The Miami Hurricanes are preparing for another one of those game-of-the-year type situations as the sixth-ranked Clemson Tigers are headed to South Florida for a noon showdown at Sun Life Stadium this Saturday.
Since joining the ACC in 2004, the Canes faced the Tigers on four occasions; the home team losing each time. Three of the games have also gone to overtime.
Miami and Clemson last met in October 2010, with the Canes notching the 31-20 road win under Randy Shannon. He was fired at year’s end and Al Golden took over the following season.
CANES VERSUS TIGERS : HOW WE GOT HERE
Miami knocked off Virginia Tech, 30-20 last weekend, while undefeated Clemson notched a home win against Boston College, 34-17. Prior to that, the Canes fell short of a comeback bid at Florida State, ten days after a head-scratching Thursday night loss at Cincinnati.
Miami was 3-0 and feeling pretty good in late September, on the heels of an overtime win against Nebraska despite the Canes blowing a 23-point lead over the final eight minutes and hanging on to survive.
Florida State miscues kept Miami hanging around weeks back in Tallahassee, but an incomplete Brad Kaaya pass was tipped on fourth down, ending any dream of an upset.
Regarding Virginia Tech, a spirited win in the sense that the rivalry against the Hokies dates back to the Big East days. That said, Frank Beamer has now lost 21 of his past 46 games—taking some luster off the win as it was VPI’s fourth loss of the season.
Clemson is a tougher nut to crack. The Tigers are undefeated and boast a staunch defense, but has only hit the road once in six games this season—a mid-September showdown at Louisville where the Cardinals trailed by three and on their two final possessions, missed a 38-yard game-tying field goal, followed by an interception on third-and-long in CU territory.
The following week Clemson held on to beat sixth-ranked Notre Dame in a rain-soaked affair at Memorial Stadium. Up 21-3 through three, the Irish rattled off 19 fourth quarter points, but were stuffed on a would-be, game-tying two-point conversion in the final seconds, falling 24-22.
Since then, Clemson banged out two legitimate home wins; beating Georgia Tech, 43-24, followed by last weeks 17-point victory over Boston College.
KEYS TO VICTORY : MIAMI
The Canes’ offensive line has to show up and play the game of their careers if Miami has any legit shot to win this ballgame. Clemson’s front seven is the real-deal and it’s defense as a whole is arguably one of the best in the ACC.
Ben Boulware at linebacker, ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, corner Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse are giving offenses fits halfway through the season and should pose problems for Miami’s one-dimensional offense.
Lawson and Dodd have already combined for 19.5 tackles-for-loss and a whopping eight sacks over six games this season.
The Tigers manhandled Irish running back C.J. Prosise, holding him to a season-low 50 yards. Prosise had recently run for 198 yards against Georgia Tech and was last seen torching Southern Cal for 143. He has five 100-plus yard games on the year.
The Canes have struggled to establish a ground attack; by way of a porous offensive line and without a big-bodied back—putting the onus on Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton to find a crease and make something out of nothing.
The lack of offensive line success has also had Kaaya in the shotgun or pistol all year—opposed to under center—forced to air it out as many as 29 times-per-game (at Florida State), as the Canes have had zero consistency on the ground.
The offensive line needs to come to play for Miami and must eliminate mistakes. Without that, expect a lot of three-and-outs and red zone struggles against this Clemson defense.
Because Kaaya is the heart and soul of the Canes’ offense, another monster game will be required here if Miami is to upset Clemson. Kaaya hasn’t thrown an interception the past three games and has 10 touchdowns to only one pick this year.
Turnovers against the Tigers are a backbreaker in a game like this where the Canes need just about everything to go their way—with Clemson self-imploding on some level, as well.
If the big play is there, take it—but realistically, the Canes need Kaaya to focus on moving the chains, converting, capitalizing in the red zone and keeping the Miami offense on the field.
The Canes’ defense can’t give up the big play against quarterback Deshaun Watson—who can get it done with his arm and legs—or running back Wayne Gillman. Both were key components in the win over Georgia Tech; Waston throwing or 265 yards and two touchdowns, as Gallman ran 13 times for 115 yards and two scores, as well.
Notre Dame stifled Waston through the air, holding him to 84 passing yards on 21 attempts—so he rushed for a season-high 93 yards and a score on 16 carries, instead. Gallman was held in check by a solid Boston College defense last weekend—17 carries for 48 yards—but carried 24 times for 139 yards at Louisville and ran for 111 in the upset over Notre Dame.
Artie Burns has been the heart and soul of the Canes’ defense thus far; the cornerback reeling in two interceptions in last week’s win over Virginia Tech—Miami’s secondary coming up big often this season. Where there’s reason for worry; the Canes lack-of-depth at linebacker.
The inexperienced Juwon Young replaced veteran Raphael Kirby—who suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Hokies. The Canes were already without Marques Gayot and Darrion Owens —both already out for the year—and now lost a team leader in Kirby.
It’s going to take some crafty scheming for Miami to overcome the depth-starved linebacking corps and not-up-to-par defensive line—which hasn’t been a strength of this staff over the past four-plus seasons.
The Canes have taken points off the board a few times this year due to untimely penalties and that can’t be the case this week. Whether it’s a Corn Elder punt return or Burns houses a pick-six, Miami needs to manufacture a bonus score while thwarting a Tigers’ drive.
KEYS TO VICTORY : CLEMSON
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables simply needs to watch film on Cincinnati and Florida State regarding how both came after Kaaya and stuffed the Canes’ rushing attack. The Tigers have the personnel to do it and will devise their entire defense scheme around rattling the quarterback.
Miami’s offense runs through Kaaya and if Clemson can have it’s way with the Canes’ sub-par line, should be able to slow down the sophomore quarterback tremendously.
Expect the Tigers to blitz and bring the heat often on Saturday. Stop, or just slow down Kaaya and you’ll beat Miami.
Clemson must protect the football as Miami leads the nation in turnover margin with 15 takeaways while only coughing the ball up twice. To put it in perspective, the Canes only forced 10 turnovers last season, while boasting 11 halfway through 2015.
While Miami’s usual 3-4 scheme has been oft criticized, the Canes are starting to get back the type of athletes who make plays and find a way. Burns has been a common theme here and even a back-up role last week, Young stepped in for Kirby and got a pick.
Florida State was turnover-free against Miami, while the Canes’ offense also protected the ball—making the turnover margin a wash. If the Tigers can keep the turnover battle even, it will win this football game.
Give up a few to the Canes and Miami just might steal one.
Offensive misdirection and Clemson having plays ready to go will cause defensive confusion for the Canes. Case in point; the option that Florida State drew up weeks back, where Dalvin Cook took the pitch and rolled 72 yards.
It’s not that the play call was perfect, but makes you wonder if Jimbo Fisher took advantage of Miami’s ongoing defensive mistakes; guys freelancing, poor tackling, being out of position, etc. On that play, both Kirby and safety Deon Bush went after quarterback Everett Gholson, when Bush should’ve stayed with Cook.
How much does Clemson coach Dabo Swinney want to beat the odds? Offensive trickery and banking on Miami to bite or guess wrong—it’s worked for opponents in the past. Do the Tigers tuck something into that playbook with the hopes that the Canes get in their own way?
Clemson might not even have to dig that deep. Miami’s defense always appears rattled prior to the snap; the complication of the schemes causing mass confusion and way-too-many looks to the sideline.
Miami has been better the past two weeks—7-of-16 on third down against Virginia Tech and 8-of-16 at Florida State. Against Cincinnati, the Canes were 4-of-15 on third down—and lest anyone pin that on the Bearcats defense; Miami was 3-of-13 at Florida Atlantic and 3-of-11 against Bethune-Cookman.
Red zone struggles were better against Virginia Tech; the Canes settling for a 21-yard third quarter Michael Badgley field goal, but capitalizing other times—most-notably, solid clock management and timely pre-halftime play calling; Kaaya finding Rashawn Scott on back-to-back plays with under eight-seconds in the second quarter.
Can Miami do the same against a stout Clemson defense? Have the Canes turned a corner regarding these offensive woes; or was it a result of adrenaline against Florida State and a lesser Virginia Tech team?
Whatever the case, the Tigers needed still need to tighten up on third down and in the red zone as the Canes seem vulnerable.
INTANGIBLES & MISCELLANEOUS
For Clemson, it’s all about winning the division and staying blemish-free so that a soon-to-come showdown against Florida State pitts two undefeateds against each other in a winner-takes-all situation regarding the Atlantic.
The Tigers are at North Carolina State next week, before welcoming Florida State. From there, a road trip to Syracuse and home game against Wake Forest before closing with state rival South Carolina.
A win over Miami and Clemson could be in a situation where a showdown against Florida State could result in their getting through the ACC and reaching the College Football Playoffs. Halfway through the season, it’s still about the division. Win these next two and that home game against the Noles will have much bigger implications.
For Miami, it all comes back to Golden and his goal of winning the Coastal, weekly banners flying overhead and coaching in bite-sized increments. The magnitude of this match-up looms huge; though one game won’t determine Golden’s fate, win or lose.
Beating Clemson would give Miami’s fifth-year head coach the signature win that’s alluded him his entire coaching career. That said, beating the Tigers means little should Golden’s Canes fall to Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech or Pittsburgh down the stretch.
The Coastal will be a tight race this year. What good is beating Clemson if Miami can’t cash that in for something bigger; slipping back in the division with a loss to the Blue Devils or Panthers in November?
If anything, knocking off the Tigers would up the ante even more for Golden. You can’t knock off the sixth-ranked team in the land and then lose to No. 23 Duke, No. 25 Pittsburgh or one of three unranked squads remaining.
Beat Clemson and Miami is in a position where it absolutely has to win out; bringing on a type of pressure these Canes and their head coach are yet to face, or a challenge they’re yet to prove they can accomplish.
THE PREDICTION : HOW IT SHOULD SHAKE DOWN
Taking the detailed route to get here, it’s hard to envision Golden dealing with that win-out pressure that would come from upsetting Clemson.
It’s not to say Miami can’t take out a perennial one-choke-per-year program, or that the Canes lack the ability to rise to the occasions. It’s simply a numbers thing. Golden’s history doesn’t support the blind trust when it comes to winning games like this; nor does his 32-24 overall record since 2011.
Miami as a program has also come off emotionally-fragile the past few seasons. 7-0 two years back and 2-4 down the stretch. Lost a heartbreaker to Florida State last season and dropped four games to end the year.
Do the Canes have “enough” to beat the Tigers? Sure. It’d take a near-perfect game, things playing out in a optimum manner and Clemson dropping one of those Clemson-type games where they underachieve and ruin their season’s goals over a four-hour span on a random fall Saturday.
While that “can” happen—there are too many variables when it comes to a logical prediction for this showdown.
Clemson is the better and more complete team, while Miami is good in a few areas but still isn’t great anywhere other than quarterback. The Tigers know Kaaya is the lynch-pin to collapsing the Canes and one has to believe they’ll go after the kid hard.
Much like the loss to Florida State, the Canes will do all the can to hang, but a semi-close game gets put away late in the fourth, with Clemson prevailing and Miami in pick-up-the-pieces mode with a nail-in-the-coffin type game at Duke on the horizon.
Want nothing more than to be wrong on this one, but sticking with the gut.