With one month to go in the 2017 college football season, every week is essentially a must-win scenario for each team in the CFB Playoff mix, and that certainly holds true for Saturday night’s game between Miami and Virginia Tech. These two teams sit at the top of the ACC’s Coastal Division, and it’s probably safe to assume the winner of this matchup will play in Charlotte for the conference title in early December.
Second-year coach Justin Fuente has Virginia Tech sitting at 7-1 through eight games and in the mix to repeat as the champion of the Coastal Division. The Hokies started 2017 with a neutral site win over West Virginia and proceeded to win three in a row before stumbling 31-17 to Clemson. However, since the loss to the Tigers, Virginia Tech has defeated its last three opponents – Boston College, North Carolina and Duke – by a combined score of 106-20. As usual in Blacksburg, the defense is among the best in the ACC. Fuente’s background on offense paid big dividends last season, as the Hokies averaged 35 points a game behind quarterback Jerod Evans. Despite Evans’ early departure to the NFL, new starter Josh Jackson has emerged as one of the top freshmen in the nation, guiding this attack to an average of 35.4 points a game.
As Miami fans know all too well, this program joined the ACC in 2004 and still hasn’t won the Coastal Division. However, in coach Mark Richt’s second season, the Hurricanes are a program on the rise and are on the cusp of winning the division. Miami is one of five teams with an unbeaten mark through the first nine weeks of 2017. However, it hasn’t been easy for Richt’s program. The Hurricanes scored on a last-second touchdown to beat Florida State and needed a fourth-down conversion to keep a drive alive to kick the game-winning field goal against Georgia Tech. Additionally, Miami has been sluggish in back-to-back weeks, defeating Syracuse 27-19 and North Carolina 24-19.
Miami holds a 20-14 series edge against Virginia Tech. Each team has claimed two victories over the last four meetings in this series.
Virginia Tech at Miami
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Virginia Tech -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
The Saturday night matchup between the Hokies and Hurricanes in Hard Rock Stadium features two of the ACC’s top quarterbacks. And considering both teams have struggled to establish the run at times, there will be a lot of pressure on both quarterbacks to carry the offense.
Miami’s Malik Rosier inherited big shoes to fill in replacing Brad Kaaya but ranks second in the league by averaging 295.9 passing yards per game. The junior has passed for 2,071 yards and 17 touchdowns on 143 completions and enters Saturday’s game with back-to-back 300-yard efforts through the air. Rosier’s mobility also adds a different dimension to this Miami offense. The junior has 211 yards and two touchdowns on the ground through 69 carries this season. In last week’s win over North Carolina, Rosier suffered a shoulder injury but returned to the game after missing a couple of snaps. The junior hasn’t had any setbacks in recovery and was throwing at practice late in the week.
With running back Mark Walton out for the rest of the year, there’s added pressure on Rosier to carry this attack. The good news? He’s supported by a deep group of receivers. Braxton Berrios (32 catches) has been clutch for the Hurricanes this year, and tight end Christopher Herndon (30 grabs) is another valuable weapon. Freshman Jeff Thomas (11) and Darrell Langham (10) will see plenty of targets, but the name to watch is sophomore Ahmmon Richards. He’s been slowed by a hamstring injury but was one of the top receivers in the ACC last season. How close to 100 percent is Richards for this critical matchup?
On the other sideline, Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson is putting together a standout redshirt freshman campaign. He ranks fifth in the ACC by averaging 254 yards a contest and has passed for 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions. While Jackson is still learning on the job as a freshman, he doesn’t make many mistakes. In addition to the low interception total, Jackson is completing 62.3 percent of his throws. And just like Rosier, Jackson (193 yards) is capable of factoring into the ground attack. His best rushing performance came against West Virginia with 101 yards in the opener.
It’s hard to find a weak link on Miami’s defense. The secondary was a question mark entering 2017 but only one opponent (Toledo) has eclipsed more than 250 passing yards. Can Jackson continue to take care of the ball, make good decisions and connect on the underneath throws, while taking a few shots downfield? When Jackson throws, look for senior Cam Phillips (51 catches) to be targeted early and often. Freshman Sean Savoy is an emerging player in the passing game for Fuente and could become a key part of the gameplan if Miami slides extra coverage to Phillips’ side.
Look for Jackson to see around 10 carries on Saturday night, as his rushing ability is a valuable asset against a standout front seven. He's the catalyst for Virginia Tech's offense and will be tasked with carrying this unit in a tough environment.
2. Establishing the Run
A scan of the ACC stats for 2017 shows Virginia Tech at fifth and Miami at eighth in the ACC in rushing offense. Those totals aren’t bad, but the conference numbers show a better snapshot of these two teams. Through four ACC contests, the Hokies are only averaging 141.8 rushing yards, and the Hurricanes rank 13th with 120.20 per contest. And if those totals didn’t cause concern for both coaching staffs, the average rush for both teams is under four yards per carry.
Virginia Tech utilizes a committee approach on the ground, as six players have at least 35 carries this year. Travon McMillian leads the Hokie backfield with 353 yards, but Deshawn McClease led the team with 75 yards in last week’s win over Duke. Coleman Fox (222), Steven Peoples (140) and Jalen Holston (113) have each factored into the mix at running back, with Jackson also chipping in 67 carries. A potential concern for Virginia Tech’s rushing attack is the health of left tackle Yosuah Nijman. He was injured against the Blue Devils and is listed as day-to-day. If Nijman can’t go, Parker Osterloh would get the start. Even though Miami has allowed 200 or more rushing yards in three out of the last four games, this is the strength of the defense and there’s plenty of speed and athleticism to counter the ground game.
On the Miami sideline, there’s a different reason for the struggles on the ground. Running back Mark Walton – the ACC’s top returning running back for 2017 – suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the win over Florida State. Not only was Walton’s injury a significant blow for the ground game, but Miami isn’t particularly deep at running back. Travis Homer (512 yards) is the go-to option now, with Trayone Gray (42) and DeeJay Dallas (one carry) handling the reserve roles. Homer has showed flashes of promise (170 yards against Georgia Tech) but was held to 95 yards against Syracuse and only rushed for 40 against North Carolina. The Hurricanes need to get Homer on track to keep the offense out of third-and-long situations and reduce the pressure on Rosier. Of course, that’s easier said than done against a Virginia Tech defense ranked No. 1 in the ACC against the run. This will be a good test for Miami's offensive line.
3. Standout Defenses and Turnovers
Points should be hard to come by on Saturday night. Virginia Tech leads the ACC in scoring defense, limiting opponents to just 11.5 points a game. Miami checks in third, holding offenses to 18.7 points a contest. In yards per play, the Hokies (4.41) are second behind Clemson (4.28). Miami is just a step behind Virginia Tech at 4.73 per play. As mentioned previously, both teams are tough against the run. In pass efficiency defense, Miami and Virginia Tech take the top two spots in the ACC.
In addition to suffocating opposing offenses, both defenses do a good job of creating havoc plays and turnovers. Miami has generated 24 sacks and 16 turnovers, while Virginia Tech has 19 sacks and 12 takeaways. Additionally, both defenses have limited the damage on big plays allowed, as the Hurricanes have surrendered just one gain of 50 yards or more in 2017.
Virginia Tech is loaded at all three levels on defense and a handful of players will make an appearance on the postseason All-ACC squad. Tackle Tim Settle leads the team with 9.5 tackles for a loss, and linebackers Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds rank as the top two tacklers and make plays all over the field. The secondary is anchored by standout cornerback Greg Stroman, with safety Terrell Edmunds poised to challenge for All-ACC honors.
Miami’s group isn’t far behind in overall talent up front. End Joe Jackson and tackle Kendrick Norton were popular preseason All-ACC selections in the trenches, and the sophomore trio of Michael Pinckney, Shaquille Quarterman and Zach McCloud continues to impress at linebacker. The biggest concern for coordinator Manny Diaz in the preseason was the secondary. But thanks to a standout pass rush, this unit has allowed only five passing scores in ACC play in 2017.
Considering both offenses enter this matchup with a few question marks and a strong defense to lean on, don’t expect much in the way of points on Saturday night. With that in mind, a factor like turnover margin could decide this game. Miami (+10) and Virginia Tech (+6) are both in the positive but one or two turnovers could prove to be extra costly.
This is essentially a defacto Coastal Division title game. And with both teams ranked inside of the top 15 of the first CFB Playoff poll, every week is a must-win until the end of the year to keep postseason hopes alive. The homefield advantage and experience in close games this year certainly benefit Miami. However, the Hurricanes are likely to run out of good fortune in a close game at some point in 2017. The guess here is Jackson delivers another steady performance for the offense to do just enough, with Virginia Tech’s defense leading the way in a road win for Fuente’s team.