Another showdown between the Miami Hurricanes and Virginia Tech Hokies sits on deck, yet it doesn’t pack that punch this rivalry once delivered in the Big East era, or early days of the ACC years back.
For all the grief Canes’ head coach Al Golden is fielding, Hokies’ leader Frank Beamer hasn’t had his once-dominant program up to par. Virginia Tech hasn’t seen double-digit wins since 2011, has gone 7-6, 8-5 and 7-6 since and heads to South Florida 3-3 on the season—putting both programs in desperation-mode as far as the ACC’s Coastal Division goes.
Miami is coming off yet another heartbreaking loss against Florida State—a game the Seminoles should’ve put away early, didn’t, and let the Canes hang around, where an upset almost became reality.
Instead, a second consecutive season where Miami’s offense took the field in the final minutes with an opportunity to drive for a score, but turned it over—an interception in 2014 and on downs this time around.
As a result, the pressure on Golden continues to mount—as does frustration and overall disappointment with the Miami program. Even worse, the Canes dropped a conference game in what is setting up to be a very tight division race with little margin for error.
Miami landed both Florida State and Clemson from the Atlantic Division this year, giving a leg up to divisional foes like Duke or Pittsburgh. The Blue Devils have Boston College and Wake Forest this year, while the Panthers are pitted against Syracuse and Louisville.
Translation; the Canes are already in “must-win” territory mid-October—while winning the Coastal most-likely means wins at Duke and Pittsburgh are necessary, with Miami dropping no more than one more conference games down the stretch.
Virginia Tech heads south with questions at quarterback. Michael Brewer is injured and questionable, opening the door for the more mobile Brenden Motley. When it comes to targets, either will have wide receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges at their disposal. Both have been drawing double teams this season in order to slow them down.
Will the Canes’ defensive masterminds take this approach—and if so, tight end Ryan Malleck and wide receiver Cam Phillips are still capable of doing damage and creating havoc.
Miami’s secondary will be up for the task as cornerbacks Artie Burns and Corn Elder are two of the best in the ACC, while opposing offenses have been wise to stay away from veteran safety Deon Bush. That said, the Canes’ front seven hasn’t been applying pressure or getting much of a push, allowing some big plays while guys have been reactive, out of position and tackling poorly; a recipe for disaster.
On the ground Travon McMillan sealed a win over North Carolina State with a 59-yard touchdown run last Friday night, while back ups—and former starters—J.C. Coleman and Trey Edmunds are equally as capable of doing damage. The trio combined for 200 yards against the Wolfpack, while the Canes’ run defense is ranked No. 71 in the nation and is giving up 169 yards-per-game.
In last week’s loss to Florida State, Miami let Dalvin Cook rush for 222 yards—the most-ever by a running back in the storied rivalry.
Where the Canes do have an edge; Brad Kaaya under center, a handful of quality receivers and two running backs that could do something special every time they touch the ball.
Stacy Coley had his breakout game for Miami last week, hauling in seven receptions for 139 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown where the Canes briefly took the lead. Rashawn Scott had six receptions for 108 yards and a score, while Herb Waters and Braxton Berrios combined for seven receptions and 79 yards.
Where the Canes have struggled on offense; production and mistake-free football out of its offensive line, which had greatly impacted the rushing attack.
Joe Yearby was held to 33 yards on 15 carries in Tallahassee; his longest run going only six yards. His season high is 146 yards at Florida Atlantic, while rushing for 125 in a win over Nebraska and 113 in a loss at Cincinnati.
Back-up, true freshman Mark Walton has seen decent action against lesser four, but was ineffective against the Bearcats—12 carries for 34 yards—and only one carry for three yards against the Seminoles. Third-stringer Trayone Gray has been non-existent since the Canes got through their patsy two-game stretch to open the season.
While the knee-jerk reaction is to believe that Miami should have some offensive success against a Beamer-led team that has struggled the past few years, the well-coached, fundamentally-sound Hokies can never be counted out. Especially that Bud Foster-led defense.
As bad as the back-to-back losing streak itself, coupled with that first ACC loss—Miami had some warts exposed and Virginia Tech is precisely the type of team who can turn this game into a dogfight as a result.
The Hokies have had the Canes numbers over the years and for whatever reason, usually rise to the challenge and matches up well against their long-time, flashier foe.
The combination of an in-repair offensive line and a savior-type quarterback have had coordinator James Coley too reliant on the passing attack and undisciplined regarding a commitment to the ground game.
The Canes aired-it-out 49 times against the Noles, while only attempting 16 runs. Meanwhile the offensive line was dinged with penalties and even struggled in pass protection, Kaaya rushed and throwing under duress at times. On Miami’s final drive, two balls were tipped at the line—including a fourth down incompletion ending UM’s final offensive possession.
Cincinnati got after Kaaya weeks back in that road loss—both the Bearcats and Seminoles laying out a blueprint for how to stop the Canes, that the Hokies would be foolish not to emulate.
Miami has the athletes to rack up some big yards through the air; but seems to fail in the most-crucial moments—usually on third down, or in red zone opportunities. The Canes were a season’s-best 8-of-16 on third down against the Noles, but entered the game 13-of-53 on the season, ranked 127th of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Inside the red zone, Kaaya entered Florida State week 12-of-32 with four touchdowns and one interception, as well as 13-of-35 on third down—the second-worst completion percentage (37.1) of the nation’s top 100 quarterbacks (with at least 25 third-down passing attempts.)
That’s not meant to be an indictment on the sophomore quarterback, shouldering a major load and often playing well beyond his years. It’s simply to underscore that without a commitment to running the football, defenses don’t have to respect Yearby or Walton and will continue going all-in to rattle Kaaya an jam up receivers; especially in those disastrous third down and/or red zone situations.
Five games in, Miami still seems to lack an identity. Week in and week out, it seems like a crap shoot regarding offensive and defensive strategies.
The Canes’ offense was on fire early against the Huskers—scripted plays working to perfection and Miami building a monster lead. Down the stretch, not so much. Any plays that did work were nullified by offensive line penalties and where the Canes needed to pick up first downs, shave more time off the play clock or get a late score, it proved undoable.
Such are the concerned as another do-or-die type game unfolds this weekend.
Based on recent history, Saturday’s showdown against Virginia Tech has letdown and slugfest written all over it. Two years back the Canes were smarting from a loss in Tallahassee, hosted a three-loss Hokies squad a week later and unraveled.
Special teams blunders, coupled with a defense that gave up 549 yards, Miami was rocked, 42-24. Virginia Tech owned time-of-possession 2-to-1, while the Canes were a paltry 3-of-12 on third down. Then-quarterback Logan Thomas looked all-world, throwing for 366 yards, while Miami only netted 28 yards on the ground.
The Canes’ passing game could be enough to top the Hokies and their struggling secondary, but Miami can’t afford another game where it doesn’t commit to the run.
This one feels like a coin flip, wither either squad capable of pulling out the close win.
Due to this one taking place in South Florida and because Miami has Kaaya and some great receivers matching up against Virginia Tech’s secondary, we’ll give the Canes the nod—but wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Hokies pull off the win by a similar score.