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Miami Hurricanes Matchup of the Week: Virginia Tech Hokies

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With the fate of the ACC Coastal in the balance, Miami looks to pluck the Hokies in primetime

Miami v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Chatter this week among ’Canes fans has surrounded the possibility of Miami being legitimate contenders to earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. There is no overlooking what will be the biggest home game at Hard Rock Stadium for the program in over a decade. In this all-important game that will ultimately decide the winner of the ACC’s coastal division, State of the U previews the matchups that will be key for both Virginia Tech and Miami on Saturday.

One vs. One Matchup

Virginia Tech WR Cam Phillips (six-foot-two, 202 pounds) vs. Miami CB Malek Young (five-foot-nine, 180 pounds)

NCAA Football: West Virginia vs Virginia Tech
With talent that leaps out at you, Virginia Tech WR Cam Phillips will be a player to keep your eye on Saturday.
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

There are not too many wide receivers on the college level who have the ability to ‘Moss’ defenders. One of the few members of the exclusive club is Cam Phillips. The senior receiver is the top passing option for the Hokies, hauling in an impressive in 51 receptions, 692 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns. Phillips has a knack for sticking out his arms to make the catch, often stretching out his hands during the run to catch the ball in stride. Freshman QB Josh Jackson’s placement can be spotty, but Phillips helps his receiver by boxing out defenders to give him the advantage of making the catch. Phillips also does a great job of running routes at various depths on the field. What is meant by that is that he could run a deep vertical along the sideline one play, run a 10-yard-out route to the sideline and take a swing pass for 5 yards all in one series.

A couple weeks ago, Malek Young was the spotlight in our one vs. one matchup against the FBS’ leader in receptions, Syracuse WR Steve Ishmael. Young had a near shutdown performance then, which Miami will need to see a second act of if the team wants to control their destiny for the remainder of the season. Young has excelled in pass coverage as the season has progressed, leading all Hurricane defenders with seven pass break ups. For those concerned about the size mismatch, we’ve seen Young battle taller receivers the majority of the season, so size shouldn’t be an issue in this battle.

Mano a Mano

Mark Richt’s Offensive Playcalling vs. Bud Foster’s Defensive Playcalling

Our bonus matchup for such a big occasion does not feature guys who will actually be on the field, yet are just as, if not more important come gameday.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina
Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt’s playcalling on Saturday will come with plenty of scrutiny in the biggest game for Miami in over ten years.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Hurricanes enter the game undefeated on the season, yet there have been grumblings all season regarding Richt’s choice of playcalling in certain situations. In the biggest game of the season for the Hurricanes, should Miami’s offense continue to settle for field goals in the red zone when, to date, Miami has scored 14 touchdowns to 11 field goals in the redzone. Failing to establish a run game as of late, Miami is coming off a 1.84 yards-per-carry performance against North Carolina a week ago. While winning keeps everyone happy, Canes fans demand improvement from their offense.

To test Richt’s playcalling acumen is Miami’s biggest nemesis — not Florida State, but Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Foster has orchestrated great defenses annually for the Hokies, so we’re not blowing your mind with some Neil DeGrasse Tyson facts here. The Hokies top the ACC in rushing defense, allowing only an average of three yards per carry. To date, only the Clemson Tigers have rushed for a touchdown against the Hokies. Another interesting stat about the Hokies defense is that they have not allowed multiple passing touchdowns over the past five games.

Georgia Tech v Virginia Tech
Behind that blank stare lays the mind of defensive genius and VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster
Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images

As of late, Foster has emphasized getting more in terms of sack production and pressure from his defensive line, not relying on blitzes to create sacks. VT has 19 sacks entering Saturday’s coastal division showdown. In the back half of Virginia Tech’s defense, they run a combination of man and zone coverage, so expect S Terrell Edmunds to attempt to bait the deep pass to Miami’s explosive receivers such as Jeff Thomas or Ahmmon Richards.

Positional Matchup

Virginia Tech running game vs. Miami’s front-seven

To borrow a phrase from the MMA world, VT’s offense is looking to do plenty of “ground and pound”, given how their team is set up. The leading rusher for the Hokies is RB Travon McMillian who has rushed for 353 yards on 76 carries. Virginia Tech has a shifty back in RB Coleman Fox who has 222 rushing yards on 38 carries. Against Duke, VT showed off what RB Deshawn McClease is capable of, rushing for 75 yards and a touchdown. RB Steven Peoples has two touchdowns this season. When you factor in QB Josh Jackson’s 193 rushing yards, you’re talking about plenty of depth in a loaded backfield.

At the beginning of the season, Miami’s front-seven was listed as the strength of the team. That still holds true, with one glaring exception: Miami’s tendency to give up big runs. It’s the achilles heel of their defense. Allowing 14 rushing plays of 20 or more yards is a stat that Canes fans are not too fond of. While those explosive runs do not always end up with six points for the opposing offense, it usually means that Miami will be on the field for at least three more plays — further increasing the odds that Miami will give up a score.

Caneseye Players to Watch

NCAA Football: Clemson at Virginia Tech
Breaking Michael Vick’s freshman passing record, QB Josh Jackson has been a revelation for VT head coach Justin Fuente’s offense.
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The first of the Caneseye Players to Watch that will have a major role in Saturday’s game is VT QB Josh Jackson. We touched on his ability to run briefly, but do not be mistaken: Jackson is an accomplished passer. It’s hard to believe that he’s a freshman with a stat line of 149 completions for 2,032 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Jackson has poise in his pocket and isn’t rattled too often by pressure. While Jackson looks good, he still has freshman tendencies. One of the most glaring is looking down or staring at his receiver before releasing the pass. It’s not a big thing when you’re making the pass, however Miami has the talent in the secondary to jump into the passing lane to make a play if given the opportunity. Jackson also posses a common trait among opposing quarterbacks that Miami has encountered lately: he’s a capable runner, rushing for 193 yards and two rushing touchdowns at an average of 2.8 yards-per-rush.

Defensively for Virginia Tech, we’ll highlight two players — and, no, not the Edmund twins, who are also good. Defensive lineman Trevon Hill and Tim Settle wreak havoc on offensive lines, blowin’ up blocks in the run game and creating pressure on the quarterbacks in the pass game. Both defenders have three sacks a piece to lead the Hokies, while they’re also the top two defenders in tackles for loss with nine-and-a-half by Settle and six-and-a-half by Hill. Miami would be wise to get a double team where possible on Settle who measures six-foot-three at 335 pounds. Yet, that double frees up other defenders for one-on-one matchups, hence why facing the Hokies’ defense can cause such a headache.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina
Miami RB Travis Homer will look for space like this as the Hurricanes will need to establish a solid ground game this weekend
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In the past couple of games, Miami has been quick to ditch the run game in favor of passing the ball. The onus for production on the ground falls on the legs and shoulder pads of RB Travis Homer. Since RB Mark Walton was ruled out for the season, there have been just five rushing attempts by players not named Malik Rosier or Travis Homer. It can’t be overstated how important diversity on offense is when playing a team the caliber of Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes run the ball about an average of 30 times a game, and will need to play above their 5.23 rushing yard average on the season. Should the ’Canes give up on the running game early, it would play right into the game plan of the Hokies’ defense.

Miami has gotten great performances on the defensive side of the ball this season. There might not be anyone more impressive than LB Michael Pinckney, who has been banged up over the past couple weeks with a shoulder injury. A Walter Camp Player of the Week after his performance against Syracuse a couple weeks back, Pinckney has been a force in the defensive run game, standing out as one of Miami’s more reliable tacklers. Pinckney enters Saturday night’s game ranked second on the team with three-and-a-half sacks. Factor in his six-and-a-half tackles for loss and you can see why Miami will lean on No.56 when the lights get turned on just a bit brighter in this primetime matchup.

Lastly…

No defense in ACC has been stingier than the Hokies’ so far this season. VT gives up an average of 11.5 points per game, placing them 2nd to only Alabama (9.8). However, outside the confines of Lane Stadium, VT allows an average of 17 points per game. Oddly enough, VT’s offense performs better on the road, scoring 39.3 points per game which ranks them eighth in the FBS. Something will have to give on either end if the ’Canes hope to earn a big win this weekend.

IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE U!