West Virginia vs Miami: a Russell Athletic Bowl Preview

The Mountaineers try to reach 11 wins for just the 6th time in school history.


MIAMI PROFILE

Record: (8-4). On first glance, the Canes results actually looked a bit more impressive than I expected them to. Every win was by atleast 2 scores, and they really only got beat down once (37-16 @ VT), losing the remaining 3 by a combined 11 points. However, a closer look at their opponents revealed that they’ve only beaten 2 teams with winning records (App State and Georgia Tech), and they lost to 4 of the 5 best teams they played despite missing Louisville and Clemson in the scheduling cycle. They also lost to a delightfully terrible Notre Dame team.

HC: Mark Richt. One of the great head coaches in the country, Richt is in his first year at Miami after being fired by Georgia last year.

OC: Thomas Brown. Brown is in his first year as an offensive coordinator at Miami after following Richt over from Georgia. He also notably coached 1st round draft pick Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin the year before.

DC: Manny Diaz. Diaz is in his 6th year as a defensive coordinator but just his first year at Miami. The unit has improved in just about every statistical category when compared with last year, so Diaz definitely deserves some credit.

OUR DEFENSE VS THEIR OFFENSE

Players to watch: QB Brad Kaaya, RB Mark Walton, WR Ahmmon Richards, WR Stacy Coley, TE David Njoku, TE Christopher Herndon

The Hurricanes have one of the more balanced offenses that we’ve faced this season, using a pro-style attack to spread the ball around to a number of talented skill guys. They aren’t the most explosive unit we’ve faced, but they don’t make too many mistakes either (4th nationally with only 10 giveaways), which means we can’t get impatient trying to make something happen. Everything starts with QB Brad Kaaya.

Kaaya is 3rd year starter who turned heads as a freshman, but he’s never really developed into that sure-fire first rounder like everyone expected him to. Statistically he’s still fairly similar to the guy he was two years ago, finishing each of his three seasons within 30 passing yards per game and 0.2 yards per attempt of each other. The one thing he’s consistently done very well is avoid interceptions. He’s only given away 1 out of every 48 passes over the course of his career and averages fewer than one per game. This is obviously a problem for defenses like ours, but there are two things that I think we have going in our favor.

First, Kaaya is an absolute statue in the pocket. We don’t have to worry about him breaking our backs with scrambles the way that a Mahomes or a Mayfield might, and we know that our blitzes won’t be chasing a moving target.

Second, I don’t think he’s ever played against a 3-3-5 defense, and certainly not one likes ours. The unique looks and pressure packages that we bring are difficult for anyone to face for the first time, and we’ve already seen them cause problems for better players than Kaaya this year.

As for the rest of the skill guys, the Canes have a trio of solid running backs and four good pass catchers. Let’s start with the backs.

The feature guy will be Mark Walton. Walton carried 192 times for 1095 yards and 14 touchdowns this year, and was also dangerous as a receiver, hauling in 26 balls for a further 242 yards and a touchdown. Behind him, both Joseph Yearly and Gus Edwards have gotten carries and done a nice job, and the three of them have combined to average 5.7 yards per carry on the year. They’re not game breakers, but all three are very solid and can hurt us if we let them.

On the outside, Richards and Coley are dangerous, but the guy I think we need to be especially wary of is the tight end, Njoku. He’s only 3rd on the team in catches (38), but he’s averaging over 17 yards per reception and has 7 touchdowns, and with our history of ignoring tight ends I can already see him becoming a problem.

Overall, there’s not a whole lot of trickeration with what the Canes do offensively. They just line up and execute, and are very good at creating and taking advantage of favorable situations. We have the guys to match up with them on the outside, but I am concerned about the discipline of our safeties. Jeremy Tyler, Jarrod Harper, and Kyzir White have all made some big plays this year, but they’ve also all been guilty of mental mistakes that have allowed guys to run free between the seams. That’s exactly where Miami’s talented tight ends will operate and Kaaya will take that all day if we give it to him, so I’d much rather we take that away and force him to beat us by throwing at Douglas and Fleming on the outside.

OUR OFFENSE VS THEIR DEFENSE

Players to watch: S Jamal Carter, FS Rayshawn Jenkins, CB Corn Elder, LB Shaquille Quarterman, DE Chad Thomas, DE/LB Joe Jackson

The Canes start just 3 seniors defensively, but the unit is undoubtedly the strength of their team. Miami ranks in the Top 30 nationally in both scoring (13th) and total defense (28th), and the 1.5 points they’re allowing per possession is good for 14th. They’re also Top 30 in both sacks (29th) and tackles for loss (14th), and are allowing big plays on just 10.9% of opponent snaps (40th).

Schematically they’ll remind you a bit of BYU. It’s technically a 4-3, but they have a position that they call “viper” that operates as something of a DE/LB hybrid. Behind that they have three athletic linebackers, but the real strength is, as usual, their defensive backs. Corn Elder was an All-Conference level performer on the outside, while safeties Carter and Jenkins were 1st and 3rd on the team in tackles respectively. They aren’t particularly prolific in terms of taking the ball away, but they’re very active and are good at making sure you don’t catch it.

Overall, this is probably one of the 2 or 3 best groups we’ve faced all year, and Skyler and the boys definitely have their work cut out for them. Miami is good against the run and pass, and they’re one of the few teams we’ve played that can match up with our skill guys athletically. However, we also pose some unique challenges that I’m not sure they’ve faced this year.

There are only two teams in the ACC who have as much offensive talent and depth as we do, and as I said earlier, the Canes were able to avoid both Clemson and Louisville. We’ll make them cover the whole field like nobody else has this year, and I think it’s only a matter of time before cracks start to appear in that defense. Once that happens, I back Dana and Co to recognize it and get our guys in positions to take advantage.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Miami’s special teams are predictably very solid. Their punter, kicker, and punt return teams are all very good, and the kick return team is also above average. The one area where they look vulnerable is in kick coverage, where the 23.7 yards they’re allowing per return ranks 113th nationally. I know I’ve been saying this all year, but we stiiiillllll haven’t hit a big play on special teams. Shelton, please. Give me one.

PREDICTION

This is a very real challenge we’re facing. The Canes may be 8-4, but they’re much closer in ability to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State than they are to Kansas State or TCU. If we come out flat and sloppy they’ll have no problem beating us. Simple as that. However, I do think we’re the better team. We’re much more explosive than they are offensively, and our defense will pose them certain challenges that they haven’t seen yet this year. Most importantly though, we’re more experienced, and that’s often the difference between winning and losing in these kinds of games. We’ve found a way to get it done all year. I think we find a way again in Orlando.

West Virginia 30 Miami 28

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