The Hoos finally won a game last week, after suffering through a 6 game losing streak. That win came on the road, against an NC State team that probably played its worst game of the season. Still, it was a blowout, and the Hoos looked good. Can they continue that good play at home against the Miami Hurricanes, currently in first place in the ACC Coastal division?
And just like that, all seems alright in the world of Virginia football. Fans are happier. Message boards are discussing ways for the Hoos to win the Coastal division. Even the players seem to be happier.
But let's not forget that the team is still just 3-6 on the season. Winning the final 3 games would get the Hoos into a bowl game. The extra month of practice would be a big boost for such a young team. But the road there will be very difficult. It begins this week, with a home game against the Miami Hurricanes.
The Canes are 5-4 overall, but 4-2 in the ACC and currently lead the Coastal division. They are coached by former Virginia assistant Al Golden. Miami is coming off a Thursday night blowout win over the Hokies. That means they've gotten an extra couple of days rest before coming to Charlottesville.
The Hoos are 4-4 against the Canes since Miami joined the ACC. That includes 2-2 at home. The Hoos have won the past 2 contests, including a 28-21 win last year over the Canes on a Thursday night.
Virginia on Offense
Miami's defense has been up and down this season. They've given up over 30 points in 6 games, but they also held the Hokies to just 12 and the Heels to just 18 (in a loss). Overall, the Canes defense ranks 113th in the nation. That includes 119th in rush defense and 69th in pass defense. They are 82nd in scoring defense. They are also 110th in sacks and 104th in tackles for loss. What Miami's defense does well is force turnovers. They are 32nd in the nation in turnover margin, having forced 18 in just 9 games. (All ranks courtesy of ncaa.org.)
The Miami defense has really struggled in the middle of the field this season. As is the norm for the Canes, their defense is fast, so attacking the edges isn't going to work very well. Their leading tackler is junior DE Shayon Green. You do not often see DEs leading a defense in tackles, but Green isn't a typical DE. Green is a former MLB, but outgrew the position. He has outstanding quickness for a DE, and is good at attacking off the edge. Opposite Green is sophomore Anthony Chickillo, who isn't near as quick as Green. Both are about 6'3" and 260 pounds, so a bit on the small side for DLs. They can be pushed around in the ground game. We will also see freshman Tyriq McCord, who actually leads the team with 3 sacks. McCord is just 235 pounds, so he will mostly sub in for passing situations.
In the middle, the Canes start two underclassmen, sophomore Olsen Pierre and freshman Earl Moore. Neither has been particularly effective this season. Both are big guys, pushing 300 pounds each, but neither is as athletic as you'd expect Miami DTs to be. The unit will be bolstered by the return of junior DT Curtis Porter, who has missed most of the season after an appendectomy during the summer. We will also see some of junior Luther Robinson at DT.
At LB, the Canes have had to move people around a bit to deal with some injuries. Senior OLB Ramon Buchanan is out for the season, and sophomore MLB Denzel Perryman has missed 2 games and has been dealing with an ankle sprain for a while now. Perryman was an OLB last year, but moved inside this year, and is 3rd on the team in tackles despite the missed time. He was 2nd on the team in tackles a year ago. The mainstay at LB has been OLB Eddie Johnson, who is 2nd on the team in tackles, first in TFLs and has 3 forced fumbles, a sack, an interception and 3 passes defended. In the middle, Jimmy Gaines will start, but Perryman will likely see some time there. Perryman will also see time at OLB and may, in fact, start there. The other options at OLB are sophomores Gionni Paul (who started last week) and Thurston Armbrister. It is likely that all of the guys I've mentioned will see the field this week.
Miami has long been known for having outstanding DBs. While there are no Ed Reed's in the current crop, the group is talented. That includes a couple of highly regarded true freshman in Deon Bush and Tracy Howard. Bush, though listed as a starting safety, is unlikely to play this week. Junior Kacy Rodgers II would start in his place. Rodgers is 4th on the team in tackles, but struggles in pass coverage. Bush is smaller than Rodgers, but faster and is a better playmaker. The other starter S is junior A.J. Highsmith, who played sparingly last year, but has started all 9 games this year. Highsmith has been solid, but far from spectacular.
The CBs are led by senior Brandon McGee, who leads the team with 6 passes defended. McGee is also 6th on the team in tackles, 4th in TFLs and has a sack. The other starting CB is junior Ledarius Gunter, who has also played well. Howard, the #1 CB in the nation coming out of HS last year, is the nickel CB and will get a lot of playing time. Howard's only weakness right now is a lack of strength. He will matchup well with our smaller WRs, but could have trouble with some of the bigger guys such as Adrian Gamble.
All told, this Miami defense is not what Hurricane fans have been used for the past 20 years or so. They have some depth, but the real stars of the unit aren't ready to make a real impact yet. The Hoos should be able to run the ball between the tackles with relative easy. This will make play action a real weapon and will allow guys like Jake McGee and Colter Phillips to run free in the middle of the field.
I expect both Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco will get their turns at QB, just like last week. The swing passes and WR screens that worked so well last week might not be as useful this week, due to the speed of the Miami defense. But a simple power-rushing game, with some play action deep passes, should be successful.
Virginia on Defense
Miami's offense has been better than their defense, but only just. The rushing offense ranks 94th in the nation, while the passing offense ranks 34th. All told, the offense ranks 58th and is 67th in scoring. Junior QB Stephen Morris is something like Michael Rocco. He's a bit small, which hurts when trying to scan the field. He's quicker and more athletic than people give him credit for. He's also good at managing a game, and getting the ball to the right people at the right times. Morris has completed 56% of his passes this year, for almost 2400 yards and 12 TDs. He's thrown 7 interceptions. He's also rushed for 69 yards and a TD (that rushing total includes 12 sacks).
The ground game, which has struggled at times this year, was pretty good last week against the Hokies. Freshman sensation Duke Johnson rushed for 100 yards and a TD. Senior Mike James is listed as the starter, and will get plenty of carries, but Johnson is the real threat. James is a much bigger back (5'11" 220 versus 5'8" 185) and is a good short yardage back. James will get more of the carries in the red zone, but Johnson will see the ball more overall. Both are pretty good receivers out of the backfield, combining for 48 receptions, over 400 yards and 3 TDs. Again, Johnson is the big play threat. Johnson will also be used as a punt and kickoff returner and he already has a KO return TD.
When Miami uses a FB, it will be Maurice Hagens. Hagens has 1 carry and 4 receptions on the season. Last season, he had 7 carries and 6 receptions. Hagens is a very good blocker, especially on short yardage, but not much of a threat with the ball.
As usual, the Canes have a deep, talented WR corps. The leading receiver this year is sophomore Phillip Dorsett, with 35 catches for 545 yards and 3 TDs. Dorsett is just 5'10" 185, but he's extremely quick. Dorsett will often work out of the slot, and he also returns punts and kickoffs. Junior Allen Hurns is the team's leading returning receiver after catching 31 passes for 415 yards and 4 TDs.Sophomore Rashawn Scott is the third starting WR, and is second on the team with 32 catches for 512 yards and 3 TDs. Senior Davon Johnson will see time on the outside. Johnson has flipped back and forth between WR and DB in his career, but he's looked good on offense thus far this year. True freshman Robert Lockhart Jr is one to watch, even though he doesn't have any receptions thus far. His classmate, Malcolm Lewis, looked dangerous through the first 4 games of the season, before dislocating his foot.
At TE, the Canes starter is sophomore Clive Walford, who has 16 catches and a TD on the season. Walford caught 18 passes last season. Dryon Dye and Asante' Cleveland will also see time at TE. Miami will often use 2 or more TEs.
The Canes are a passing team. Despite the strong play of their RB duo of Duke Johnson and Mike James, the Canes have called nearly twice as many passes as rushes (this accounts for sacks and scrambles). This is especially surprising due to the big, solid group of OLs Miami has. The top player on their line is junior RT Seantrel Henderson. Henderson was rated as perhaps the best prospect in the nation coming out of HS in 2010, but missed much of last season due to injury. He suffered a concussion in a car accident before the season started and was forced to miss the first few games of the season. He's back now, and at 6'8" and 340 pounds, he's a beast. Next to him is 6'6" 308 pound junior Brandon Linder who started every game last year and has been Miami's most consistent OL performer for the past 2 seasons. At C is sophomore Shane McDermott, the smallest of the group at 6'4" 285. McDermott played a fair amount last year and has started every game this year. On the right side, the OG is 6'5" 314 pound sophomore Jon Feliciano and the OT is 6'7" 325 Malcolm Bunche. Feliciano started at RT last year while Henderson was hurt. Bunch backed him up. There isn't much depth behind the starting 5, with junior C Jared Wheeler being the only backup with any real playing experience.
Again, this OL is huge. They average 6'6" and 314 pounds. They are also good. They are 35th in the nation in sacks allowed, and the Canes rushing game averages 4.4 yards per carry, which is a very solid number. Their ground game is so poor because they simply don't try to run often enough. Teams with good defenses will shut down an offense that is so decidedly single-faceted. If they are able to run the ball, and continue to do so, we will have trouble stopping them. If they continue to throw the ball all over the field, we can stop them.
The Virginia defense is fairly balanced, although they are better against the run than the pass. And that includes the Georgia Tech game, when the Hoos gave up about a million yards rushing. The Hoos will expect the Canes to be a passing team, trying to hit on some deep balls to their talented WRs. The improved play of our DBs will have to continue. Giving up easy scores on big plays will be a killer against a team that can struggle to move down the field methodically.
The Canes defense has struggled mightily this season against power rushing teams. The OL simply must play well, and open up holes for Perry Jones and Kevin Parks. If the rushing game isn't working, the Hoos have little chance.
The Canes also have very good special teams, as usual. Their returners are dynamic and can take a kick to the house at any time. This is terrifying for a Virginia team that has struggled in recent games in kick coverage. Our special teams as a whole scare me this week.
The Canes are favored by 3 points on the road, which means they are about 6 points better that the Hoos. The Hoos caught a lot of breaks last week, and caught NCSt on a bad day. The Canes won't make the same mistakes, and our weaknesses will continue to be a problem.
Prediction: Hurricanes 24, Hoos 14