up somewhere in conference. The Canes are the best team they’ve faced since losing to Boise State in the opener and are bar none the best conference opponent to date.
Two quality opponents will line up Saturday, but Miami seems to have come into its own and at home with the ACC on the line, it’s another must-win game for the Canes and the pieces finally appear to be in play.