Thursday Night Football: A Chance for Miami, Virginia to Separate from ACC Pack


Two of my personal favorite, young head coaches collide near South Beach when Mike London leads Virginia into face Al Golden and Miami. Each team can inch forward in the competitive ACC with a win while the loser’s road to bowl eligibility gets a bit steeper.

Miami and Virginia have identical 4-3 records heading into tonight’s ACC Coastal contest, but the Hurricanes and Cavaliers are on opposite trajectories. The U has been on a steady progression from week to week since opening at 1-2. The 38-35 loss at Virginia Tech was seemingly a turning point. Miami played a good enough game to win, then parlayed that into an early, insurmountable advantage over North Carolina to hold off the Heels. Last week, The U extended Georgia Tech’s recent woes with an impressive defensive performance — the Hurricanes’ best since dominating Ohio State in Week 2.

Virginia perhaps softened up the Yellow Jackets for Miami, handing GT its first defeat the week prior. The win was UVa’s fourth on the season. With six games remaining, a stumbling NC State coming to Charlottesville and needing just two wins, the Wahoos appeared destined to snap their three season-long bowl game drought. But the Wolfpack struck for three consecutive touchdowns spanning the late second and most of the third quarters, building a deficit that Virginia’s struggling offense couldn’t bridge. Now UVa faces a stretch of at Miami, at Maryland, Duke, at Florida State and Virginia Tech needing at least two wins in that span. The Cavaliers have the defense for it, but the offense is another matter.

And tonight, UVa’s offensive woes play into Miami’s strengths. Miami is No. 31 in points allowed, and the same against the pass. That’s bad news for a Virginia aerial game that has sputtered mightily whether Michael Rocco or David Watford was behind center. The good news for the Wahoos though is that the ‘Canes have not been particularly stingy against the rush with nearly 180 yards per game surrendered. Expect Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to avoid the Hurricane secondary of Vaughn Telemaque, JoJo Nicolas and Brandon McGee as much as possible, while dialing in the three-way rushing attack of Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson.

The UVa trio has combined for nearly 1300 yards on the ground. Conversely, The U’s rush defense has had difficulty containing multifaceted run games, namely Kansas State. The Wildcats went for 265 yards on Miami. The key difference between K-State and UVa though, and the facet defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio may most try to exploit is Virginia lacks a Collin Klein. K-State’s quarterback was capable of tucking to run, but could also unleash quick strike routes if the ‘Canes got too greedy on the rush protection. Neither Wahoo quarterback is a ball carrier, and their propensity for turnovers make them susceptible blitz targets. Couple that with Miami’s 18 total sacks, No. 24 in the FBS, and one can anticipate Anthony Chickillo, Sean Spence and Marcus Robinson attacking the line early and often.

As has been the case for a Cavalier bunch yet to score more than 28 on an FBS opponent this season, UVa’s best bet is to lean on its stout defense and hope for a low scoring game. Virginia has been quite good defensively — No. 40 in points allowed, and 19 in total yards. Against Miami, it may need to be great. Lamar Miller is very quietly having one of the top campaigns for a running back in all college football with 799 yards on 137 carries and six touchdowns. He’s also added 11 receptions with a score.

Miller’s best outings have been against the Hurricanes’ stiffest defensive challenges, too. He went off for 166 yards against Virginia Tech, and 184 against Ohio State. Those aren’t just two of the best defenses Miami’s seen this year — those are two of the best defenses any team will see this year.

Miller’s breakout coincides with the maturation of Jacory Harris, though it’s no coincidence. The run and pass games feeding off one another has been paramount in Miami’s revival. Harris has limited his bad decisions, throwing four interceptions to 12 touchdowns. Two of those interceptions were in his debut against Ohio State. He’s also completing 62.1 percent of his attempts, making this first half of 2011 far-and-away the best stretch of his career. Should that continue tonight, London’s crew could be in for a long one.