by Jeff Ouellet, 10/30/03
Saturday, November 1st, 2003, 7:45
TV: ESPN (national)
Forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):
2003 Miami Preview
Eight days ago, the epicenter of the college football world was Blacksburg, Virginia. Almost everyone conceded that the biggest game of the regular season was on November 1 at Lane Stadium between the unbeaten Miami Hurricanes and the unbeaten Virginia Tech Hokies. Alas, that big game never materialized, as a previously 2-4 West Virginia team took VT behind the woodshed by dominating the Hokies on the field and demoralizing them on the sideline.
There is no rest for the beleaguered, however, as the #2 ranked Hurricanes (7-0, 3-0 Big East) have had an off week to heal up and prepare for the suddenly shaky and tenth ranked Hokies (6-1, 3-1 Big East). Like them or not, Miami is the flagship program for all of college football right now, and this game presents VT with an enormous opportunity to change the national perception of VT as Kansas State North. On the other hand, a bad loss to Miami could send a season filled with great expectations into an all too familiar late season VT fade.
While Miami is still the most talented team in the country, the Canes' season has had a few uneven moments too. Miami needed late rallies to win games against both Florida and West Virginia, and they have shown flashes of inconsistency that have led some to suggest the Canes are vulnerable. They might be, but regardless of the venue it is going to take an incredible effort to beat them.
Miami always has its fair share of weapons, but this offense isnít quite as lethal as it has been in years past. Injuries, inexperience and early NFL defections have taken a toll. Still, it is the most talented offense VT will face this year.
Miami's offense is a pro set that traditionally has fantastic balance. The Canes are averaging 36.1 points and 432 yards per game: 175 of those yards come on the ground, and 257 through the air. They can beat you either way.
The starting quarterback is 6í1", 211 lb. JR Brock Berlin. Berlin is a Florida transfer who has a strong arm and decent footwork in the pocket. His season stats are solid but not overwhelming: a 61% completion rate, 229 yards passing per game, and an overall quarterback efficiency rating of 123. He only has nine touchdowns through the air, and ten interceptions. He has improved of late, but Berlin has a tendency to lock onto his primary receiver and that makes him susceptible to turnovers. He is not a threat to run.
The primary running back is 6í2", 210 lb. SR Jarrett Payton (right). Payton is a solid all around back, but he has neither Willis McGaheeís power nor Frank Goreís explosive ability to cut. Paytonís statistics are good Ė 5.1 per carry and five touchdowns while splitting time Ė but he isnít the threat that Gore was. Payton also has 14 receptions on the year, most of them coming against WVU. Sophomore fullback Quadtrine Hill is undersized (216 lbs.) and doesnít see the ball much (1 carry, 8 receptions).
Miamiís receivers are down this year, relatively speaking. There is no Andre Johnson on this roster. R-FR Ryan Moore is going to be the next big-time guy, as he has size (6í3, 205) and speed, but he still is a little inconsistent. He is the leading receiver among the wide receiver corps with 24 catches and 2 touchdowns. Moore had his best game yet against WVU with 7 catches for 81 yards. VT will try to keep an eye on him. The other starter, SR Kevin Beard, is a solid compliment with 18 catches for 247 yards. SO Roscoe Parrish, all 170 lbs. of him, has returned from a vicious hit against FSU and should resume his spot as the third wide receiver. Another mighty mite, 5í8", 179 lb. Sinorice Moss (Santanaís younger brother) has the speed to go the distance.
Miamiís best offensive player is perhaps the toughest matchup in the country. 6í5", 250 JR tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. is the Canes' leading receiver with 36 catches for 391 yards. He is an amazing athlete with wide receiver speed, hands and body control. He also has improved as a blocker. Winslow got 100 yards against FSUís impressive LB corps (including Michael Bouleware) and WVU. He should also be featured in this game if the going gets tough for the Canes. Winslow will be a top 15 NFL pick if he comes out this year.
Miamiís offensive line is not vintage, but it still is clearly the class of the Big East. 6í7", 307 lb. SO LT Eric Winston came in as a tight end so he has great footwork. It is a matter of time before he blossoms into a high NFL draft choice. Next to him is 6í5", 330 lb. SR Vernon Carey, who already has the undivided attention of NFL scouts. Carey is a road grader inside, and heís probably the best run blocker of all the Canes. He played tackle last year. The center is Joel Rodriguez, a solid type but not in the Brett Romberg class.
JR Chris Myers is the right guard, and he is praised by the UM coaches as the most consistent of all the offensive linemen. He has great technique although perhaps not the athleticism of some of the other Cane linemen. RT Carlos Joseph, brother of first round pick William Joseph, is a senior anchor at right tackle. He also projects as a first day NFL draft pick.
Miami averages 4.9 yards per carry and has only given up 4 sacks on the year. The Hokie front four will have to play its best game yet to handle these guys.
Individually, the talent on Miamiís defense is staggering. They could have four first rounders in next yearís NFL draft. UM has lots of veterans in the back seven, but has some fresh faces up front this year.
6í2", 342 lb. DT Vince Wilfork is the man inside. Wilfork has 5.5 tackles for a loss, is tied for the team lead with 5 sacks and leads the team with 15 quarterback hurries. Thatís a lot for a tackle. He has 30 total tackles on the year. His counterpart inside, SO Orien Harris, is a former blue chip recruit who is just starting to blossom. Harris is going to be a big time player next year for the Canes.
UMís defensive ends are fast and can turn the corner. The best thus far has been 6í4", 255 lb. FR Baraka Atkins who has five quarterback sacks, 12 quarterback hurries, 5 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles. Atkins is a disruptive force, and because of matchups, VT might be forced to man up on him, so he is a player to watch. The other defensive end is 6í5", 230 lb. SO Thomas Carroll who has 26 tackles, two sacks. 2.5 tackles for a loss and 8 quarterback hurries. UM will substitute liberally on the line, so the Canes should be fresh in the fourth quarter.
The linebackers for UM include two legitimate all Big East candidates in seniors Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams. Vilma is a 3 year starter who leads the team with 58 total tackles, but statistics donít tell his story. He is the heartbeat of the defense, and he reads and reacts as well as anyone VT will see. Weakside linebacker Williams is just an amazing athlete, the type that blows scouts away at the combine. He has great speed and despite being 240 lbs. he plays a similar style to former FSU star Derrick Brooks (albeit Brooks has a half step on Williams). Occasionally criticized for inconsistency, Williams has produced regularly this year. The third linebacker is also a senior, Darrell McClover. The threesome is one of the best groups in the country.
6í3", 230 JR Sean Taylor (left) last year was the best defensive player on the Canes. This year he might be the best defensive player in college football. Taylor is huge, hits like a train, runs a 4.4 and is instinctive enough to lead the country in interceptions per game (he has six in six games played). He has 43 tackles, has broken up a team high 12 passes, and has scored two touchdowns. He completely dominated FSU, much like the legendary performance Oklahomaís Roy Williams laid on Texas.
The other safety, Mo Sikes, is a senior leader who could very well win all league honors. Sikes doesnít make many positioning mistakes and is a solid hitter. At corner the best player is 6í1", 200 lb. JR Antrel Rolle who has 27 tackles on the year, and the other starter against VT will be Alfonso Marshall. Marshall, who has two interceptions on the year, splits time with Kelly Jennings, a starter for the Canes for much of last year.
Make no mistake about it, losing this battle will mean that VT loses the war. What makes that proposition so scary is that UM has playmakers everywhere on special teams, despite the fact that they are loaded with freshmen here.
Parrish is ninth nationally, averaging 16.1 yards per return. Give him space and heíll make you miss. On kickoff returns, freshman and former blue chip recruit Devin Hester averages 35.6 per return, while fellow classmate Darnel Jenkins averages 18.3. Hester has taken one to the house already this season. The kickoff return average overall is an impressive 26.6 yards.
UMís punter, Brian Monroe, is another freshman. He only averages 38.5 per kick, but UM nets out at 37 per punt, so the coverage is outstanding. Seven of his 24 kicks have been fair caught. Kicker Jon Peattie is 14-17 and he has hit some big ones including five in the tight win over WVU. Heís on his way to an all league type year.
Yes, Miami is more vulnerable than in the past few seasons. Yes, VT has more raw talent than they probably ever have. But underestimate the Canes at your own peril Ė this team has earned the respect they have been accorded. They just know how to win, even if it takes spectacular plays to get there (Winslowís fourth down catch versus WVU, Berlinís 18-21 for 269 yards in the last quarter and a half to close out Florida).
In my opinion, VT will play much, much better on offense than they did in Morgantown. I think the offense will be able to move the ball fairly effectively. Teams are averaging 3.7 per carry on the ground against UM, not a great statistic but not absurdly low.
As Will Stewart noted early on in his game summaries, Tech QB Randall seems to have an on/off switch this year. I think heíll be on this game. Heíll need to be, as VT will need to throw and convert early to put the Hokies in second and short. A good start is imperative. I also expect to see more option than VT has shown thus far this year. I expect KJ to break 100 yards against the Canes.
On defense, I have serious concerns that VT can hold up against UM. This line is bigger, stronger, more physical and more experienced than WVUís line. Maybe Iím just juxtaposing last yearís late season tissue paper run defense onto this yearís team, but VT needs to prove it can succeed against a smash mouth offensive line.
Strategically, the most interesting matchups will be on the Hokie defense. Do we go nickel and play Green in the slot on Winslow? Or do we stick with Crawford/Manning against Winslow? Do we blitz a lot to make Berlin make quick reads, or do we drop and play zone? My guess is that Bud will play some with three corners and make adjustments for Winslow. I do not think weíll blitz that much, and I donít think we should. One caveat to the stay at home philosophy Ė if true freshman Tyrone Moss is in the game at running back, I think Bud will regularly blitz. Make him prove he understands how to pick it up.
I think the Hokies will make a gallant effort, but I still think they fall short.
Prediction: Miami 37, VT 31
Will Stewart's Take: I'm going to run counter to Jeff and play the part of the homer here, and predict a VT win.
Last year, in the 56-45 loss, the Hokies were facing a Miami Hurricane team that had a world-class offensive line; a seasoned QB with 24 TDs and 9 INTs; a 225-pound stud running back; a defensive line dominated by seniors; and seniors at the kicker and punter positions.
This year, VT will go up against a team with a very good O-line, but not as good as the past two years; a first-time starter at QB who has more interceptions (10) than TD passes (9); a 210-pound senior running back (Jarrett Payton) who is less impressive than the younger injury-racked players that he replaces; a young defensive line that starts a redshirt freshman and two sophomores; and freshmen at the punter and placekicker spots.
The Hurricane teams of 2000-2002 were experienced and intimidating. This Hurricane team is very good, yes, but they can be had. The Hokies are catching them at a good time, in Blacksburg, as they're reloading and working behind a QB who is still developing into the top-notch player that Ken Dorsey was.
They're good, but they're vulnerable, and I think the Hokies sense this. Based on DeAngelo Hall's comments, Tech has been watching some film, and they sense opportunity. And opportunity inspires a team.
(As an aside, Hall talked smack in front of the TV cameras and radio microphones Tuesday, and then was allowed to do it again for the print media Wednesday, during a teleconference "arranged by Tech," according to the linked article -- that sounds fishy to me, almost like it's organized, or part of a strategy. Pre-game smack is not in the VT lexicon, so I wonder Ö )
Look, we know that if VT comes out and plays like they did against Syracuse, they have a very, very good chance to win this ballgame. And I think they will play well, and I think they'll win.
What worries me? The matchup problems caused by Kellen Winslow. VT Whip linebacker Brandon Manning and VT Rover Michael Crawford can't cover Winslow, so Bud Foster will have to cook something up to try to slow down The Chosen One, as he calls himself. But for all his bluster and his big-play ability, Winslow only averages 10.9 yards per catch and only has one TD for the season.
The other matchup that worries me is Bryan Randall against the Miami secondary, in particular free safety Sean Taylor. WVU's Brian King has demonstrated for two years now that a talented, smart safety can cause big trouble for Randall. One would hope that Randall's ON/OFF switch referenced above is full-tilt ON for this game.
After that, it comes down to turnovers and special teams. It has been a long time, 1999 to be exact, since VT had a turnover and special-team advantage on the Canes, and an advantage in one or both of those areas would go a long way to winning this one.
I'm not sure exactly how they're going to do it, but I think the Hokies will do it. And this is coming from a guy who has picked the Canes to beat VT for the last three years.
Will's Prediction: VT 24, Miami 20