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THE BIG PREVIEW: Can Virginia match up in prime time against Miami at home?

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On national TV, can Virginia take advantage of Miami injuries and get a signature win on the season?

Florida State v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers faced their toughest test so far — a road game at unbeaten NC State — in their last contest. Things don’t get any easier coming out of the bye week, facing Miami, the preseason favorite to win the Coastal division. Miami is 5-1 with their lone loss coming in their season opener against SEC powerhouse LSU.

The Hurricanes are coming off a stunning comeback win over FSU. They trailed 27-7 in the 3rd quarter following an FSU punt return TD. They went on to score 21 unanswered for a 28-27 win.

Miami is currently 16th in the AP poll and 15th in the Coaches poll, behind only Clemson in the ACC. For what it’s worth, NC State is #19/#20.

This is a primetime game, at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Hoos haven’t had a primetime Saturday home game in a while, but have generally fared well in those games in the past. The last primetime Saturday games for Virginia came in 2014, and there were actually three primetime games that season. They hosted both Miami and Pitt and traveled to FSU. Both home games were wins, while the road game was a loss, but was a well played game.

This game will air on either ESPN2. Let’s get on to the matchups.

Virginia on Offense

Miami’s defense is outstanding. They’re second in the nation in total defense, third in passing defense and seventh in rushing defense. They haven’t exactly played the cream of the crop. Yes, FSU had just 200 total yards. But FSU is 112th in total offense and the Noles had just 240 against Syracuse’s 84th ranked defense.

Toledo was really the only team to have success against the Miami D. They totaled 334 yards, which isn’t much, but it’s a lot more than the 237 yards allowed that Miami averages. They scored on two drives of 65 yards and one of 81 yards. UNC had two long drives (78 yards and 70 yards), but those were the only points they scored in a 47-10 drubbing. Only LSU really had sustained success against the Miami defense, and even they had just 296 total yards.

The teams that have had success have run the ball, and even when Toledo wasn’t really having success, they continued to run the ball. They ended up with just 112 yards on 36 carries (a poor 3.1 yards per carry). But it forced Miami to play at the line and opened things up for the pass.

Miami plays a lot of 4-2-5 defense, though they’d say it’s a 4-3 defense. Regardless, the strength of the unit is the front 4. This group is scary good. The two DEs (Jonathan Garvin and Joe Jackson) have combined for 8.5 sacks and 18 TFLs through 6 games. Florida transfer DT Gerald Willis leads the team in TFLs, with 12.5. If you weren’t ready for math, that’s 2 per game. Garvin has just 2 sacks, but he’s one of the best run stoppers in the nation. And he hasn’t just done it against weaker teams, he had 8 tackles and 4 TFLs against LSU.

All told, Miami is averaging 12 TFLs and over 3 sacks per game. That front 4 is responsible for nearly half of the TFLs and 60% of the sacks. Virginia’s OL has struggled against the better DLs they’ve seen, and this is one of the best DLs in the nation. That is going to make running the football very difficult.

But again, they need to stick with it. The runs up the middle may not work with Willis in the mix, but perhaps some edge runs would be successful. Far too often last year, Virginia gave up on the run. Kurt Benkert had a great arm, but good defenses will eat up a one-dimensional offense. The balance needs to be there, even if the runs aren’t successful early. Keeping Miami honest will open up holes later on.

The Miami DEs are dead set on getting to the QB. The zone-read is a good way to neutralize that. Miami plays pressure defense on the edges, so Perkins may find some space out there to run. Miami will try using spies on Perkins to counter that, which means the Cavalier wideouts will have to be strong with their blocks. If Perkins gets to the edge, he should have a one-on-one matchup with one of Miami’s LBs. If he wins a couple of those matchups, it could lead to big chunks of yards.

Shaquille Quarterman is the MLB, and he’s a likely candidate for the spy job. As long as the DTs are able to bottle up Jordan Ellis’ interior runs, Quarterman will focus on running down both Perkins’ runs and the quick passes that Virginia likes to throw. With the interior OL focused on those talented DTs, Quarterman will come on blitzes as well. He’s 3rd on the team with 3 sacks and 4th on the team with 6.5 TFLs.

I haven’t even mentioned the Miami DBs which is crazy. Senior SS JaQuan Johnson is another in a long line of talented Miami safeties. Johnson isn’t big for a safety, just 5’11” 185, but he’s got good cover skills, and is also adept in run support. Johnson is a potential first round pick, and might be the first safety off the board. The secondary is very experienced with 3 seniors. The lone underclassman, sophomore CB Trajan Bandy, is talented but inexperienced. He’ll be targeted a lot, especially if Virginia can get him matched up against 6’3” 215 lb Hasise Dubois. Here’s a play FSU ran for a TD, using their own 6’3” 215 lb WR. The bunch trips to the left makes press coverage impossible. If Bandy tries to go underneath, the fade is an easy throw. Because Bandy stayed over top, the post is there. Look for Virginia to use some of the same concepts.

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How have I not even mentioned the turnover chain? Does the chain make a difference? Who knows. But the Canes are 6th in the nation in forcing turnovers and were among the national leaders last season as well. If Virginia turns it over, forget about a win. UNC had 6 TOs (including 3 TDs). That can’t happen at home this week.

Virginia on Defense

Last year, Malik Rosier threw for 3100 yards, with 26 TDs and 14 INTs. He also rushed for nearly 500 yards and 5 more TDs. His completion percentage was just 54% and the TD:INT ratio isn’t great, but that’s a solid season for a team that won 10 games and played in the Orange Bowl.

He wasn’t great in the opener against LSU, but a lot of QBs look bad against LSU. The next week, Rosier got the first quarter and redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry got the second. Not a big deal in a game the Canes would win 77-0. But 2 weeks later, against a game FIU squad, Perry got most of the run and impressed. Perry started the next week, and Rosier hasn’t played since.

Perry has been announced as the starter against Virginia, though it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Rosier saw some action as well. Here’s what Perry can do. This is the game winning TD last week against FSU. He looks off the target, and then drops a perfect pass into Brevin Jordan’s hands. Can’t do that much better.

He’s also also very athletic and capable of making plays with his feet. He is a passer first, though, and will use his legs to buy time and make plays like this.

He’s not the runner than Rosier is, averaging just 1.6 yards per carry on 30 carries (that includes sacks). Perry has completed 56% of his passes (versus 52% for Rosier) and has 11 TDs versus 3 INTs. Rosier had 5 TDs and 2 INTs. Rosier has been very good at times for the Canes, but Perry is more consistent. And more importantly, Perry is younger and has room to grow. He could end up being very good and could be the difference for Miami over the next couple of years.

Regardless of who is throwing the ball, there’s a lot of talent to catch the ball. Right now, that begins with sophomore Jeff Thomas. At 5’10” 175, he’s smaller than the famous Miami WRs of the past, but he’s explosive. He’s averaging nearly 25 yards per reception, which is insane. Then there’s Lawrence Cager, who at 6’5” 220 looks more like a Miami WR. He’s averaging just 17 yards per reception, which is obviously terrible (it’s not, Olamide Zaccheaus averages 15 per catch and that’s outstanding). Finally, there’s the latest in a long line of talented Miami TEs, Bevin Jordan.

Miami will play almost every down with at least 3 WRs. Thomas is the slot guy on almost all of those plays. Often, slot guys run shorter routes, because they rarely face press coverage and can usually get open quickly. You see that a lot from Olamide Zaccheaus. Mathis, though, will run a lot of deep routes, with the two outside guys running shorter routes. This can keep the safeties focused on the underneath routes, while Thomas goes streaking by.

Once Thomas is beyond the defender, the QB has a lot of space to drop the ball in. It’s hard to tell from the video, but at the line of scrimmage, Thomas is covered by a LB. That’s just not fair. With Brenton Nelson apparently back in the mix, he’s going to be that guy across from Thomas on most plays. He’s got outstanding cover skills, so if he’s truly back to 100%, he could shut down those downfield plays.

The top returning receiver from last year is Ahmmon Richards, who was forced to retire from football early this season after suffering a neck injury that makes football a dangerous proposition for him. Richards was seen as a potential first rounder, so it’s sad for him, but perhaps beneficial for Virginia as Richards has 7 receptions for 151 yards and 2 TDs in two career games against the Hoos.

Miami’s running game is very strong, with a pair of complementary backs in junior Travis Homer and sophomore DeeJay Dallas. Homer is more of a burner, with good feet and vision. Dallas is bigger, though he’s no slouch in the speed department. He’s more of one-cut runner than Homer though. Both are solid in the receiving game, though neither is a huge part of that. Frankly, the receivers are so talented, it’s almost a waste to throw to the RBs.

As you’d expect from a top 20 team, their OL is good. Both OTs are outstanding, with 6’6” 350 lb behemoth Navaughn Donaldson leading the way at RT. The interior of the line is led by All-ACC Honorable Mention Tyler Gauthier at OC. But pass rushes up the middle is where the OL is susceptible. Here’s a good look at one of FSU’s 5 sacks. RG Hayden Mahoney is supposed to chip the DT and then leave him for Donaldson. But Donaldson can’t get there in time and the DT has a free run at Perry. It’s a very big OL, with everybody over 300 lbs. But it isn’t the most mobile OL and can be beaten by quicker pass rushers.

Now, FSU is in a 4 man front. Virginia will play a 3 man front. So that matchup isn’t going to happen. But, with a 3 man front, Virginia can run different blitzers into that same B-gap (between the OG and the OT). Zane Zandier has shown the ability to read the OLs and pick the right gap. Look for Chris Peace and Charles Snowden to also come on inside rushes.

The biggest weakness of Miami’s offense is pass blocking and the passing game in general. They’re 78th in the nation in sacks allowed (incidentally right above Virginia). They’re just 69th in total offense and 86th in passing offense. We’ve seen Virginia struggle to stop the ground game of the better teams on the schedule. Miami is the best team they’ll play and has the best OL they’ll face. Stopping the running game is key. Shut that down and Miami will have trouble scoring.

That would be easier if the Virginia defense was healthy. Put Jordan Mack back at ILB, Richard Burney back at DE and Chris Moore at nickel back and I’d like Virginia’s chances of slowing down the ‘Canes a lot more than I do without those guys. Getting Nelson back, along with Malcolm Cook, helps. But is it enough?

Conclusion

Miami is a very good team, but FSU showed last week that they’re beatable. Again, FSU has more individual talent than Virginia, but they aren’t necessary better. If Virginia executes they way we know they can, they can absolutely beat Miami.

The game is in primetime, on national TV. Virginia always has a chance at home, and the crowd should be ready for this one. But Miami is simply too talented on both lines for this young Virginia team to overcome.

Prediction: Miami 31, Virginia 21 (Season record, 4-1)