After a long and winding season featuring Hurricane Irma, emotional highs, and exceeded expectations, the Miami Hurricanes’ regular season will end on Friday at Pittsburgh.
And, like every week, there’s a host of new concerns as UM readies to take on the Pittsburgh Panthers:
How will Miami adjust to the cold weather in Pittsburgh? Is the team looking ahead to the Clemson match-up in the ACC Championship? Will the Canes eat too much turkey the day before and tryptophan themselves out of an undefeated season?
Those could all be useless plot points, sure. But the narrative last week against Virginia was a question of if Miami could get up for the average Cavaliers after experiencing thrilling wins over top 15 opponents Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. Those concerns proved to be valid.
“I think it was a great lesson for our players in terms of how we prepare,” said Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “They can only ask themselves: Did we prepare any differently? Did we have the same passion? But on the flip side you respect the heck out of them because they had the mental toughness to turn it around and to not panic and to go on a 30-0 run to finish the game.”
Another area of consideration: after having their bye week used to make-up a postponed game with Florida State due to Hurricane Irma, Miami is playing in its 10th straight game this weekend. How the player’s bodies responds to the constant pounding of a season is something to keep an eye on, and “wear-and-tear” is taken into account by the coaching staff on this short week.
"We don't have a lot of time," Miami head coach Mark Richt said. "Pitt doesn't either. These guys know. They know they have to get their rest, take care of their bodies. We, as coaches, have to be wise and not do things to wear them out but still do enough to be prepared. They have to take care of themselves."
The Hurricanes have a long and storied history with the Panthers; they were Big East foes back in the 90’s and early 2000’s before they both settled into the ACC Coastal division. Miami has a 25-10-1 overall record against the Panthers, including winning a whopping 10 of their last 11 meetings.
In heading to Heinz Field this season, Miami is going up against a 4-7 Pitt team looking to avenge last years 51-28 loss to UM in Miami Gardens and who came up just short last week in a last second loss against Virginia Tech; down six points, Pitt was stopped on four straight chances on the Hokies goal line in the final minute.
"We’ve got a heck of a football team in there," Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the loss to VT. "I love those guys. I couldn’t say more great things about the character of this football team. You can talk about this, talk about that, but those guys played their tails off because they wear that Pitt logo on their chest. As a football coach, that’s all you can ask for. I just love them to death."
To pull off the upset against Miami, the Panthers will need to make the crucial plays that they couldn’t against VT. The problem? They don’t even know who is going to be leading them behind center. Starter Max Browne is out for the season with a shoulder injury, and his replacement, Ben DiNucci, has struggled with consistently reading defenses and has thrown for 1,091 yards with 5 TDs and 5 interceptions while completing 55.7% of his passes. Narduzzi pulled DiNucci and inserted freshman Kenny Pickett in the first half against VT, and he performed admirably, hitting on 15 of 23 passes for 242 yards.
"Kenny did a nice job, threw the ball well which we thought he could," Narduzzi said. "He gave us a chance."
So while Narduzzi hasn’t explicitly named a starter at QB for this week, Pickett is expected to get the nod. The freshman signal-caller will be going up against a ferocious Miami defense that gets into opponent’s backfields quickly and is hungry to bring out the Turnover Chain. The Hurricanes have had 19 takeaways over the last five games and 27 for the season, tied for third nationally. Pitt will attempt to do what nobody on Miami’s schedule has been able to do to this point: not turn the ball over.
“They have a lot of returning starters on defense and they’re fast,” Narduzzi said. “They have that chain going and the U and the whole deal. They have confidence they’re going to get turnovers every time they walk out on the field. That’s certainly a key to victory, is don’t get them started. We've got to make sure that things stays wherever they keep it when they walk out onto the field. Keep it in that box."
Pickett will be helped out by a rushing attack averaging 3.9 yards per carry and is led by Darrin Hall, who has eight touchdowns and three 100 yard games in four weeks since being named the full-time starter. However, Hall was shut down by VT last week with 15 carries for only 4 yards, and he will have to bounce back if the Panthers have any hope of surprising the Canes this week. When Pitt has won games this season, it has been on the back of a dominating ground game.
"I'm impressed with Darrin and the way (he) runs the football," Narduzzi said. "We have to get the run game going, period."
When the nation’s 98th offense (368.1 ypg) takes to the air, the Panthers look to top targets Jester Weah (35 catches, 618 yards, 4 TDs) and Rafael Araujo-Lopes (41 catches, 510 yards, 2 TDs). The Hurricanes struggled mightily with Virginia’s passing game last week, and if Pitt is going to make some noise against UM, they’ll need to get big games from Weah and Araujo-Lopes.
Pitt’s defense hasn’t been much better at 81st in the country, allowing 411.5 ypg. The main issues are up front, where the Panther lineman have floundered at the point of attack and fail to get pressure on opposing QB’s. Pitt only has 19 sacks this season, which is towards the bottom of the FBS (90th).
However, the Panthers have standout individual play-makers on their stop-unit that can impact a game in a hurry. It starts with Oluwaseun Idowu at linebacker, who has a team high 86 tackles, 11.5 for losses and five sacks on the season so far and will look to slow down Travis Homer and Miami’s running game. In the secondary, the Panthers have 2015 ACC Rookie of the Year safety Jordan Whitehead patrolling their back-end. Whitehead was suspended for three games earlier this season, but has still managed to make his imprint felt with 58 tackles, three breakups and an interception.
"It comes down to making plays," Whitehead said of Pitt’s defensive struggles. "(There have been a) lot of missed tackles, balls in the air we didn’t finish, including myself so we have to make plays.”
So, after all that, does Pitt really have a chance to hang with Miami on Friday?
"They beat the team we just played (Virginia), 31-14, I believe,'' Richt said of the Panthers. "That's about all you need to know."