Another year, another Miami and Virginia Tech showdown—albeit one of those once-rare, now all-too-common seasons where both squads are down and this long-running rivalry lacks the luster and shine it’s had in years passed.
All that to say, don’t let the matching 2-2 records fool you as both the Hurricanes and Hokies need a win as badly as if they were leading the division and in the hunt for a conference title.
Survive on Saturday and there’s something to build off of with seven regular season games remaining. Lose and it’s wheels off for both.
Miami was on the right end of this type of showdown; another one of those close-at-the-half games where the Canes pulled away late. Bowl eligibility was on the line in Blacksburg last November; the Hokies taking an early 7-0 lead and going back up 14-10 early second quarter before the Canes ended the scoring—going up 17-14 at the half and rattling off 21 third quarter points en route to a convincing 38-14 victory.
Two years back, a signature Saturday night prime time game in South Florida that proved to be a springboard for then-undefeated, No. 9 Miami taking on No. 13 Virginia Tech. Again, another 14-10 ball game early third quarter, before the Canes’ defense shut the Hokies down and the offense tacked on two more touchdowns for a 28-10 win, which led to ESPN’s College GameDay heading south the following weekend for a throw down with Notre Dame and HardRock coming alive in vintage Orange Bowl fashion as the Canes rolled up the third-ranked Irish, 41-8.
Mark Richt was at the helm for the last three go-arounds of this rivalry; two consecutive wins, as well as a 37-16 road thumping in 2016—year one of the Justin Fuente era; the first year coach stringing together a 10-4 run with what long-time leader Frank Beamer left behind. 9-4 in 2017 was followed up by 6-7 last season and a 2-2 start here in 2019—the rumbling already starting in Blacksburg about a two-year extension after year two that makes it harder with the Hokies to part ways with Fuente if the losing ways continue.
CANES CURRENTLY ON TOP IN THIS RIVALRY; NEED TO KEEP IT THAT WAY
A rivalry that goes in waves, Miami has managed to win five of the last seven against Virginia Tech—despite the Canes’ woes over the past decade-plus. Prior to that, the Hokies had taken seven over the past 10.
On paper, Miami is the team to beat—simply on being in “better” overall shape that Virginia Tech over the past few years; proving it on the field back-t0-back seasons, as well.
True, both teams are 2-2, but the Canes’ two losses were hard-fought battles against No 8 Florida and a spirited North Carolina squad in their house, in primetime. Meanwhile, the Hokies fell to an average Boston College squad in the opener and were trounced at home by Duke last weekend, 45-10. Wins for both teams came against a couple of doormats; Bethune-Cookman and Central Michigan for Miami—Old Dominion and Furman for Virginia Tech.
The pundits have weighed in on who should win and why; citing Miami’s lack of turnovers on the year—two over the course of four games—but also knocking the Canes’ offensive line woes and stating that the hit-or-miss Hokies’ front seven could show up to disrupt.
Virginia Tech’s defense is horrible in regards to stopping opponents on third down—while Miami’s offense has been hot garbage regarding converting on third down (6-of-34 on the year), making for a suck-fest battle for both sides—one simply not playing as bad as the other.
Despite coming off a bye week, Miami still —on some level—still has to have Central Michigan in the back of their collective brain, while reading the clipping and hearing the rumblings of the fan base. A 17-12 win that actually felt more like a loss, it’s put the Hurricanes in a unique make-or-break position as October approaches.
The opener against a Top 10 squad moved up a week, resulting in an early bye. A nighttime road game against a conference rival that’s had their number on the road since joining the ACC. A beat down of an inferior foe—which somehow led to sluggish practice and some level of big-headedness, which left the Canes tested against a MAC team they should’ve out talented by four touchdowns—and then a second bye week to let that simmer?
Not the most orthodox start to a season for Manny Diaz, a new offensive staff, a first-year quarterback, a young offensive line and a green secondary. Mistakes and inexperience are truly the difference between 4-0 and 2-2—as well as a much different narrative regarding the first-year head coach and an ornery fan base that wanted to / expected to hit the ground running; overhyped by some off-season marketing hype (re: The New Miami) intended for the long run, not the short.
PUT FIRST FOUR GAME IN REARVIEW; SEASON STARTS NOW
Despite the fact the first third of the 2019 season is in the books, this most-recent bye week can almost serve as a hard reset for the Hurricanes. ACC play is “officially” underway as the meat of the schedule is finally here; six conference games in a row—the first three within the friendly confines of HardRock. Aside from that, Miami will also face the squad many pegged to take the Coastal Division; Virginia—next Friday night at home.
Everything that’s happened up to this point; can be long forgotten if Miami can start playing up to what it’s capable of. The rest of the schedule is hardly Murder’s Row—the No. 23 Cavaliers currently the only ranked team the Canes will face between now and the post-season. It’s simply a matter of which Miami shows up; the one that slept through their last showing against Central Michigan—or the squad that took Florida to the wire, but had a few too many mental mistakes and breakdowns to pull it off; both of which should be fixed by mid-season.
Aside from true freshmen no longer looking like the first-year players they are as the year goes on—Miami is also the healthiest it’s been on season. Nesta Silvera will be back on the field after missing the Hurricanes’ first four games, where he’s attempting to fill in for the disruptive Gerald Willis, who was lost to graduation. Southern California transfer Bubba Bolden will also take the field at the safety position; the former 5-star helping out a secondary that is reeling due to Jaquan Johnson, Sheldrick Redwine and Michael Jackson moving on.
Another 5-star is ready to go—running back Lorenzo Lingard; looking to crack the depth chart as both DeeJay Dallas and Cam Harris have been taking care of business. Some rumblings regarding Lingard not getting playing time has coaches and players working to keep the true sophomore’s head up, but fact remains the guys in front of him have been playing well and No. 1 is going to have keep working to earn his shot.
Equally as important, the growth and development of quarterback Jarren Williams. The r-freshman has shone bright at times early this season and has a done a good job protecting the ball—no turnovers— but it’s time for No. 15 to take a step forward and this showdown against Virginia Tech is as good a time as any for some type of a breakout game. The Hokies rank tenth in the ACC in regards to pressuring quarterbacks, are 46th nationally in sacks and 47th regarding tackles-for loss—all of which should bode well for an offensive line that’s struggled and a quarterback that’s been sacked 18 times on the season.
Williams should be seeing the field better at this point of the season, as well as getting more comfortable with the speed of the game and his overall timing. Also, lots of chatter these past few weeks about “working on the deep ball”; time to set Jeff Thomas or Mike Harley loose and go deep.
Where Diaz stopped a sluggish practice the day after the narrow win over Central Michigan, it was reported days back that Miami had its best practice of the year thus far—offering a sliver of hope that these kids are starting to come around that aforementioned hard reset with six big weeks ahead can serve as a much-needed turning point for the year.
SEASON CAN TURN AROUND QUICKLY OVER NEXT FEW WEEKS
Last fall Miami fell to LSU out the gate, but rattled off five consecutive victories—including a comeback against Florida State—pushing the Canes to 5-1 and giving them some momentum going into mid-October. Instead, the wheels immediately came off when facing some adversity in Charlottesville. Miami lost at Virginia 16-13 thanks to a stagnant offense and again no-showed after a bye week, falling to Boston College. A week later—still in a fog—the Canes limp-dicked their way through a home loss to Duke and dropped another one the following weekend at Georgia Tech, despite showing signs of improvement.
5-1 became 5-4, leaving the Canes to scrap for bowl eligibility—opposed to closing strong and winning the Coastal Division; something that would’ve happened had they simply managed to take out the Blue Devils and Yellow Jackets, en route to a 9-3 regular season.
Twice in three seasons under Richt, Miami suffered a four-game losing streak—unable to bounce back from any level of disappointment; carrying each recent loss into the next game and quickly finding themselves backed into a corner. If there’s anything that Diaz must do that his predecessor couldn’t—it’s finding a way to truly motivate and get through to his team. The Canes lost their way in regards to sense-of-urgency over the past several years and fixing that is a key step into again becoming a contender.
No, this isn’t the Virginia Tech of old—but there’s no doubt this team will play at a more elevated level than it did last weekend at home when getting rolled by Duke. Knowing this, Miami has to come out with the same vigor and passion it brought to Florida in the opener—opposed to the slow starts that have plagued this program for over a decade.
“Usually when a team has a game like they had the week before—that is a program that has a lot of pride—and they are going to fix those things,” Diaz said on Hurricane Hotline this week. “They have outstanding coaches and players that have pride where that type fo stuff isn’t tolerated. We are not going to see that team that showed up last Friday night. The issue is that in team meetings, you are watching that game and you have to make sure the players understand that this is different than what you are going to get. You would expect to get their best shot.”
Where it’s been dueling quarterbacks for the Hokies this season, Ryan Willis is official out and the more mobile Hendon Hooker will get the start. On paper, the premise of facing a back-up quarterback might sound good—but for those who follow Miami religiously; you’re well-aware that the Canes have a habit of making superstars out of number two guys or first-year starters.
Whether it was Sam Howell weeks back in the Tar Heels’ home opener, or David Moore for Central Michigan—the Canes’ defense didn’t put heat on either. Few designed blitzes or attempts to rattle relatively green quarterbacks, with all the time in the world to pick apart Miami’s secondary, while gaining confidence as the game rolled on. Blake Baker must find ways to rattle Hooker early—the same way so many teams have gone after Williams all year, knowing his youth an inexperience.
Offensively Dan Enos would be well-suited to attack the Hokies’ defense much like Duke did last Friday night; short, quick passes underneath—getting that ball in the hands of playmakers, moving the chains and giving Williams confidence by avoiding those three-and-outs and third down disasters that have hindered Miami’s offense all fall.
The blueprint for success is there; the Canes simply need to show up, play with purpose, execute and put a struggling squad out of its misery.
As much as Virginia Tech will show up prepared, there’s no running from the fact that Duke ate their lunch at home last weekend. That demoralizing loss should have a hangover effect, barring Miami gets after it early, avoids the slow start and takes control.
If not, Hooker will find his footing, the Hokies will gain some momentum and the Canes could find themselves in another unnecessary dogfight.
All that to say, expect a healthy Miami to show up prepared and for Williams to take a step forward in game five, setting the stage for the conference game-of-the-season against Virginia next Friday night at The Rock.
Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello earns a living helping icon Bill Murray build a lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.