An old Big East rivalry will be renewed on Dec. 28 in the Russell Athletic Bowl, as West Virginia meets Miami for the first time since 2003. It’s always tough to put too much stock in bowl games, but motivation shouldn’t be an issue for either team. The Mountaineers won 10 games for the second time under coach Dana Holgorsen and a victory over the Hurricanes would give this program 11 wins for the first time since 2007. On the other sideline, Miami ended the regular season with a four-game winning streak and a victory over the Mountaineers would add to the momentum this program has established under new coach Mark Richt.
West Virginia entered the season with a little uncertainty surrounding the program but ended 2016 with momentum on its side. Holgorsen’s contract and long-term future was uncertain after an extension wasn’t finalized in the offseason. However, the Mountaineers (and Holgorsen) answered any doubts about this program with a 6-0 start and finished 10-2. West Virginia’s only losses came against Oklahoma (56-28) and at Oklahoma State (37-20). A balanced attack led the way on offense, while a rebuilt defense thrived under coordinator Tony Gibson, limiting Big 12 opponents to just 24.1 points a game.
It’s no secret Miami is still looking for its first Coastal Division title and an appearance in the ACC Championship Game, but this program took a big step forward with the addition of Richt. The former Hurricane quarterback arrived in Coral Gables after a lengthy stint at Georgia and guided Miami to an 8-4 mark this fall. The Hurricanes started the year 4-0 and ended the season on a four-game winning streak. A four-game losing skid in the middle of the year prevented a run at the Coastal Division title, but Richt’s team lost three of those games by a touchdown or less. With a majority of the depth chart likely to return in 2017, Miami could start the year as the favorite to win the Coastal. Of course, that depends on a return to Coral Gables by junior quarterback Brad Kaaya.
These two teams met every year from 1991-03 as members of the Big East Conference. During that span, Miami won 11 of 13 matchups against West Virginia. The Mountaineers defeated the Hurricanes in 1993 and again in 1997 as conference foes. In the all-time series, Miami holds a 16-3 edge over West Virginia. The Mountaineers are 15-19 in 34 bowl appearances. The Hurricanes are 18-18 in 36 bowl trips.
West Virginia vs. Miami (Russell Athletic Bowl)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 5:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Miami -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Battle in the Trenches
Even though West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is a disciple of the Air Raid offense, he doesn’t lean on a one-dimensional approach. Instead, the Mountaineers are one of the better running teams in the Big 12. West Virginia averaged 239.5 rushing yards per game in 2016 and surrendered only 21 sacks. The line is the strength of the offense, and this unit is headlined by center Tyler Orlosky (an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2016) and guard Kyle Bosch. Three running backs have received significant playing time out of the backfield for Holgorsen, with Justin Crawford (1,168 yards) leading the team. Rushel Shell (514 yards) was off to a fast start this fall but injuries limited his production over the second half of 2016. Promising freshman Kennedy McKoy (466 yards) is another intriguing option and a rising star to watch over the next couple of years. The match up of West Virginia’s line against Miami’s active front seven is going to play a key role in determining which team wins this game. The Hurricanes have three freshmen starters that have learned on the job at linebacker this year, while the line is anchored by freshman Joe Jackson and tackle Kendrick Norton. Despite the youth at linebacker and the preseason loss of end Al-Quadin Muhammad, Miami ranked third in the ACC by generating 99 tackles for a loss. This unit finished seventh in the ACC against the run but allowed only eight scores on the ground. Can the Hurricanes win the battle up front against West Virginia’s standout line to generate pressure on quarterback Skyler Howard and keep the ground game in check? Or will the Mountaineers prevent the negative plays to keep the offense out of long-yardage situations?
Miami’s offensive line hasn’t been as strong as the West Virginia unit this season, but the front five has held its own for Richt. The Hurricanes surrendered 24 sacks and led the way for rushers to average 4.7 yards per carry. Injuries hit this group hard, as three starters – Trevor Darling, Sunny Odogwu and Nick Linder – have missed time and forced the coaching staff to shuffle the front five. Running back Mark Walton (1,065 yards) leads the team on the ground and the revamped line will have a chance to clear lanes against a West Virginia defense giving up 175.5 rushing yards per game. The Mountaineers use a 3-3-5 approach on defense and gave up at least 190 rushing yards in each of the last four games. In addition to testing the run defense, protecting quarterback Brad Kaaya is a must. West Virginia only generated 22 sacks this fall but led the Big 12 by limiting opponents to 24 plays of 30 yards or more.
2. The Quarterbacks
There’s an interesting contrast in quarterback play set to unfold in this matchup. Miami’s Brad Kaaya and West Virginia’s Skyler Howard aren’t drastically different in terms of style, but these two players took an opposite path to starting and the recruiting hype/NFL Draft scouting for both is significantly different.
West Virginia’s Skyler Howard wasn’t the biggest catch on the recruiting trail out of the JUCO ranks, but he’s posted back-to-back solid seasons in Morgantown. After throwing for 3,145 yards and 26 touchdowns last year, Howard ended 2016 with 3,194 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. The senior isn’t the biggest quarterback (6-foot) but provides a threat to run (400 yards and nine scores). Additionally, Howard isn’t on the draft radar for scouts like Miami’s Brad Kaaya. However, Howard has settled in this season and has a talented group of receivers at his disposal to test a secondary that ranked third in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. Shelton Gibson (40 catches) is the big-play threat on the outside, while Daikiel Shorts (58 catches) and Jovon Durante (32) are two other capable targets.
Since he stepped onto campus in 2014, Kaaya has been the starter for Miami. And the junior has been one of the biggest beneficiaries from the coaching change, as Richt is an accomplished play-caller and has plenty of experience in developing quarterbacks. Kaaya threw for 3,250 yards and 23 scores this season and guided the offense to an average of 34.6 points a game – the highest mark over the last nine years. It’s no secret Kaaya has a big decision to make after this game. The junior is considered one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft and could leave campus a year early. However, before Kaaya can decide on the next level, he will have to face an athletic (and active) West Virginia secondary. The Mountaineers led the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and limited opponents to 17 passing scores. Cornerback Rasul Douglas is one of the best cover men in the nation and intercepted eight passes this fall. Kaaya doesn’t have a deep group of receivers at his disposal but freshman Ahmmon Richards and tight end David Njoku will be a tough matchup for the Mountaineers.
Kaaya is the heralded NFL Draft prospect and a one of the nation’s most-talented passers. West Virginia’s defense may bend a little but will tighten in the red zone and on third downs. Can Kaaya keep the offense moving while also landing a couple of big plays? On the other sideline, Howard was the unheralded prospect who has turned in two solid seasons with the Mountaineers. Miami’s fast and athletic defense can generate pressure in the pocket, which could be problematic for Howard (24 career interceptions).
3. The Turnover Battle
Both teams finished on the positive side of turnover margin in 2016. Miami tied for 14th nationally at plus-eight, while West Virginia tied for 31st nationally at plus-five. There was a slight difference in the math at how both teams reached that total. The Hurricanes were better at taking care of the ball (only 10 turnovers lost), while the Mountaineers specialized in takeaways (25) after giving up 20. And in West Virginia’s two losses, this team posted a minus-six margin. With a close game expected, this area should play a key role in the outcome. Can West Virginia continue to generate takeaways while limiting mistakes against an aggressive front seven? Or will the Hurricanes take care of the ball and force Howard into a couple of interceptions?
Not much separates these two teams. Miami has the edge at quarterback, but West Virginia is deeper at running back and receiver and possesses the better offensive line. On defense, the Hurricanes limit opponents to 4.8 yards per play, while the Mountaineers hold offenses to 5.6 in the wide-open Big 12. West Virginia may give up some yards to Kaaya, but this unit gets timely stops and holds in the red zone and on third downs. This one is tough to call. However, the guess here is Kaaya outduels Howard, and Miami’s defense forces a late takeaway to seal the victory.