Miami looks to strengthen its place at the top of the ACC Coastal on Saturday afternoon, as Georgia Tech travels south to take on the Hurricanes in a key conference matchup. Miami is riding a wave of momentum after beating Florida State for the first time in seven years last Saturday. However, the Hurricanes can’t afford to celebrate too much and have a letdown against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are a dangerous team at 3-1 and are on the cusp of a spot in the top 25.
Under Mark Richt’s direction, Miami is a program on the rise. Last week’s win over Florida State only validated that preseason claim, and the Hurricanes can land an early blow to the rest of the Coastal Division with a win on Saturday. Miami is already 2-0 in the ACC and 4-0 overall, with a home date against Syracuse next Saturday, followed by a road trip to North Carolina. Richt’s team should be favored in those two games, setting up a huge showdown with Virginia Tech on Nov. 4. While the first CFB Playoff rankings are a few weeks away, Miami can play its way into contention and potentially set up a play-in game versus Clemson in Charlotte in early December.
After a 3-9 season in 2015, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson spent a little time on the hot seat. But that stint was rather short, as the Yellow Jackets rebounded to 9-4 in 2016 and are off to a solid 3-1 start this fall. Georgia Tech has defeated North Carolina and Pitt in ACC play and also knocked off Jacksonville State. Had the Yellow Jackets not finished the opener versus Tennessee with a minus-two turnover margin, Johnson’s team would be undefeated going into this game against Miami.
Miami and Georgia Tech are tied in the all-time series at 11 wins apiece. However, the Hurricanes have won seven out of the last eight meetings and haven’t lost at home to the Yellow Jackets since 2007.
Georgia Tech at Miami
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 14 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Miami -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Miami’s Front Seven on Defense Against Georgia Tech’s Rushing Attack
This is the must-see matchup on Saturday afternoon. Miami’s fast and athletic front seven versus the Georgia Tech’s flexbone offense.
The Yellow Jackets average 396 rushing yards per game and have posted 16 scores on the ground through four contests. Coach Paul Johnson’s team is also averaging 5.9 yards per carry and have recorded four runs of 40 or more yards. In his first season as the starter, quarterback TaQuon Marshall has been one of the ACC’s top breakout players through Week 6. Marshall leads the team with 523 rushing yards and has already reached the end zone nine times. As evidenced by performances against Tennessee and North Carolina, the junior is durable enough to handle 30-40 carries. However, he’s also capable of handling 15-20 carries with a couple of big plays mixed in. Marshall isn’t the only threat for Georgia Tech’s backfield. KirVonte Benson (476 yards), Jerry Howard (135), Qua Searcy and Clinton Lynch round out a talented stable of options at the A-back or B-back positions.
While Miami has speed and athleticism across the board on its defensive depth chart, that could be used against this group. If Georgia Tech can create misdirection or confusion, the Hurricanes could be caught out of position and give up big plays to Marshall or Benson. The Hurricanes rank 11th in the ACC versus the run in 2017, giving up 148 yards per game. While the 148 per-game average is higher than last season’s mark (131.6 ypg), this unit is limiting rushers to 3.84 yards per rush. In last week’s win over Florida State, Miami gave up 203 yards on the ground – the highest total of the season. However, the Hurricanes have not allowed a rushing touchdown in three games. The success of the line starts in the middle with 312-pound tackle Kendrick Norton, with Chad Thomas, Joe Jackson, Trent Harris and Demetrius Jackson coming off the edge. The sophomore trio at linebacker of Shaquille Quarterman, Zach McCloud and Michael Pinckney are critical to slowing down Georgia Tech’s rushing attack. If the Yellow Jackets are able to protect up front, it’s on the linebackers to keep Marshall and the other rushers in check.
One other area to watch when Georgia Tech has the ball: Play-action passes. Can the Yellow Jackets keep Miami’s defense off balance to attack downfield? Marshall has yet to throw an interception on 33 attempts and is averaging 17.5 yards per completion.
Which side will win out on Saturday? Can Georgia Tech’s offense get enough going on the ground to pound away at Miami’s defense and chew up long drives? The Yellow Jackets need to stay out of third-and-longs to prevent Marshall from having to throw 20-25 times on Saturday. Despite the offensive firepower on the ground, can the Hurricanes bottle up Georgia Tech on early downs and force this offense out of its comfort zone?
2. Who Will Replace Mark Walton for the Hurricanes?
Last week’s win in Tallahassee came at a heavy price in the injury department for Miami. Running back Mark Walton – arguably the best in the ACC – suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Through first four games of 2017, Walton rushed for 428 yards and three touchdowns on 56 carries, averaging a healthy 7.6 yards per rush. Those numbers weren’t far off the pace Walton set in 2016 when he rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns on 209 attempts. In addition to the rushing production, Walton was a key receiver out of the backfield and a safety outlet for quarterback Malik Rosier.
With Walton out for the rest of the year, it’s no secret Miami is losing one of its best players and the catalyst behind its ground attack. Saturday’s matchup against Georgia Tech is the first contest without Walton leading the way at running back for coach Mark Richt. Who will step up on Saturday? Sophomore Travis Homer (207 yards) is a former four-star recruit and is slated to get the start versus the Yellow Jackets. While Homer has been impressive in limited action, a couple of other backs could rotate into the mix. Junior Trayone Gray (34 yards) is the likely No. 2 option, with DeeJay Dallas and Crispian Atkins filling out the backfield. Atkins was recently put on scholarship, and Dallas is a converted wide receiver.
Richt doesn’t have a ton of experience here, but there’s more than enough talent to keep the ground game on track. Georgia Tech ranks fourth in the ACC by limiting opposing offenses to just 101.8 rushing yards per game and has allowed only five rushing scores through four contests. Miami’s offensive line has improved over the last two seasons, so this unit should be instrumental in limiting the drop off in the ground game from Walton’s injury.
Can Homer, Gray and Dallas keep the ground game performing at a high level? Or will the Yellow Jackets win the battle up front and contain the Miami rushing offense?
3. Can Georgia Tech’s Defense Contain QB Malik Rosier?
Brad Kaaya left big shoes to fill in Coral Gables this offseason, but junior Malik Rosier has thrived as Miami’s starter so far in 2017. He’s completing 58.2 percent of throws for 1,074 yards and 11 touchdowns. Rosier delivered in the clutch with a last-minute scoring drive to beat Florida State last week and has tossed only three interceptions on 134 attempts. In addition to his steady production through the air, Rosier has rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns this year. The junior is aided by a strong supporting cast on the outside, as Braxton Berrios (18 catches), Ahmmon Richards and tight end Christopher Herndon IV headline the receiving corps. Richards suffered a hamstring injury in fall practice and is not 100 percent. The sophomore’s status is uncertain, which could prompt a bigger role for last week’s hero against the Seminoles (Darrell Langham) or Lawrence Cager.
Georgia Tech’s defense quietly ranks fifth in the ACC in fewest points allowed per game (19), but Miami’s offense is the best unit Ted Roof’s group has faced so far in 2017. The strength of the Yellow Jackets’ defense rests in the secondary, as this unit is limiting opposing passers to a 57.6 completion rate. Additionally, Roof’s defense has allowed just two plays of 40 or more yards and ranks second in the ACC in third-down defense.
Miami’s offense is the most balanced and most explosive group Georgia Tech’s defense has faced in 2017. Can the Yellow Jackets continue their solid performance on this side of the ball? Winning third downs and the turnover margin will be essential. Georgia Tech has only 10 sacks, but Roof’s defense is limiting the big plays allowed and holding opponents to 4.6 yards per play. Rosier’s arm and legs will be a huge test for Georgia Tech on Saturday afternoon.
After a big and emotional win against Florida State, Miami should be on upset alert versus Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets’ offense is thriving behind quarterback TaQuon Marshall, and the defense has been solid through the first four games. The line of scrimmage is essential to the outcome in this one. Will Miami’s defensive line set the tone and keep Marshall in check? Or will Georgia Tech’s front win the battle and provide plenty of lanes for Marshall, Benson and Howard? Look for a close game that goes deep into the fourth quarter, with the Hurricanes getting a key stop on defense to win and improve to 5-0.