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Virginia vs. Miami Football Preview: Can the Cavaliers overcome a good Hurricanes defense?

NCAA Football: Virginia at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Well any dream of a bowl game is over. The Hoos, coming off a game in which they outplayed the #5 team in the country, fell behind early and then fell apart late last week on the road to Wake Forest

The lack of consistency is concerning. There are a lot of new faces on both sides of the ball, but we’re 9 games into the season. Inexperience isn’t an excuse anymore. Lack of talent has been a problem all season long, but that doesn’t explain losing to Wake Forest, as the Hoos likely have more talent than Wake Forest.

Honestly, I don’t know what the real issue is. Is it coaching? Is it culture? It is going to take some time to figure all of that out.

This week, the Hoos return home to face the Hurricanes. It is senior day, since the Hoos final 2 games are on the road. The Canes are 5-4, 2-3. A win this week makes the Canes bowl eligible, but they have two winnable games remaining so this is far from must-win for them.

The Hoos, on the other hand, do not want to finish 2-10. So while they are playing just for pride, it may still be must-win.

Here’s the game information:
Who: Miami Hurricanes
Where: Scott Stadium
When: 2PM ET
TV: RSN (Comcast Sportsnet in the DC Area)

Let’s check out the matchups:

Miami on Offense

QB: #15 Brad Kaaya
RB: #1 Mark Walton, #2 Joe Yearby
WR: #3 Stacy Coley, #82 Ahmmon Richards, #86 TE David Njoku

It seems like Kaaya has been at Miami forever. He’s been the starter since day one and though he hasn’t ever been considered an elite QB, he’s put up some pretty impressive numbers. He’s nearing 9,000 passing yards and 60 TDs. He’s completed over 60% of his passes in his career. He has a chance to break Miami’s career record for yards, attempts and completions this year. If he comes back for another year, he’s got a good chance of breaking Ken Dorsey’s team record of 86 passing TDs.

It will be interesting to see if Kaaya does return to Miami for his senior year. This isn’t a big year for QBs in the draft, but he’s probably not quite ready. (Also interesting is the potential for three of the top four QBs in the draft to be from the ACC…Mitch Trubisky and Deshaun Watson being the other two.)

Though Kaaya is a huge part of the Miami offense, they run a balanced, pro-style offense. Kaaya, though a pretty good athlete, is not a running threat. His arm strength is good, but not great. His skillset fits best a pro-style, west coast based offense. And that is precisely what Miami runs under new head coach Mark Richt. They’ll line up in multiple formations, but usually out of the shotgun. They’ll use a lot of two-TE formations, usually with a single RB in the backfield with Kaaya. They’ll show some read option looks, but its generally used as play-action. Kaaya does not want to run the ball.

The Canes rank 57th in the nation in total offense. That is, essentially, an average offense. However, the Canes rank 35th in passing offense and 31st in passing efficiency. They have struggled to run the ball, ranking 94th in the nation in rushing. This is, at least in part, due to problems on the OL. The Canes rank 81st in sacks allowed and rank 60th in yards per carry.

The RB duo of Yearby and Walton is immensely talented. Yearby was the #4 RB in the nation in 2014, while Walton was #11 in 2015. Neither is particularly big, though both are stout. Walton probably runs a bit harder, with Yearby being a bit more elusive. But in truth, they are similar RBs. Walton leads the team with 144 carries for 774 yards (5.4 ypc) and 10 TDs. Yearby has actually been slightly more productive, with 87 carries for 522 yards (6 ypc) with six TDs.

In the passing game, Kaaya’s favorite target is Stacy Coley. Coley’s career has been just as impressive as Kaaya’s. The senior has been starting since his true freshman year. He’s got 148 career receptions for nearly 2000 yards and 19 TDs. Miami has had some incredibly talented WRs over the years (Michael Irvin, Reggie Wayne, etc), so Coley isn’t likely to set any new team records. But he’s 2nd in receptions, 6th in TDs and 8th in yards. And he still has (probably) four games remaining in his career.

This year, Coley has 45 receptions for 492 yards and 8 TDs. His role has changed as a senior, and he’s now a go-to guy on 3rd down. He’s become more of a possession WR. He’s averaged over 13 ypc for his career, so his current average of 10.9 is pretty low. The big play guy this year is Richards, a true freshman who is averaging over 20 yards per catch. He’s got 31 receptions for 632 yards, but just one TD. Njoku is another in a long line of Miami TEs who can run and catch. He has 27 receptions for 432 yards and four TDs. He caught a TD in last year’s matchup and also had a 58 yard catch that led to another score. He’s just a sophomore, but there are rumors that he’s contemplating entering the NFL draft. When Miami goes with 3 WRs, Braxton Berrios usually lines up in the slot. He has just 7 catches on the season. Berrios is also the primary punt returner.

Miami’s offense is based on getting the ball out of Kaaya’s hands quickly. The talented WRs can break tackles and make plays in the open field. They’ll run screens to the WRs and RBs (and occasionally to Njoku). They’ll run slants and outs. Then, once in a while, they’ll run a double move or something and throw deep.

As previously mentioned, the Canes OL has been the biggest problem for the offense. They’ve lost a handful of OLs early to the NFL draft recently and that’s caught up with them. But this isn’t a particularly young unit. Only one player, RT Tyree St. Louis, is a new starter from last year. And several of these guys will be playing on Sundays by 2018. But, for whatever reason, they haven’t been a cohesive unit very often this year. A few weeks ago, on a Thursday night in Blacksburg, the Canes gave up eight sacks in a blowout loss to the Hokies.

The Hurricanes possess the most talented group of WRs the Hoos have seen since the Oregon game. The Hoos gave up a number of big plays in the passing game to the Ducks, but obviously the Hoos are a different team now. The Hoos have been playing a lot of press coverage with aggressive blitzes for much of this year. They’ve lived and died with single coverage on the outside (often with safety help), though against the better teams on the schedule, they’ve mostly died.

Thing is, a QB like Kaaya wants to be blitzed. He knows that if there is a blitz, he has single coverage. And he knows his WR is going to beat single coverage more often than not. He also knows that if he gets rid of the ball quickly against a blitz, all he needs is one broken tackle and the WR could be off on a big play. This is what Miami wants. The Hoos shouldn’t give in.

Bringing pressure is ok, and probably necessary given the Canes’ OL problems. But the pressure needs be disguised. Big blitzes aren’t likely to be successful. But a well-timed edge blitz could be deadly. Most importantly, the Hoos should continue to play press coverage. Giving Miami’s WRs room to operate at the line of scrimmage is asking for trouble. A quick pass and Stacy Coley can pick up 5-10 yards easily. But if he’s tightly covered, that quick throw isn’t there. Then Kaaya has to read the defense and hang in the pocket. This isn’t what he wants to do.

Miami’s defense is good, but it isn’t anything the Hoos haven’t seen this year. The Hoos are perfectly capable of handling Miami, especially at home. It’ll take a strong day from the CBs and a big game from the big guys up front keeping the RBs from picking up big chunks of yards.

Miami on Defense

DL: #9 Chad Thomas, #7 Kendrick Norton
LB: #55 MLB Shaquille Quarterman, #56 WLB Michael Pickney
DB: #29 CB Corn Elder, #26 Rayshawn Jenkins

Miami’s defense has been pretty good. They rank 28th overall. But they rank 17th in scoring defense. They are 46th in both rushing defense and passing defense, and are 45th in passing efficiency defense. They also rank 28th in sacks and 2nd (!) in total team TFLs.

As always in Miami, the defense is based on pressure. The Canes run a modified 4-3 defense. I say modified, because one of the DEs is listed as a VIPER. This position is basically the top pass rusher. But there are times when Miami will use him as more of an OLB and drop him into coverage, or use him as a flat defender. The VIPER right now is junior Trent Harris, who has 7.5 TFLs and 3 sacks. He’s tied for 4th in TFLs and is 3rd in sacks. Nobody on the team has more than 4.5 sacks or 8.5 TFLs. But 20 different players for Miami have recorded a TFL this year. And 16 of them have more than one.

That pressure begins up the middle. Norton is the son of former NFL LB Ken Norton Jr (who himself was the son of a former boxing champion). Next to him is RJ McIntosh. That duo of DTs are each around 300 pounds. Both are solid run stuffers who can also collapse the pocket from the inside and pressure the QB. Though they have combined for just 2.5 sacks, they have 16.5 TFLs between them. McIntosh also has two blocked kicks.

Though they do blitz quite a bit, a majority of their pass rush comes from the DEs (and the VIPER). Thomas, the starting DE opposite the VIPER has 3.5 sacks and 8 TFLs. True freshman Joe Jackson will rotate in with Harris at VIPER, and he leads the team with 4.5 sacks. Harris has three sacks and 7.5 TFLs.

As you’d expect, the Canes have a speedy group of LBs. Quarterman is tied for the team lead in tackles, and has added in 7.5 TFLs and a team leading 5 QB hurries. Many of those have come on blitzes, often of the delayed variety. Pinckney is a bit of a do-everything LB. He can cover (3 passes defended and an INT), he can rush the passer (2.5 sacks and two hurries) and he can stop the run (6.5 TFLs).

Elder is the next in a long line of great Miami DBs. He is tied for the team lead in tackles, and also has 10 passes defended. He’s a full-time starter for the first time this year, but he did start 7 games last year. He had 11 passes defended last year along with two INTs. He’s not the biggest CB, and in fact was originally recruited as a RB. But he has great speed, and he’s very strong when coming up to help out against the run. Opposite him is Sheldrick Redwine, who is a big CB but not the best in man coverage. Miami will often keep Elder on his own and shade coverage towards Redwine.

Jenkins is a big FS who excels in coverage. He leads the team with two INTs and he’s also 3rd in tackles. He’s a senior and he’s likely a mid-round draft pick. Next to him is the position they call “Rover”, but its really just a SS. Jujuan Johnson is just a sophomore but he’s already making a name for himself. He has 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, an INT, three passes defended and a blocked kick this year.

The Canes will bring pressure on almost every play. That includes early downs, when they’ll bring run blitzes and some more contained pressures. They try to keep QBs off balance, though they will occasionally show blitz and back off. Miami’s defense is very opportunistic. They try to force mistakes and then capitalize. That means ball security will be important this week. The Hoos have struggled with turnovers this year, and this is a week to get that under control. Obviously that starts with Benkert. He needs to find the defenders and not make dangerous throws.

The Hoos have had more success running the ball of late, though they’ve still been heavily weighted towards the pass. This is, maybe, a week to slow that down a bit. If the Hoos can catch Miami on a blitz and Smoke Mizzell can break a tackle, he could be off and running.

I also like the screen game for the Hoos. We haven’t seen a ton of traditional screens the RBs, possibly because Benkert simply doesn’t have a feel for that throw. But we’ve seen quite a few WR screens and those could be very useful this week. Getting the ball to Smoke in any way possible is important, because he’s still the best playmaker on the team.

Finally, because Miami’s DBs aren’t particularly big, and because they’ll play quite a bit of press coverage, the Hoos should get some matchups on the outside that they can exploit. A jump ball to Keeon Johnson or even Joe Reed is a good look. I would also like to see some back shoulder throws. Miami’s DBs are so aggressive that a deliberately underthrown ball downfield could draw some flags.

Conclusion

This isn’t a terrible matchup for the Hoos. The Hoos, when they aren’t turning the ball over, have had some success on offense. Though Miami’s defense is good, they’ve been susceptible to big plays. And the Canes offense isn’t all that different from some others the Hoos have seen, including UNC. Of course, the Heels lit up the Hoos, but hopefully the Hoos learned from that.

For whatever reason the Hoos have had recent success against the Hurricanes, even as they’ve struggled to beat anybody else. As I mentioned, this may be the last real winnable game for the Hoos and it would be nice to send the seniors off with a win. It would take a very strong effort, but it is possible. I just don’t think it’s very likely.

Prediction: Hurricanes 31, Hoos 17