The theme of the week for the Miami Hurricanes is not having a letdown coming off back-to-back emotional wins over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.
For a team in the national spotlight and within the top 4 of the College Football Playoff, you wouldn’t really know it considering the UM staff and players don’t really talk much about it. But, without the College GameDay hype and a night game on ESPN, the Canes will have their focus tested against the Virginia Cavaliers at noon on Saturday in Hard Rock Stadium.
“We can [stay focused], I have no doubt about that,” WR Braxton Berrios said. “Nothing has changed from last week to this week. If you go in the locker room, go in the meeting rooms, the preparation is the same. Everybody’s attitude is the same.”
"I just don't think it really matters because you still have to beat Virginia," Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said when discussing the national rankings that place Miami at #3 in the nation. "You're playing for where you're going to be at the end of the year and that's really all that matters. To me the fact they have rankings during the season is for a matter of argument and discussion because it doesn't serve a purpose, right? The solo attention of our football team is trying to find a way to improve off of how we played last week and we're really not thinking past Virginia."
Avoiding a hangover will be a challenge facing off against a UVA program that has given the Canes fits in recent seasons. While Miami won the last meeting between the teams in 2016, 34-14, and lead the all-time series 8-6, the Cavaliers have actually won four of the last seven match-ups, including a 24-19 upset in 2010 at Charlottesville against #22 Miami. In 2011, Virginia became the first program in college football history to win at Miami and at Florida State in the same season.
It’s safe to say Virginia has had Miami’s number lately. And this is a much improved outfit in Bronco Mendenhall’s second season. After stumbling to a 2-10 finish in 2016, UVA is now 6-4 in 2017 and is going to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. They are led by Florida-native senior QB Kurt Benkert, who is throwing for 249.2 yards per game and has 21 passing TD’s. Benkert has played a starring role in the Cavaliers’ turnaround and even earned an admirer in Miami head coach Mark Richt during last season’s game.
"We had some kind of blitz on and somebody was coming free -- might not even have been a blitz -- and he stood right in there and threw a touchdown pass knowing he was about to get hit," Richt said about Benkert. "He's my kind of guy in that regard."
Protecting Benkert is an upgraded offensive line that has allowed only 21 sacks this season, way down from the 36 the line allowed a year ago. There have still been issues getting a push up front in the run game though, as UVA averages an uneventful 3.5 yards per carry and 112.6 yards per game (117th in the FBS). RB Jordan Ellis is the most consistent back on the Cavaliers and has 766 yards and six touchdowns.
Benkert’s biggest weapon in the passing game is Olamide Zaccheaus. Listed as a tailback, the 5’8” dynamo also works out of the slot to tear up defenses. Zaccheaus leads the team with 70 catches for 727 yards and four touchdowns. On the outside, there are playmakers like Doni Dowling (544 yards and five TD’s) and Andre Levrone (566 yards and six TD’s). This group hopes to be up to the task against the nation’s #10 scoring defense in UM (16.6 ppg) that has also proven itself adept at taking the ball away with the second best Turnover Margin in the FBS.
“Every player you look at in their starting 11 is capable, fast, athletic, plays at a high quality,” Mendenhall said regarding Miami’s defense. “It’s difficult to score points on them and they take the ball away and have a nice culture that way.”
Defensively, the Cavaliers have the ACC leader in tackles in all-conference linebacker Micah Kiser, who adds 5 sacks and 8 TFL among his 106 stops, while veteran safety Quin Blanding is second in the ACC with 96 tackles. Although there’s no “Turnover Chain” to speak of, Virginia's stop-unit also takes the ball from away from opponents; they’ve racked up 15 total turnovers, including 12 interceptions, on the year.
Up front is where this UVA squad can be had, and the group has been pushed around to the tune of 178.9 rushing ypg allowed (83rd in the country) and 4.5 ypc for opposing backs. Still, there is talent to be found on the D-Line in former five-star recruit Andrew Brown; the defensive end can be tough to handle at times and has recorded 8.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks in 2017.
"When I think of Bronco [Mendenhall] I think of an outstanding defensive coach," Diaz said. "I've always admired watching what he does schematically and the way his guys play defensively. That's what I think you can see in Virginia. Their defense is starting to take on his personality and becoming a real pain for offenses to go against."
As is tradition for the last home game of the season at Miami, Saturday will be considered “Senior Day” for all of the Canes on their final year of eligibility in the program and all the seniors will be honored at the stadium. While a win is important for Miami to keep pace in the chase for the College Football Playoff, it would mean much more to the team to send these seniors out on a high note.
“To me it means everything because those are the guys I came in with - they’re going to wind up leaving a year ahead of me (because he redshirted),” redshirt junior QB Malik Rosier said. “Those are guys I bonded with, they’re like family to me. For me to send them out with their last victory at Hard Rock Stadium means everything to me.”