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It’s been a long time since Virginia Tech and Miami played a game like this against each other. The Hokies and the Hurricanes hook up each year, and there have been many memorable games. However, this is just the third time in the last decade-plus that both teams come into this matchup ranked.
2010: No. 14 Virginia Tech 31, No. 24 Miami 17
2009: No. 11 Virginia Tech 31, No. 9 Miami 7
2005: No. 3 Virginia Tech 7, No. 5 Miami 27
2004: No. 10 Virginia Tech 16, No. 9 Miami 10
2003: No. 10 Virginia Tech 31, No. 2 Miami 7
2002: No. 18 Virginia Tech 45, No. 1 Miami 56
2001: No. 14 Virginia Tech 24, No. 1 Miami 26
2000: No. 2 Virginia Tech 21, No. 3 Miami 41
1999: No. 2 Virginia Tech 43, No. 19 Miami 10
Every Virginia Tech-Miami game from 1999 through 2005 featured two ranked teams, but that hasn’t been the case very much recently. The Hurricanes settled into a period of mediocre coaching, while Virginia Tech’s program dropped off from 2012-15.
With two new head coaches leading the rivalry, we should see more ranked matchups in the future. Justin Fuente is 17-5 in his short career at Virginia Tech. He won 10 games and the Coastal Division title in his first season. Mark Richt is 16-4 in his first 20 games at Miami, and last season he led the Hurricanes to just their third nine-win season since 2005. This looks to be their first back-to-back nine-win seasons since 2003 and 2004.
This is a big game for both programs. Though Richt has Miami undefeated and ranked in the top 10, and Fuente has worked wonders at Virginia Tech, neither head coach has a big signature win at their new school up to this point.
Miami comes into this game riding high. The Hurricanes lost four consecutive games last October, but they closed the season with five straight wins, and have now won a total of 12 straight football games. Their last two losses came last October to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, who coincidentally happen to be their next two opponents.
Likewise, the Hokies are on a roll, having won 10 of their last 12 games with both losses coming to Clemson. In a battle of two hot, well-coached teams, something has to give on Saturday night.
As you can see, this one seems pretty evenly matched. Both teams have one major advantage each that we’ll get into later in the article.
From Walton to Homer
Arguably Miami’s best offensive player is tailback Mark Walton (5-foot-9, 205 pounds, Jr.). After running for 1,117 yards a year ago, he began the 2017 season by putting up great numbers through the first three-plus games. Against Bethune-Cookman, Toledo and Duke, and through part of the Florida State game, Walton was racking up some impressive numbers:
- 2017 stats: 56 carries, 428 yards, 7.6 ypc, three touchdowns
Unfortunately for Walton, he injured his right ankle against the Seminoles and had to have surgery. He will miss the remainder of the 2017 season, and that’s a big blow for Miami.
Fortunately for Miami, they hired a head coach with a lot of experience getting production out of backup running backs. Richt’s backs had some injury issues during his days at Georgia, but he seemed to always have a backup who was ready to carry the load.
This year’s backup is Travis Homer (5-foot-11, 195 pounds, So.). He has 81 carries for 512 yards (6.3 ypc) and five touchdowns on the season. He was getting plenty of work before Walton went down, but once he became Miami’s primary ball carrier, he rushed for 170 yards against Georgia Tech and 95 yards against Syracuse.
Homer has been a workhorse for Miami by necessity. Besides him, Walton and quarterback Malik Rosier (6-foot-1, 216 pounds, Jr.), no Miami player has more than seven carries on the season. Richt was looking for graduate transfer running backs during the late spring and summer, because he knew he was going to have a depth problem at this important position. In fact, he even put out a personal ad for a graduate transfer back on May 12. Apparently he was unable to find one.
Is Miami’s running game still as good without Walton? Even though Homer has done admirably, the rushing numbers have steadily gone downhill…
Georgia Tech: 36 carries, 184 yards, 5.1 ypc
Syracuse: 32 carries, 136 yards, 4.3 ypc
North Carolina: 32 carries, 59 yards, 1.8 ypc
The North Carolina game was shocking. Not only did the Tar Heels almost beat Miami, but they managed to shut down their running game completely.
On Saturday, they’ll be facing a Virginia Tech defense that ranks No. 12 nationally in S&P+ rushing defense. Bud Foster always looks to shut down the run first, and if he does that successfully on Saturday night, that will put the ball in the hands of quarterback Malik Rosier and the Miami passing game.
Big Plays: Advantage, Miami
The efficiency ratings say that Miami is a big play waiting to happen on offense. Here are the key stats, per Football Study Hall.
Rushing IsoPPP: No. 14
Passing IsoPPP: No. 25
Overall IsoPPP: No. 7
The traditional stats show that Miami has been good when it comes to big plays as well…
Gains of 20-plus yards: No. 27
Gains of 30-plus yards: No. 20
Gains of 40-plus yards: No. 22
The Hurricanes have been terrible on third down this season, as we’ll see later, but they’ve made up for it by hitting big plays down the field.
Meanwhile, if the Virginia Tech defense has had a weakness, it has been allowing big plays. Tech’s last three opponents — Boston College, UNC and Duke — could not sustain drives on the Hokies. Their scores were set up by big plays down the field.
Boston College: The Eagles’ only touchdown drive came late. It was a three-play drive that featured plays of 27, 23 and 25 yards.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels managed only seven points against the Hokies, but it came on a 43-yard catch and run.
Duke: The Blue Devils scored just three points, but that field goal came following a 41-yard pass off a scramble by Daniel Jones.
The Tech defense hasn’t done much wrong all year. Allowing big plays to happen is just about the only way they’ve been scored upon. The traditional stats don’t show it as being a huge issue…
Gains of 20-plus: No. 45
Gains of 30-plus: No. 31
Gains of 40-plus: No. 55
That’s not great, but it’s still above average. However, the advanced stats paint a different picture…
Rushing IsoPPP: No. 43
Passing IsoPPP: No. 125
Overall IsoPPP: No. 101
Obviously that’s not good. The advanced stats are a bit skewed, however. IsoPPP is a measure of how explosive an offense is on successful plays, and opposing offenses just don’t run very many successful plays against the Hokie defense.
Big plays will be critical on Saturday night. If the Hokies can manage to limit Miami’s big plays, then it will be very difficult for the Hurricane offense to drive the length of the field.
Players to watch when it comes to big plays…
Slot receiver Braxton Berrios (5-foot-9, 186 pounds, Sr.): 32 catches, 415 yards, 13 ypc, six touchdowns
WR Ahmonn Richards (6-foot-1, 190 pounds, So.): 14 catches, 284 yards, 20.3 ypc, one touchdown
WR Jeff Thomas (5-foot-10, 175, Fr.): 11 catches, 249 yards, 22.6 ypc, two touchdowns
WR Darrell Langham (6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Jr.): 10 catches, 207 yards, 20.7 ypc, two touchdowns
That’s three players who average over 20 yards per reception, plus a very good player in Braxton Berrios who is a very reliable threat as well.
Third Downs: Advantage, Virginia Tech
Why will it be difficult for Miami to drive the length of the field? Because the Hurricanes are terrible on third down.
Third down conversion percentage: 30.7 percent
National Rank: No. 118
Against only FBS competition, those numbers are even worse…
Third down conversion percentage against FBS teams: 28.75 percent
National Rank: No. 123
The Hurricanes have struggled to sustain drives all season. Their lack of success on third down makes their comeback against Florida State even more unlikely. Miami converted a pair of third and 10 situations before Malik Rosier threw a 23 yard touchdown pass with just six seconds remaining.
Meanwhile, if you have to convert a third down against Virginia Tech’s defense, you’re in a lot of trouble.
Opposing third down conversion rate: 24.03 percent
National rank: No. 3
Against FBS opponents, those numbers are even more impressive.
Opposing FBS third down conversion rate: 23.42 percent
National rank: No. 1
Opposing teams have been unable to run the football on Bud Foster’s defense, averaging just 110.75 yards per game. That ranks No. 13 nationally, and Tech’s S&P+ run defense is No. 12 nationally. If the Hokies can stop the Miami running game, they’ll put the game on Malik Rosier’s shoulders, and he’ll be in long-yardage situations. He only completes 56.7% of his passes, so you have to like Virginia Tech’s chances if they can force Miami into those situations.
Miami’s Sophomore Linebackers
Last season, Miami started three true freshmen at linebacker. In all my years of watching college football, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Those players are now sophomores and much more experienced, though like most teams the Hurricanes generally only play with two linebackers at a time.
The two to keep your eye on are No. 55 Shaquille Quarterman (6-foot-1, 240 pounds, So.) and No. 56 Michael Pinkney (6-foot-1, 228 pounds, So.). Quarterman is second on the team in tackles with 42, and he also has four tackles for loss and two sacks. Pinkney is third with 38 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. The other listed starter is No. 53 Zach McCloud (6-foot-2, 230, So.), though he only has 19 tackles this year.
Those players headline a defense that ranks No. 31 nationally in S&P+ defense this season. This defense has kept Miami in football games while the offense has at times struggled to score points. Last week’s 24-19 win at North Carolina is the perfect example. The Miami offense faltered over and over, at times giving UNC the football around midfield. However, the Hurricane defense stood tall in those situations and forced four Tar Heel turnovers.
Virginia Tech was able to beat this young group of linebackers with misdirection last season, which wasn’t surprising given their experience level. I expect we’ll see more misdirection from the Hokies on Saturday night.
Dominant Pass Defense
Young Virginia Tech offensive players such as Josh Jackson (r-Fr.), Sean Savoy (Fr.), Dalton Keene (Fr.) and Eric Kumah (So.) are going to be in for a challenge this week. Miami has one of the best pass defenses in the country. The stats back up that claim.
Passing Yards Allowed: 197.7 per game, No. 35 nationally
Yards per Attempt: 5.4, No. 3 nationally
Interceptions: 11, No. 11 nationally
Opposing QB rating: 97.9, No. 3 nationally
The advanced stats agree with the traditional stats…
Passing S&P+ defense: No. 25
Passing Success rate defense: No. 16
Passing IsoPPP defense: No. 12
This is a talented, ball-hawking secondary.
Michael Jackson (6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Jr.) leads the team with four interceptions, with all four coming in Miami’s last four games. However, he’s one of many good players in the secondary for Miami, all of whom can be spotted on the sideline wearing the “turnover chain,” which is growing more popular by the week. As a team, Miami has forced 16 turnovers this year, which ranks No. 24 nationally.
Other Miami defensive backs to watch include…
CB Dee Delaney (6-foot-1, 193 pounds, r-Sr.)
CB Malek Young (5-foot-9, 180 pounds, So.
S Jaquan Johnson (5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Jr.)
S Sheldrick Redwine (6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Jr.)
Excellent Punt Returners vs. Even Better Punt Teams
Saturday night’s special teams battle will be very important. We’ve talked at length about what Oscar Bradburn has done this year, but Miami punter Zach Feagles (6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Fr.) and the Hurricane punt team have been just as impressive.
Through seven games, opponents have returned only two punts against Miami for a total of zero yards. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech’s opponents have returned only four punts for a total of four yards. That’s incredible. Believe it or not, there are two other teams who are just as good or better. Toledo has also allowed zero yards on two returns, while Utah has allowed minus-1 yard on just one return.
If that holds up, both teams’ punting games will cancel out two excellent punt returners.
Braxton Berrios: nine returns, 147 yards, 16.3 yards per return
Greg Stroman: 27 returns, 346 yards, 12.8 yards per return, two touchdowns
Stroman has three times as many returns as Berrios, which could mean that Tech’s punt return team is much better at blocking. Stroman leads the nation with 27 returns. If either of those two players manages to break off a good return, it could be the difference in the game. However, the likely scenario is that the punt teams will cancel them out.
Overall, Virginia Tech comes into this game with a special teams S&P+ rating of No. 34, while Miami is No. 54. Those numbers are a bit skewed however, because Tech’s punt return success rate is only No. 54, while Miami ranks No. 5. Success rate can be a deceiving stat when it comes to the return game. A lower percentage of Stroman’s returns might be deemed “unsuccessful,” however his successful returns always generate a big play. Meanwhile, Berrios only has nine returns on the season.
I said in Sunday’s column that I was going to pick Virginia Tech to win this game, and I’m sticking by my guns. I believe Miami will have a difficult time moving the football the length of the field against the Tech defense, and as long as the Hokies don’t sacrifice field position in the hidden yardage game, they’ll have a good night defensively.
Offensively, things will be a little more difficult for the Hokies, who face a solid and talented Miami defense. Their job is to protect the football and not make life difficult for the Tech defense. They don’t have to dominate the game. They just have to take advantage when opportunities present themselves.
Another reason I’m picking the Hokies is that Miami is simply due to lose a football game. The Hurricanes haven’t lost a football game since October 29, 2016. They are good, but they aren’t that good. In 2017, they’ve been living on borrowed time, to a certain extent. Look at their last four games…
24-20 win at FSU: It took a late touchdown pass with six seconds remaining to beat a two-win Florida State team.
25-24 win vs. GT: Miami kicked a last second field goal to beat Georgia Tech…the same Georgia Tech team that is 4-3 with a loss to Tennessee.
27-19 win vs. Syracuse: Four Eric Dungey interceptions doomed Syracuse, who still had a chance to take the lead late in the game.
24-19 win at UNC: The terrible Tar Heels had a great chance to win the football game, but like Syracuse, they turned the ball over four times. That included three interceptions by Larry Fedora’s latest quarterback, Nathan Elliott.
Virginia Tech has only lost six turnovers all season, which is fifth in the country. I don’t see Josh Jackson going to Miami and pulling an Eric Dungey or a Nathan Elliott. Jackson won’t dominate the game, but he’ll protect the football and give his team a chance to win in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Miami 17
Will Stewart’s Take: This one shapes up to be a defensive battle, where turnovers and special teams will play a huge role.
I don’t usually delve into a lot of statistics when making my predictions, but I will this time around, because some of the statistics paint a stark picture.
First, a look at the defenses. Bud Foster’s unit is third in the nation in third down conversion percentage defense, and Miami’s offense is No. 118 in third down conversion percentage offense. If the Hokies can prevent big, explosive plays by the Miami offense and force the ‘Canes to convert third downs and drive the length of the field, Miami is in trouble.
Miami’s defense is third in the nation in tackles for loss (TFL), fourth in sacks and third in pass efficiency defense. If the ‘Canes can get behind the line, make tackles, and force Virginia Tech to play from behind the chains, the Hokies are in trouble. Tech’s receivers have struggled to get separation and make plays, and Josh Jackson isn’t a gifted scrambler, so they’ll be hard pressed to convert long-yardage situations.
Given those defensive stats, neither team can afford to turn it over or play poorly on special teams, or they’ll give the other side a crucial advantage. That’s always true, but with these two defenses, it’s especially true in this game.
Both teams excel in turnover margin per game, especially Miami at No. 6 nationally (plus-1.43), with Virginia Tech No. 19 (plus-0.75).
When it comes to overall special teams efficiency as calculated by Football Outsiders, there’s possible good news for the Hokies. Virginia Tech is ranked No. 9 overall, while Miami is all the way down at No. 110. However, looking at FootballStudyHall.com, Virginia Tech is No. 34 in Special Teams S&P+, while Miami is No. 54, not as big a disparity.
The last piece of the puzzle in hidden yardage is penalties, and the Hokies again have the advantage, in both penalties per game (No. 23 vs. No. 65) and penalty yards per game (No. 22 vs. No. 96).
The key to victory for Virginia Tech is to press their special teams advantage, don’t turn the ball over and play sound defense. Offensively, I think Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen will figure out a way, as Bud Foster puts it, to “manufacture points.”
It’s great that this game has the primetime Saturday slot on ABC. I think this is just the beginning of a return to prominence for both Miami and Virginia Tech, and this is the first of many clashes that will decide the ACC’s Coastal Division championship in the coming years. The ACC has been missing a high-profile Coastal rivalry to match the FSU-Clemson rivalry in the Atlantic, and I think this is it, and it’s just getting started. These two teams are going to play a lot of three and a half hour stomachaches, including this one.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 20, Miami 17
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: Virginia Tech fans are awfully confident about this game.
I’ve been following things on Twitter, Facebook and the TSL message boards. And I don’t believe I’ve seen or talked to a single fan that thinks the Hokies will not win vs. Miami on Saturday.
The confidence is somewhat warranted. Miami has skated by teams in recent weeks, and certainly doesn’t look like the No. 10 team in the country. They’ve played a pretty weak schedule and have had to grind out wins vs. Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Florida State and North Carolina.
Something just seems off with this week. Tech, who stands at 13th in the initial College Football Playoff Rankings, is a road favorite (currently by 2.5 points, according to Vegas Insider) against a team that’s ranked higher, and a team that owns a better record. Huh?
I’m going to pick Virginia Tech to win this game, but very tepidly. The Hokies are the better team according to the MOET (My Own Eye Test), but Tech fans should cool on their confidence a bit. It might not look like they’re very good, but Miami is 7-0 for a reason.
Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, Miami 21