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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia at Miami

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Cavs and Canes square off in Coral Gables

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Hurricanes are 9-0 and ranked #2 in the polls. They have already locked up the ACC Coastal Division. The Hoos, on the other hand are 6-4: admirable considering the struggles they’ve had over the past 6 years, but tough considering Virginia has lost 3 of 4 after starting the season 5-1.

Knowing all of that, I tell you that Miami is favored by 19.5 point at home. A home in which they just shellacked Notre Dame by 33 points. Twenty points doesn’t seem like nearly enough, does it?

Let’s get to the matchups.

Virginia on Defense

Miami’s offense is good. Just not nearly as good as the team the Hoos just faced in Louisville and Lamar Jackson. Miami QB Malik Rosier is 15th in the nation in total offense. That puts him 112 yards per game behind Lamar Jackson; in fact, he’s closer to Kurt Benkert (47th) than he is to Jackson.

So even if Rosier isn’t Lamar Jackson—and hey, nobody else is either—Rosier is still very good. And he has a better supporting cast than Jackson does with the Cardinals. Canes’ starting RB Travis Homer is averaging almost 7 yards per carry. His predecessor at the position, Mark Walton, was over 7 ypc before an ankle injury knocked him out for the season. Between them, they have nearly 1200 yards and 9 TDs. Miami didn’t lose much going from Walton to Homer. They are similar backs. Homer is a proto-typical “one-cut” back. He’s going to hit the hole hard and go (see below from last week against Notre Dame). He’s tough to bring down, but he’s not going to dance and juke. But if there’s no hole, he can struggle to get going.


Luckily for them, there haven’t been many plays this year with no hole. That’s because of an outstanding, veteran OL. The only newcomer on the line is true freshman RG Navaughn Donaldson. He was one of the top overall players in the prep class this year. And he’s 6’6” 345. He’ll end up moving outside before his career is over, but right now he’s a very good interior lineman. The other 4 linemen were all returning starters and the line has been pretty stable all year (Donaldson missed 2 games.)

That means the Virginia DL needs to come up big. That’s possible, since Andrew Brown and company have been playing very well of late. If they can keep the OL occupied, it’ll free up Kiser and Mack to make the plays and slow down the running game. But that assumes making the right calls against the read-option. Last week, there were too many plays were Jackson kept the ball on the read and had open space in front of him.

Overall, this offense ranks 30th in the nation. The rushing offense ranks just 51st, but they are 16th in yards per carry. The passing offense ranks 35th in the nation (34th in ypa). They are 15th in yards per completion.

That last number is telling. Miami, not surprisingly, has a number of fast, talented WRs. They are led by senior Braxton Berrios. He leads the team with 38 receptions, 484 yards and 8 TDs. Berrios is small and quick, and he’s really good at getting open. He’s used in the slot a lot, but moves all around the formations. He’s the guy who’s too quick to cover man-to-man, but is very adept at getting open against a zone. He also has outstanding hands. He also returns punts.

On the other side is sophomore Ahmmon Richards. As a freshman last year, Richards led the team with 934 yards, averaging almost 20 yards per catch. He has missed 3 games this year, and has just 17 catches, but he’s still averaging 20 yards per catch. TE Chris Herndon is second on the team with 46 catches and has 4 TDs. He may not be the same caliber of athlete that David Njoku was last year, but he’s a very good TE and will play on Sundays. Watch out for backup WRs Lawrence Cager and Darrell Langham. They’re 6’5” and 6’4” respectively and are tough matchups on the outside. They each have 10 catches and they are big plays waiting to happen.

Miami’s offense is pretty similar to the Virginia offense, at least visually. They line up spread out with 3 WR on almost every play. Rosier is in shotgun on almost every play. A lot of plays will begin with a read-option look, even if it is a straight hand-off. They will also run designed QB runs out of that same look, something you’ll almost never see from Kurt Benkert.

The problem here is that if the Hoos focus on stopping the running game, they’ll give too much freedom to Berrios and company on the outside. The Virginia CBs have been great this year at playing man coverage on the outside. But the problem with playing that scheme is that when you get beat, it tends to be a big play. That’s been the problem for UVA defensively: far too many big plays in the passing game. Miami thrives on big plays, especially at home.

Of course, if they focus on shutting down the passing game, Rosier and Homer are going to run all over the defense. There is no good answer. They Hoos will stick with their game plan of tight outside coverage and focus on the running game with the front 7. If the DL plays well and the CBs don’t get beat, they can force Miami’s defense to work hard for points. That will have to be enough.

Virginia on Offense

The past couple of weeks, all we kept hearing about is the turnover chain.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Part of that was a pair of big-time matchups for the Hurricanes the past 2 weeks. Also, Miami is 5th in the nation in forcing TOs; they were 67th last year. The difference is all from the secondary. Despite only increasing their recovered fumbles by 3 (11 this year, up from 8 in 2016), Miami has doubled their interceptions (16 already this year).

This is a young secondary, with 3 juniors and a sophomore. None of the 4 entered last year as the starter, but 3 of them started at least 4 games last year. The lone newcomer is CB Michael Jackson, who was the lowest rated recruit out of the group. But he’s 6’1” 200 and runs like—well, like a Miami DB, and he leads the team with 4 INTs.

There isn’t a good place to attack this secondary. Safety Jujuan Johnson actually leads the team in tackles, by a large margin. He also has 3 INTs, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. But opposite him is Sheldrick Redwine, who aside from the awesome name, is the relative weak link in the secondary. But he still has 2 picks and 5 pass break ups. It’s a lesser of 2 evils. Not that he’s evil. I mean, maybe he is. Probably not. Sorry.

As good as the secondary is, the reason this defense is so good is up front. This team is 2nd in the nation in sacks and 2nd in TFLs. Senior DE Joe Jackson leads the team with 9 TFLs, but reserve DE Trent Harris leads Miami with 6 sacks. Harris and Chad Thomas split playing time, with Harris seeing more action in passing situations. But even Thomas has 3 sacks and 7.5 TFLs.

Obviously, the OL needs to pay attention to those DEs. But the pass rush comes from all over. Ten Miami defenders have at least 2 sacks and 14 have at least 2 TFLs.

A reason this defense is so good is that they don’t have to blitz. They get so much pressure from the front-4 that they can keep the LBs back to cover the underneath zones. The combination of good coverage down field, good pressure in the backfield and underneath zones means there’s often nobody to throw to. This is why they get so many sacks, and it’s why they get so many INTs. Nine players have at least one INT. To put that in perspective, more than half of FBS teams do not have 9 INTs .

This is a bad matchup for the Virginia offense. As a team, Miami gives up just 5.5 yards per attempt through the air. Simply put, Kurt Benkert is going to have his hands full. The quick passes that the Hoos utilize may be there, but the YAC won’t. And if Kurt is off on a pass, it will go back the other way very quickly.

They allow 3.8 yards per carry on the ground, which is still pretty good, but is just 38th in the nation. The Hoos should be able to move the ball on the ground. And having some success there may open up some plays through the air. But if he falls behind early, will Robert Anae stick with the ground game, or will he continue to throw the ball all over the yard again?

Assuming Anae knows all of this, he’ll use the ground game early. That will help soften up the DL a bit. Then, assuming Benkert is on, he could have some success with downfield throws. That’s a big if. Miami is probably willing to give up some rush yards in order to keep up their pressure defense. That pressure forces QBs to throw the ball quicker than they want. Often, before their guys are open. Thus, the INTs. If Benkert has to do that, he’s going to throw picks. And Miami will turn those picks into points. And that will force him to throw more, which means more INTs. It’s a vicious cycle.

Conclusion

For some reason, even if the worst of years, the Cavs have played Miami tough. The last time they truly got crushed was 2009, a 52-17 beatdown that likely included some retribution for the 48-0 humiliation in the final game at the Orange Bowl.

There’s a good chance this game goes like that 2009 game. Miami’s defense is too good for a struggling Virginia offense. If Benkert and company can’t score and can’t keep Miami’s defense on the field, the Virginia defense is going to tire and Miami’s offense just seems to be getting stronger and stronger as the year goes on.

The Hoos have lost by at least 17 in 3 of their last 4 games. None of those opponents were nearly as good as Miami. Also, once Miami gets a lead, the Hoos may start looking ahead to next week’s home game against Virginia Tech. If that happens, the 19.5-point Miami edge may be way too low.

Prediction: Miami 49, Virginia 17