The Miami Hurricanes come into Saturday’s game against the Syracuse Orange after two hard fought victories the past two weeks, getting last minute wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech, respectively, to keep their undefeated season alive.
Miami is playing their former Big East rival for the first time since 2003. The Canes have the edge in the overall series with Syracuse at 15-7, including 5 straight victories and 11 of the past 13.
Before the season, one would have thought this season’s Syracuse game would make 6 in a row and provide a nice respite in the schedule coming off the tough matchups FSU and GT presented.
Consider that illusion shattered.
That’s because Syracuse has been busy themselves lately. The Orange are coming off what is being called a program-defining win under 2nd year coach Dino Babers, shocking #2 Clemson at home in a 27-24 victory last Friday night.
If the Hurricane players were sleeping on Syracuse, they have surely woken up to the potential dangers that the Orange will present on Saturday. Mark Richt is making sure of it.
"Our guys were watching it live (the Clemson game) and saw for themselves what was about to come up this weekend," Miami coach Mark Richt said. "I didn't have to really explain much of anything."
To find the heart of Syracuse, you need to look no further than their passing attack, led by junior QB Eric Dungey. The Orange’s explosive, up-tempo offense averages 463 yards per game, 2nd in the ACC, accompanied by 31.3 points per game. 297.1 of those yards come through the air via Dungey, who is also a threat on the ground. Dungey averages 55.1 yards per game rushing and has accounted for 8 rushing TD’s, his dual-threat abilities helping to keep opponents off-balance and from focusing too much attention on favorite targets Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips.
Ishmael ranks second in the nation in receptions per game (8.9) and third in receiving yards (802). Philips is tied for fifth in receptions per game (8.0). Philips even caught 17 passes in a loss to N.C. State this season.
And all this offensive success has not come all against cupcakes, either. The Orange have battled against some of the nation’s toughest defenses, including the aforementioned Clemson and N.C. State, plus LSU. But what really sets this offense apart is the nature of their hurry-up spread. Syracuse is second nationally in plays per game at 87.8 and just wears defenses down over the course of a contest. Dungey gets his team lined up ultra-fast and snaps the ball quick: line-up, snap, repeat. It’s something that even Clemson struggled with, as there were multiple plays where the Tigers’ defense wasn’t ready when the ball was snapped. Mark Richt is aware of this issue and hopes to get the Canes prepared for it.
"They're a team that plays with their hair on fire, so to speak," Miami head coach Mark Richt said. "They play with such tempo offensively, the number one goal is just getting lined up. Can you just get lined up quick enough to try and defend, and then, can you defend?”
Miami will counter with their #20 ranked scoring defense. The Canes come into the game allowing just 18.6 points per game and while Manny Diaz’s unit has bent, they haven’t broken often this season.
However, Miami’s secondary has been considered the weak link of the team and they will be pushed to the limit being asked to cover Ishmael and Philips all game. Making matters worse, the secondary has been banged up with injuries. Starting safety Sheldrick Redwine is expected back this week off a concussion, but starting corner Dee Delaney will not play on Saturday due to a lower leg ailment.
The Canes will have to get strong play from a recovering Redwine, Malek Young, Michael Jackson, and Jaquan Johnson. For his part, Johnson isn’t too worried.
"I believe we're going to keep up with them," Johnson said. "We're working hard, we're conditioned, we're doing plays up-tempo, fast and not taking breaks so I believe we're going to be able to keep up with them."
When Miami looks to get on the scoreboard, they have discovered they can rely on running back Travis Homer, who had a spectacular debut as a starter in replacing the injured Mark Walton against Georgia Tech. He showed he could run tough between the tackles, as well as burst to the outside in rushing for 170 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Homer is also a threat in the passing game, and added a touchdown catch to his performance last week against the Yellow Jackets.
Hurricanes QB Malik Rosier has been better than expected this season in taking over for the departed Brad Kaaya, but will look to start games faster after slow starts nearly cost Miami the game against FSU and GT. He’ll have some more help this week, though, as Miami’s #1 receiver Ahmmon Richards is expected to return after missing the GT game with a pulled hamstring. Richards has missed 3 of the Canes’ 5 games this season, but has made his impact felt when he has been on the field: on 7 catches this year, Richards has 174 yards and a TD, good for over 20 yards per catch.
Miami is ranked #8 and is in the top 10 for the first time since the 2013 season, when they rattled off 7 straight wins to start the season. Richt knows, however, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
"First of all, you're not a Top-10 program unless at the end of the year you're a Top-10 program," Richt told the media.
The Canes will look to continue their path to the ACC Championship on Saturday. Brick by brick. Game by game.