Sitting at 4-4 overall – 3-2 in conference play – Miami welcomes Virginia Tech to Sun Life Stadium on Thursday night for a nationally televised ESPN showdown, and arguably the game of the year in the ACC Coastal as the winner controls its destiny.
Miami closes out with Virginia and Duke, in conference, while Virginia Tech takes on Florida State, Boston College and Virginia, to close the season.
The Hokies have had the Hurricanes’ number as of late, winning six of the past seven, but are experiencing an uncharacteristically down season. Also with a 4-4 record – 2-2 in conference – the Hokies had higher pre-season aspirations than Miami.
Again predicted to with the Coastal, Virginia Tech opened with an overtime win over Georgia Tech and followed up with an expected beat down over Austin Peay, but week three the wheels fell off with a 35-17 loss at Pittsburgh.
The following week a win over Bowling Green, but from there the Hokies lost three of the next four, getting beat by Cincinnati, North Carolina and Clemson. The lone win during that stretch came against Duke.
Miami’s path to .500 is a bit different. A few come-from-behind ACC wins against Boston College, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State helped the predicted-fifth-in-the-division Hurricanes get in the hunt for their first conference title, but on the main stage, UM has crashed and burned big time.
The 52-13 loss to Kansas State was followed by a nationally televised 41-3 loss against Notre Dame at Solider Field in Chicago.
Just under two weeks ago, the Canes hung tough with the Noles for three quarters, but faded late in a 33-20 loss. The week prior, Miami couldn’t pull off the last minute drive en route to a comeback against North Carolina.
With November here and four games remaining, it’s another one of those most-important-game-of-the-year situations, for both teams. The winner is in the driver’s seat for the Coastal and can salvage a season, while at 4-5 it’s safe to assume that the wheels could fall and morale could completely go in the toilet with a loss.
Both teams come in off a bye, which Miami truly needed due to the lack of depth, injuries piling up and young guys needing a mid-season breather.
Quarterback Stephen Morris sprained his ankle against North Carolina, worked to heal for Florida State, took on the Noles with a bum ankle but will have twelve days of rest, rehab and practice to game-up for the Hokies.
Running back Duke Johnson has been battling turf toe on one side and an ankle-related injury on the other, while third-stringer Eduardo Clements was lost for the season at some point since the Florida State game, moving utility-player Dallas Crawford behind Johnson, who is splitting carries with first-stringer Mike James.
On the other side of the ball, linebacker Denzel Perryman remains banged up with a leg injury that’s hobbled him since Bethune-Cookman in week three, emphasizing the lack of depth that’s hurt this young team.
Miami now has five players sidelined for the year, aside from Clements. Early on Miami lost freshman receiver Malcolm Lewis and linebacker Ramon Buchanan, as well as long-snapper Sean McNally and offensive lineman Ben Jones.
There was also the departure of offensive lineman Jermaine Johnson weeks back and then defensive lineman Kelvin Cain days back.
Even with all that Miami’s experienced the first two-thirds of this season, 2012 can still be more than salvaged; it can actually be a success and something to build on, especially if the Canes can win out, ending the regular season 8-4.
Of course that all starts with success on Thursday night, which has been minimal against Virginia Tech over the past decade. Still, doable this season as these aren’t yesteryear’s Hokies.
While VT’s offense has sputtered at times over the years, the defense always remained stout; the program’s signature and backbone. This year, not so much, ranking around fiftieth nationally, allowing about 370 total yards per game. The rushing defense is giving up and average of 167 yards pet game and passing, just over 200.
Miami’s offense has been feast or famine this year, putting up big points against Boston College, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, though that was a mix of short and underneath passes, a hurry-up offense and some running, which opened up some video-game like deep balls and hook-ups.
The offense has been in a shell since hanging forty-four on the Wolfpack, with the Canes struggling against the Irish (three points), Tar Heels (fourteen points) and Seminoles (twenty points – seven on the final drive).
The biggest issue offensively is the fact that Miami still has no identity. Is this a run-first team? Pass first? Slow, methodical drives? Air it out every other play? Makes it hard to determine with Jedd Fisch is trying to accomplish at times.
With four games remaining, it’s time for an answer. The defense has shorn things up the past few games and much like last year, it starting to come around late. There are still personnel and depth issues, but the mindset of playing ‘keep away’ offensively isn’t the answer.
Slow, methodical drives only work when points are put on the board and too many drives are stalling out due to a lack of creativity and use of speed. Miami has also run early, but abandons the ground game too soon – even before things have gotten out of hand in some losses this year.
Pound the ball with Mike James. Get Duke in space and let him do something. Tap back into whatever mojo Phillip Dorsett had weeks back when it looked like he’d never drop a pass again.
Same with Rashawn Scott and Allen Hurns, who have seemingly disappeared — and give Davon Johnson more touches, as he’s proven clutch when the Canes have needed him most.
With Morris healthier, design more running plays with the quarterback – and create some opportunities to move the pocket. Let him throw on the run and make some things happen.
Miami came out aggressive against Florida State, but understandably faded late. But against North Carolina, the Canes never found that next level or fifth gear.
To get back on a winning streak and to close this season strong, Miami must match the intensity it brought for three quarters against Florida State weeks back. The crowd was electric that night and the Canes embraced the main stage the way they hadn’t all season.
The same must happen tonight. Another nationally televised showdown, under the lights at Sun Life. Good crowd, quality opponent and another back-to-the-wall, must-win situation.
This is as beatable a Virginia Tech team as Miami has seen in … forever. Without their stout special teams and hard-nosed defense, the Hokies are identity-less.
Logan Thomas is a great quarterback – and he shredded the Canes last year – but without some offensive weapons, as well as a defense that loses momentum instead of seizing it, Miami can put together some big plays on both sides of the ball, bringing the crowd to life and giving a revived, post-bye week UM squad what it needs to get back to winning ways.
The Canes have shined in the past on Thursday night, as have the Hokies. Last time Miami beat Virginia Tech? A low-scoring, grind-it-out Thursday nighter in 2008, down at Sun Life.
Come out swinging. Move the chains. Play with passion. Both teams are at that make-or-break point this season and honestly, he who wants it more and comes to play will leave victorious. The Canes have the horses for this one. Just a matter of doing.
Christian Bello has been covering Miami Hurricanes athletics since the mid-1990s. After spending almost a decade as a columnist for CanesTime, he launched allCanesBlog.com. – the official blog for allCanes.com : The #1 Canes Shop Since 1959. Bello has joined up with XOFan.com and will be a guest columnist at CaneInsider.com this fall. Follow him on Twitter @ChristianRBello.