The ACC’s Coastal Division once again features a tight battle at the top, but some clarity in the pecking order could be established by Thursday night, as Virginia Tech hosts Miami in a critical game for positioning and division title hopes. The Hokies are one of four teams with one loss in conference play after seven weeks of action, while the Hurricanes are 1-2 after a defeat versus North Carolina last Saturday. A loss by Virginia Tech wouldn’t be a knockout blow to its division title hopes, but there’s more urgency for Miami after losses against North Carolina and Florida State. If the Hurricanes lose this one, rallying from three losses in league play and not owning the tiebreaker edge against two contenders would be difficult to overcome.
Both teams entered the 2016 season with optimism and a fresh start under new coaching staffs. And as expected, both coaches have provided a first-year bump for their programs and have a bright long-term outlook in the ACC.
Replacing a legend in Frank Beamer wasn’t easy, but Justin Fuente has clearly made an impact in his first year on the sidelines in Blacksburg. The Hokies opened the season with a win over Liberty, followed by a loss against Tennessee at Bristol. However, Virginia Tech rallied with three impressive wins, including a 34-3 trouncing of North Carolina. A 31-17 loss at Syracuse last Saturday was a setback, but the Hokies may have been caught peeking ahead to this showdown with the Hurricanes on Thursday night.
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Mark Richt returned to his alma mater tasked with a simple goal: Get Miami back in contention for championships. It’s no secret and probably a tired storyline in Coral Gables, but the Hurricanes are still looking for their first appearance in the ACC Championship Game. Even if Richt doesn’t elevate this program to a division title, there are plenty of positive signs. A much-needed indoor practice facility is on the way, recruiting is going well, and Miami lost to Florida State and North Carolina by a combined eight points. With the depth chart featuring a host of underclassmen, Richt’s team could be positioned for an even better year in 2017.
Miami holds a 20-13 edge in the overall series against Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes have won the last two matchups against the Hokies, including a 30-6 blowout in Blacksburg in 2014. However, prior to 2014-15, Virginia Tech won six of the previous eight games (2006-12).
Miami at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Virginia Tech -6
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Two of the ACC’s best quarterbacks will be on display on Thursday night. While Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson are the class of the league for All-ACC honors, Miami’s Brad Kaaya and Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans team with North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Syracuse’s Eric Dungey and Florida State’s Deondre Francois to headline the next tier (and a deep group) of signal-callers.
Richt handles the play-calling duties for Miami, and his arrival in Coral Gables was a huge boost for Kaaya. The junior has passed for 1,373 yards and 10 scores, while completing 62 percent of his passes through six games. Kaaya was banged up in the loss to Florida State on Oct. 8 and posted his lowest completion percentage (51.6) of the year in last week’s defeat to North Carolina. Even if Kaaya’s shoulder is bothering him, the junior is still going to present problems for a Virginia Tech secondary that surrendered 405 passing yards against Syracuse. Can Kaaya replicate some of the success Syracuse had with quick throws to the outside to get the ball in the hands of playmakers in space?
On the other sideline, Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans is thriving in his first year at the FBS level. The junior college recruit won the starting job over Brenden Motley in the offseason and has passed for 1,352 yards and 17 scores in six contests. Additionally, Evans has tossed only two picks on 153 attempts and completes 62.7 percent of his throws. But that’s not all Evans brings to the table. The junior has good mobility (319 yards) and averages 12 carries per game. In last week’s game against North Carolina, Miami allowed Mitch Trubisky to rush for 47 yards. Considering Evans is a better runner, containing the junior quarterback on the ground will be an even bigger challenge on Thursday night. Will Evans continue to make plays on the ground and mistake-free football through the air?
2. Defense and Key Injuries Facing Both Teams
Evans and Kaaya are going to make their share of plays on Thursday night, but both quarterbacks face tough assignments against two of the ACC’s top defenses. Miami ranks second in yards per play allowed, limiting opponents to 4.2 per snap. Virginia Tech is just a spot behind at 4.2 per play and leads all defenses (conference-only games) by holding opponents to 11.3 points per game.
It’s tough to identify a weakness for either team, but there are signs of concern or areas that could be exploited. The Hokies allowed 5.6 yards per play to Syracuse last week and surrendered 6.4 to East Carolina in late September. The secondary has been prone to giving up a few big plays, ranking ninth in the ACC with five passing plays of 40 yards or more allowed. Additionally, the pass rush has been inconsistent (12 sacks) and two starters on the defensive line – Ken Ekanem and Nigel Williams – are questionable due to injuries. Miami’s offensive line has struggled over the last two games, so the availability of Ekanem and Williams is a key storyline to watch. If Ekanem and Williams are out, that’s a huge loss against a Miami team averaging 5.7 yards per rush. The gameplan for Virginia Tech is likely to aim to stop running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby, forcing Kaaya to take to the air on third-and-long situations.
Similar to Virginia Tech, Miami is also facing its share of injury concerns on the defensive line. End Chad Thomas is listed as questionable, with Demetrius Jackson already ruled out with a lower extremity injury. Depth is already a concern here for coordinator Manny Diaz, as Gerald Willis and Scott Patchan did not play against North Carolina and are ruled out for Thursday night’s matchup. Even if Thomas plays, freshman Joe Jackson and junior Trent Harris will be tasked with a bigger role on Thursday night. Overcoming injuries and depth has been a season-long theme for Miami’s defense. The Hurricanes have three freshmen starters at linebacker, yet rank fifth in the ACC in points allowed per game (20.3). Will the depth concerns finally catch up to this group against Virginia Tech on Thursday night? Or will Diaz’s group continue to wreak havoc around the line of scrimmage (19 sacks) and limit the big plays generated by Virginia Tech?
3. Virginia Tech WR Isaiah Ford vs. Miami CB Corn Elder
These two players may not be locked into one-on-one battles all night, but Ford and Elder are two of the best in the ACC at their respective positions. Ford was the only ACC receiver to eclipse 1,000 yards last season and is off to another solid start in 2016 (32 catches for 459 yards and five scores). Elder is the anchor for a Miami secondary ranked third in the ACC in pass efficiency defense, and the senior has recorded 35 tackles (3.5 for a loss), one interception and five pass breakups in six games this year. If Elder matches up with Ford, Evans isn’t hurting for other options to target, as wide receiver/tight end Bucky Hodges and Cam Phillips have combined for 38 catches. How Diaz decides to deploy Elder and which player wins any one-on-one battles is an underrated storyline to watch on Thursday night.
Outside of the opening week, the Thursday night slate of games in 2016 hasn’t produced many memorable or interesting matchups so far. However, that could change this week with the Hurricanes and Hokies meeting in Blacksburg on Thursday night. This is a must-win game for Miami to keep its Coastal Division title hopes alive, while Virginia Tech needs a victory to stay ahead of North Carolina. On paper, the two teams are relatively even and feature outstanding quarterbacks. However, the Hokies have played a tougher schedule, and the homefield advantage in Lane Stadium should be a factor. Expect a close game, with Evans and Ford connecting on a few key plays in the second half, while the defense gets just enough pressure on Kaaya to seal the victory.