Well, that was fun while it lasted. If you are reading this article, you are probably still sick to your stomach like I am about what transpired in Sun Life Stadium this past Saturday. Miami, like many challengers before them, had the champs on the ropes, but just couldn't land the knockout blow. To paraphrase Dennis Green, the 'Noles were "who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook." But, what's done is done, and now it is time to move forward. Miami proved to the country that it can hang with anybody and that the program is headed in the right direction, but all of that goes out the window if they fall flat on their faces these last two games. They have to keep this streak of good football going into the bowl season and next year, otherwise that close loss was in vain. That starts this weekend on the road versus Virginia, who as most 'Canes fans know is no walk in the park. Today, we take a look at two Freshman that will be faces of the ACC for years to come: Miami Quarterback Brad Kaaya versus Virginia Safety Quin Blanding.
Season to Date
I don't think you can call Kaaya's season so far anything but a success. If you had told me Kaaya would look this advanced this fast when he was named the starter back in camp, or even after the Louisville game on labor day, I would say that would be more than we could have asked for (remember when everyone thought it was Jake Heaps' job to lose?). Kaaya has passed for over 2,400 yards, 22 touchdowns versus 10 picks (only one of those interceptions came in the last 4 games). He gets better every single week and looks poised to be THE guy for Miami for years to come.
Blanding came to Virginia as one of their biggest recruiting pulls in recent memory. Blanding was ranked as the number one safety recruit and number six overall prospect of the 2014 class, according to 247 sports. Blanding has lived up to the billing, as he has been one of the best true freshmen in the country. He has over 100 tackles for the season and two interceptions, according to ESPN.
I always put this section here, but it really doesn't have much bearing on this match-up, since it will be more of a battle of wits than actually facing off against each other. But you should know that Blanding is a BIG guy playing at safety. At 6'4, 210 pounds, he is bigger than any defensive back Miami has on the roster (he's actually taller than most of our linebackers as well). He uses that size to be a force in the run game, but also has the athleticism to drop back in coverage.
I went over Kaaya's size back in my article leading up to Virginia Tech. Here is the cliff notes version: Kaaya has just enough size to see over the offensive line. He could afford to pack on some more weight in the future, but he's just fine for now.
Line of Scrimmage Control versus Coverage/Run Support
Here is where things get interesting. One of Kaaya's strengths all season has been his ability to control the line of scrimmage and make the correct calls based on what the defense is doing. He will need to be on point in this game and confuse Blanding and/or make him and the defense tip their hand to what they are playing. Blanding is a force in run support. As mentioned above, he over 100 tackles on the season from the safety position. That, in short, is a lot. While he is not exactly a slouch in pass defense, he would much rather be hitting guys at or near the line of scrimmage. This is where Kaaya has to keep him honest. Miami's offense is obviously based on Duke Johnson and the run game, and if I know that, you better be sure Virginia knows that. While Miami cannot let what Virginia does dictate their offense, they still cannot allow Virginia to stack the box and sell out on the run. Kaaya has to be able to make the correct reads and checks and, more important, be sharp in the medium and deep passing game. Miami has to keep a guy like Blanding, and the rest of the Virginia defense, honest and expecting both the run and pass. If not, Duke, Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards might get a little more familiar with Mr. Blanding than they care for.
Virginia is not as talented of a team as Miami, let's get that out of the way. They began the season playing very well, staying with UCLA until the end and beating Louisville. They have not been playing very good football as of late, however, and Miami is still playing the best football of the Al Golden era despite the loss to Florida State. The strength of Virginia's team is their defense but, unfortunately for them, Miami's strength is their offense. Kaaya is really emerging as a potentially elite quarterback and, while Blanding is going to a star himself, he just does not have enough help, especially from his offense. With a loss eliminating them from a bowl game this season, and the way Virginia always seems to play Miami tough, this could be closer than the stats would indicate. I still think Kaaya and Miami get the upper hand here, though. They may not have the Coastal title to play for anymore, but Miami should come into this game with a chip on their shoulder eager to show everyone they could and should have beaten the Seminoles last week.
Side Note: Thoughts are with everyone at Florida State University in the aftermath of the shooting that took place at Strozier Library on Wednesday night. We all get wrapped up in the rivalries and passion of sports sometimes, but something like this really puts things into perspective. When something like this happens, we aren't Hurricanes or Gators or Seminoles, we are all human beings. I hope that everyone affected by this finds a way to get through whatever pain they are experiencing.