miami hurricanes virginia cavaliersAnother Saturday and another must-win, do-or-die moment for the Miami Hurricanes as the 2012 season grinds to a close. This week’s challenge, a road trip to Charlottesville to take on the Virginia Cavaliers.

On paper, as much of a ‘gimmie’ win as could be expected. UVA looked like garbage eight games into the season. Sitting at 2-6, Virginia had lost six straight – falling to Georgia Tech, TCU, Louisiana Tech, Duke, Maryland an Wake Forest – before coming live last week in Raleigh, and pasting North Carolina State, 33-6.

The Cavaliers held the Wolfpack to 216 total yards, while exploding for 446. Defensively, Virginia created five turnovers, harassing quarterback Mike Glennon all day, forcing three interceptions.

Somehow the Cavaliers found there groove – just in time for the Hurricanes, of course.

Miami had a few extra days to practice and heal after last Thursday’s 30-12 win over visiting Virginia Tech, but the news out of Coral Gables is grim regarding two of the Canes bigger defensive stars, with freshman safety Deon Bush sidelined and linebacker Denzel Perryman listed as ‘doubtful’ for Saturday’s showdown at Scott Stadium.

Charlottesville is a far cry from Gainesville, Columbus or Tuscaloosa, but has given Miami fits since joining the ACC. In 2004 the Canes pulled out the 31-21 win, needing a late touchdown to put a close one away.

UM limped in two years later, riding a three-game losing stream and reeling from the recent murder of beloved teammate Bryan Pata, falling 17-7 in 2006.

In 2008, a 24-17 overtime win as then-true freshman quarterback Jacory Harris led the Canes on a ninety-nine yard drive forcing overtime and then tossing the game winner in the extra period.

Two years later, Harris was knocked out of the game early, the Cavs amassed a 24-0 lead and then-freshman Stephen Morris could only rally the Canes to a late 24-19 loss.

As a member of the Big East, Miami always seems to struggle with road games to Chestnut Hill when taking on Boston College and as far as this ACC rivalry goes, the Cavs seem to be the new Eagles.

Something about the opponent and venue simply give UM fits when road-tripping to UVA and this year should be no different.

All the talk since the win over the Hokies has surrounded ACC Championship Game talk. Sitting at 4-2, should Miami beat Virginia and Duke, the Coastal will be wrapped up and the million dollar question, to bowl, or not to bowl, will need to be answered.

That answer could come as soon as Saturday, should UM get the win – but in all reality, that question doesn’t even deserve an answer until Miami proves it can win an early-November game of this caliber.

While the Canes’ defense has turned things up a notch the past three games, the offense remains in a hole. Morris has remained somewhat erratic – making some clutch throw, but having twice as many drive-killers. He’s not the turnover machine his predecessor was, but moving the chains at crucial times has oft ended in misery.

Before a huge 3rd-and-12 conversion early in the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech, Miami was 0-for-10 on the night regarding third-down conversions. Solid defense, coupled with the Hokies’ shooting themselves in the foot, helped UM maintain a lead, while keeping VT off the scoreboard the second half of the contest.

The conversion led to a back-breaking touchdown, putting Miami ahead, 27-12, but the style of play after the twenty-six yard, drive-sustaining reception is in line with what the Canes need to bring this weekend against the Cavaliers.

Rashawn Scott hauled in the pass that moved Miami past midfield and from there, three hard runs with Mike James – for seven, eight and three – before some trickery allowed Morris to be on the receiving end for a twenty-yard gain. A play later Duke Johnson barreled in from seven yards out.

Miami had some shootouts earlier this season, against Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, where the offense looked more like NCAA 2013 on the XBOX than a standard college football showdown.

Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, oft pass-happy, had Morris throwing deep all day against the Wolfpack – and it worked, so it wasn’t questioned – but the abandonment of the run hurt Miami in latter weeks.

The deep ball hasn’t been there lately. Things dried up against North Carolina’s defense, and some questionable playcalling against Florida State (throwing to freshman wideout Robert Lockhart Jr. when he was blanketed by veteran corner Xavier Rhodes on two crucial third down plays?) – it hurt Miami in the grand scheme of things.

Without a solid ground game established, it becomes a game of chance. Will the deep ball be on the mark? Will the receiver haul it in? Will there be breakdowns in coverage?

It’s also the reason Miami has lost the time of possession battle so many times this year, turning the ball over on downs, while shaving virtually no time off the clock and asking the defense to again go out there to make a much-needed stand.

While an offense must always take what a defense gives it, there still needs to be a blueprint followed and identity formed and establishing the run is the first step in winning this chess match.

Virginia, thought their record doesn’t show it, it a tough-minded football team. Finesse will not beat the Cavaliers. Pounding the ball with a steady dose of James and Johnson can.

Break a defense’s spirit with a solid ground game and it will open up opportunities to throw deep. Throw deep – and often – without a proven run game and forced punts give a lesser team life, and momentum.

Morris needs to win this game by moving the chains – not hitting the home run – while James and Johnson need to carry the load.

Do that patiently and then take some calculated shots deep – or devise a wrinkle. Lord knows that third-string tailback and utility player Dallas Crawford is hungry for some touches and is ready to make something happen. But again, not an option without powerfully running the ball.

Kevin Parks did just that to North Carolina State’s defense last week, rushing for 115 yards and a touchdown on twenty-five carries, while senior Perry Jones carried eleven times for 67 yards, as both played the role of two-headed monster and kept the chains moving.

The Cavaliers had twenty-three first downs to the Wolfpack’s seventeen and North Carolina State was held to nineteen on the ground and 2-of-13 on third down conversions.

Despite their record, Virginia is ranked third in conference in total defense, allowing just 341.2 yards per game. Offensively they’re only averaging 22.8 points per game, 3.95 yards per rush and 5.49 yards per overall offensive play.

Stats aside, the Cavs will come to play. They need a win to keep themselves bowl eligible this season and they’re also a team that has beaten Miami two straight.

The Canes will come in focused, as the carrot has been dangled by head coach Al Golden all season; play to win the ACC Coastal. With two games remaining, Miami knows there’s no wiggle room.

Still, focus is half the battle and execution is the other. Undermanned defensively can Miami stop Virginia? Offensively, can the Canes establish a ground game – and stick with it, even in a close game or with times seemingly tough on Saturday?

Panic mode and relying on the deep ball will do this team in. A balanced attack, an effort to keep moving the chains, protecting the football and not leaving points on the field is a must.

Another one of those games that has the potential to go either way.

For Miami, with a season on the line, you just hope the defense stays the course, the offense re-finds its groove and that the Cavaliers revert back to team they were the past five games, opposed to the mini-juggernaut that upended North Carolina State in Raleigh last Saturday.

Prediction-wise, Morris is due for a better showing and if Fisch sticks to the run and the defense plays as it has, Miami should be able to pull out its first non-overtime win in Charlottesville since year one in the ACC.

Miami 27, Virginia 20
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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.

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