Game Preview: Virginia at #10 Miami

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Miami has held five consecutive opponents to fewer than 100 yards passing and has held six opponents under 100 yards passing so far this season. The ‘Canes have allowed fewer touchdowns than any other team in the nation this season.

The Miami offense ranks 62nd overall, 50th in passing, 63rd in rushing and 42nd in scoring. Quarterback Kyle Wright ranks 31st among NCAA quarterbacks in passing efficiency and has a 17/10 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

The key for the Virginia defense is simple. Limit the effectiveness of Hurricane tight end Greg Olsen, shut down the Miami running attack and hold the ‘Canes to 13 points or less.

How? We’ll tell you inside.

Miami Offense vs. Virginia Defense

Miami typically uses a two-back offense that has great balance between run and pass. The ‘Canes typically run from an I-formation with fullback Quadtrine Hill clearing the way. Virginia’s nose tackles will want to try and take on Hill as he approaches the hole and force Miami’s tailbacks to break off the assigned running lane, freeing the linebackers to close and make the tackle.

The ‘Canes will also deploy an unbalanced three-tight end set by aligning left tackle Eric Winston in the tight end spot beside right tackle Rashad Butler, leaving only the guard and a tight end on the weak side. The third tight end is used in the H-back spot. In this deployment, Miami usually runs to Winston’s side or will put the weakside tight end in play and throw off play-action.

The staple of the Miami offense is the Power-O play, which consists of pulling the off-side guard and running behind him through the B-gap (the gap between the guard and tackle). Kai Parham and Ahmad Brooks must dominate the gaps and try and stretch the running plays wide or, even better, get the tailback in the backfield. The linebackers must stay outside the fullback to contain the B-gap. The linebacker opposite the play must hold his position because there is a possibility the running back may cut back and look for a backside running lane.

Virginia’s corners and outside linebackers will try and quickly close for the tackle. It is essential that the Cavaliers get three and four players to the ball carrier and limit running plays to three yards or less.

Just as the offense needs to be aggressive in its play-calling, so must the defense. Virginia cannot sit back in it basic Cover-2 and expect to keep the Miami receivers contained. The Cavaliers must attack with an aggressive blitzing scheme and trust the corners to handle the ‘Cane receivers man-to-man.

Miami is a big-play, vertical passing offense but also uses a consistent barrage of wide receiver screens and hitches, primarily to the right, especially if the Cavaliers elect to blitz frequently. Georgia Tech had a lot of success blitzing right up the middle. Hill is the primary blitz pickup man and had difficulty handling the big, speedy Tech linebackers. Virginia will need to rely on the outside ‘backers to cover and that means Aaron Clark and Jermaine Dias must do a better job in coverage than they did against the Hokies.

If Virginia stays in its typical Cover-2, I believe the Miami receivers will have a field day. The cover responsibilities in Virginia’s zone take time to pick up and the young defensive backs have had problems with missed reads more than cover ability. Marcus Hamilton has proven he’s up to the task of shutting down an opponent’s prime receiver and Mike Brown has the skills to play man-to-man. Let him do it. The cover responsibilities are clear in man and it minimizes the chance for a mistake. Playing man will free up one of the safeties, likely Byron Glaspy, for run support with the more experienced Tony Franklin held back to provide coverage support in the middle and deep zones.

By blitzing aggressively, Virginia may be able to take advantage of Miami’s tendency to go with the shorter hitch and screen routes when pressured. This will limit the exposure of the corners deep and minimize the speed advantage of the Miami receivers by forcing the Hurricanes away from the big-play post, corner and go routes. It will also mean the outside ‘backers and corners must be solid in the tackling department.

Foremost on the agenda of Virginia defensive coordinator Al Golden is to slow the Miami running game. A key in-game stat to watch in determining if the Cavaliers are on the right track is rushing yards per carry (YPC). During Miami’s inaugural two seasons in the ACC, the ‘Canes have lost five games and one thing is clear: stop the Miami running game and win. In the Hurricanes’ five losses, they have never netted over 101 yards rushing and have averaged just 2.2 YPC. In 2004, Miami lost three games (Clemson, UNC, Virginia Tech) and averaged 2.8 YPC. This season, in losses to FSU and Georgia Tech, the ‘Canes managed 1.5 YPC. Over that same two-year span, Miami averaged 4 YPC in nine 2004 wins and 4.2 YPC this season in eight victories. If the ‘Hoos can hold the Hurricanes to less than 3 YPC, they have a shot.

The question is how.

The ‘Hoos need to flood the box and attack the line of scrimmage with the defensive front and the linebackers, blitzing every run gap. If needed, Virginia needs to rotate Glaspy or Jamaal Jackson to the line of scrimmage and force the ‘Canes to throw the lower-percentage, deep balls. There’s a risk here by exposing the corners but if Virginia can’t stop the Miami running game, how the corners perform will be rendered moot.

Virginia must be physical with the ‘Canes. Miami relies on tremendous athletes and blazing speed to attack its opponents and it usually works. But as Georgia Tech proved, when confronted with a physical, smash-mouth type of gameplan, the Hurricanes struggle. The Yellow Jackets blitzed on virtually every play to stymie Wright. The majority of the sacks were caused by Wright holding onto the ball too long, and Hill’s inability to play with the physicality required to stop the blitzers coming from over center.

If the Cavaliers can contain the running game, Virginia will then need to find a way to limit the effectiveness of Olsen. If the ‘Hoos have success at shutting down Olsen, look for Wright to focus on wide receivers Tye Hill, Sinorice Moss and Ryan Moore on the perimeter. Florida State took away Moore after a long touchdown catch, so Wright went to Olsen, who responded with eight catches for 137 yards. Since then, teams have had success limiting the effectiveness of Miami’s big-play tight end and his best performances have come against the Wake, Temple and Duke defenses. Olsen averaged 2.6 receptions for 31.3 yards and 1.3 scores per game against those opponents while averaging 2 receptions for 27.5 yards and no scores against the rest of the schedule.

One of the additional benefits of an aggressive blitz package is that in certain situations, Olsen is required to forgo his route and remain as part of the protection package. The Yellow Jackets did this frequently and Olsen did not catch a pass against Georgia Tech. If Olsen does release, I’m not sure Virginia will play him man-to-man because that will likely take a linebacker out of the play completely. Look for the ‘Hoos to deploy a combination coverage with a linebacker responsible for Olsen on the underneath routes and the safety to pick up the coverage on the medium-range patterns.

Miami is loaded with playmakers on offense but the ‘Cane passing game, like Olsen, has struggled against better opposition. The Hurricanes have posted three 300-yard passing games but have done so against teams with a combined 5-28 record. In Miami’s other seven games, it has averaged just 185 yards passing compared to the 313 it averaged against Wake, Duke and Temple.

Virginia must overcommit personnel to stopping the run, trust the corners to cover man-to-man, quickly jam Olsen to re-route him, then bracket the Miami tight end with linebackers underneath and a safety in the medium to deep zones and aggressively blitz Wright in obvious passing situations.

Bottom line:

  • Keep the ‘Canes below 3.0 yards per carry rushing
  • Limit the Miami offense to 13 points or less
  • Hold TE Greg Olsen to two or fewer catches, less than 30 yards and no scores

    Virginia Offense vs. Miami Defense

    The Hurricanes are fast and aggressive on defense. If we learned anything last week against Virginia Tech, it is that Virginia has difficulty moving the football with horizontal plays against fast, aggressive defenses. If we learned anything against FSU and Georgia Tech, we learned that when the Cavaliers attack with the short, possession passing game and attack the interior of the defense with the run, they have success against fast, aggressive defenses.

    What does that mean for the offensive gameplan against the Hurricanes?

    It means be highly efficient on first and second down. If the ‘Hoos don’t move the chains on downs one ands two, they likely won’t get it done on third. Miami’s third-down defense ranks third in the country, holding opponents to a 25.9 percent success rate.

    Virginia needs to simplify the offense this week. I don’t mean use simple plays, but reduce the risk factor for the offense by limiting the play-calling to only the most productive plays in the book. As Nick noted in his Keys to the Game, “By this point in the season, opponents know every play that Virginia is going to throw at them.” The key in this game is mix the play-calling rotation and change the look of the play with different formations, motion and a mobile pocket where possible. Review the season and select the most consistent 3-5 yard producing plays in each down and distance situation and limit the offense to these plays. Run them over and over again. The ‘Hoos must produce positive yardage on every play. The goal here must be to secure at least two first downs on every possession. The defense has the task of holding the ‘Canes to 13 points or fewer and that will not happen if it is required to be on the field for 35 minutes and defend short fields. Virginia’s offense must sustain drives and move the ball forward on every play.

    Another way to avoid negative plays is for the line and backs to be at the top of their game in pass protection. Over the last few seasons, Miami has been fairly successful at getting pressure on opposing QBs with its four down linemen. But this season especially, defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has blitzed more, especially with the corners and safeties, and again, as Nick noted, they saw the value of aggressively attacking Hagans a week ago.

    Recognizing where the blitz is coming from and picking up the Hurricane blitzes must be a point of emphasis in preparing for this game. With Virginia’s receivers likely facing man coverage on every play, Virginia can use more maximum protection sets to help Hagans and possibly release Tom Santi and Jonathan Stupar late to the short and medium zones when they read blitz from the defender responsible for covering them.

    Santi is a lot like Greg Olsen in that he has more than adequate speed and can get open in many different areas on the field. Santi’s problem of late has been catching the football. Santi or Stupar will likely get a clean release from the line of scrimmage with the Miami defensive ends focused more on getting to Hagans than jamming the tight ends at the line of scrimmage. If Virginia attacks up and between the seams, where it has been very effective this season, look for Miami to shadow the tight ends with freshman safety standout Kenny Phillips. That would free the linebackers to stop the run and attack Hagans. Shannon can’t take Phillips away from his run responsibilities entirely, but in second- or third-and-long, Phillips may be asked to lock on Santi and Stupar and take them out of the play. If Shannon plays it straight and lets Phillips maintain his normal coverage responsibilities, the Miami safety has superb closing speed and is a ferocious contact player, so the Virginia receivers and ends must hold on to the football.

    In the run game, the ‘Hoos must look to attack the interior of the Miami defense. When they do, the ‘Canes will come. They will align the linebackers short and attack every run gap. They will mix the safety and cornerbacks in the run blitz package. And the ‘Canes have two of the best defensive tackles in the conference in Orien Harris and Baraka Atkins. This will be a huge challenge for Virginia’s young guards. Harris is one of the more effective run stoppers in the league and has the quickness to pressure the quarterback from his tackle position. Don’t be surprised if Ian-Yates Cunningham gets the start at left guard. He is one of Virginia’s best drive blockers and his experience could be a factor against one of the nation’s top interior defensive linemen.

    This strategy also requires that Brad Butler, Brian Barthelmes and D’Brickashaw Ferguson must pull their fellow linemen aside and decide to produce the most physical and nasty offensive line play of the year. They must determine to blow the Miami defense off the line of scrimmage and attack. The backs must be decisive in selecting the gap they want to attack and be determined to grind out positive yardage on every play. Settle for a two-yard gain by hitting the hole quickly and not dance around in the backfield for three or four seconds, waiting for the perfect zone to open. It won’t, not against Miami, and Virginia can’t afford negative plays.

    Hagans must also be a factor in the offense with more designed running plays off the boots and waggles, as well as designed runs from the shotgun and off play-action. Give him the ball and turn him loose. But the Virginia signal-caller must keep in mind that it’s perfectly acceptable to throw the ball away and come back and try it again on the next down. Hagans has to understand that he doesn’t need to make a play every time.

    Don’t look for the ‘Canes to get cute with multiple fronts or fancy zone coverages. If the Miami coaches were smart, they didn’t show their team a tape of the UVa-VT game. Can you say overconfident? But their coaches did see that game and have to believe that their superior athletes can get the job done from Miami’s base 4-3, rotating the safety up to stop the run, attacking the run gaps with the ‘backers and trusting their corners to handle Virginia’s wideouts straight up.

    Bottom line:

  • Score 14 points
  • No three and outs
  • Move the chains and get at least two first downs on every series
  • Good production on first and second down

    Special Teams

    As if Virginia didn’t already have its work cut out, now we find out that Devin Hester will probably be on the field for Saturday’s game in the Orange Bowl. That’s just what the Cavs needed.

    The Virginia kickoff and punt coverage units must be on their games. Miami has come close to breaking some big gains on punts and Hester is just the type of dynamic return specialist who can do it. Virginia leads the conference in touchbacks and kickoff coverage but ranks ninth in net punting. Chris Gould is improving and he’ll need another Virginia Tech-type effort this week.

    One area where the Miami special teams will be tested in on kickoff coverage. Virginia freshman Cedric Peerman is second in the ACC in kickoff returns, averaging 25.6 yards per return. So far this season, Miami has done well covering kicks and punts, currently ranked fourth in the league in both categories.

    Both kickers are solid as Miami’s Jon Peattie and Virginia’s Connor Hughes are very capable with a game on the line.

    Who has The Edge?

    Quarterbacks – Even

    Running Backs – Even

    Wide Receivers & Tight Ends – Miami

    Offensive Line – Even

    Defensive Line – Miami

    Linebackers – Even

    Secondary – Miami

    Special Teams – Virginia

    Coaching – Even

    Absolutes and Desirables

    Absolutes are things UVa must do in the game. Desirables are things we’d like to see from the Cavaliers.


    1) Sustain drives – keep sacks and negative plays to a minimum – This is not the game to put pressure on the offense to execute in difficult down-and-distance situations. This means Hagans must make good decisions and recognize that he doesn’t have to run every time he’s in trouble. Just throw the ball away. It also means a gameplan that does not rely on 1) slow developing plays to the edge and 2) keeps the ball moving forward, even if it’s just for a yard. Simplify the offense to the top four or five plays in each down and distance situation (first and more than 10, first and 10, second and third down with short, medium or long distances) that consistently get 3-5 yards or more (basically 40 plays).

    2) Win the field position, special teams and turnover battles – You rarely see a big underdog pull off an upset without getting a lot of turnovers and winning the special teams battle. That means protecting the football on offense and not giving up a big return or a blocked punt. Over the last two seasons Miami has produced three or more turnovers in nine games and are 9-0 in those contests. Over that same span the ‘Canes are 5-3 when they produce one or no turnovers.

    Chris Gould must continue his fine play from last week with more 40-yard net punts and the kickoff and punt coverage units cannot allow Hester to do the same type of damage Roscoe Parrish did last season in Charlottesville.

    Finally, the offense must do its part as we have mentioned repeatedly, by securing the football, throwing the ball away and not taking big losses on sacks, by sustaining drives to at least the Virginia 35 and not putting the defense in a position to cover short fields.

    3) Be aggressive in the red zone – You won’t rack up a lot of frequent flyer miles if you plan on doing so by visiting the Hurricane red zone. When you do, points against the Miami defense in the red zone come at a premium. As we’ve noted, the ‘Canes are one of the top teams in the country at keeping teams out of the end zone. Virginia cannot settle for Connor Hughes field goals from inside the 20. Inside the red zone, Virginia needs to select its top passing plays against man coverage, move the pocket to get Hagans good vision of the throwing lanes and aggressively try to score. The Cavaliers are not likely to pound the ball down Miami’s throat for 20 yards. It’s the last game of the season and Virginia is 6-4. There is nothing to be gained by playing it safe. If the staff is willing to settle for three if the offense can’t pound the ball, then make the tactical decision to attack and if three aggressive attempts at scoring don’t get the job done, then allow Hughes to boot the automatic three. Don’t lose the red zone by being conservative.


    1) Stop the big play – make the ‘Canes be patient – Miami is, like Virginia Tech, an aggressive team. It’s essentially the culture at the “U” and after the play of the Miami offense a week ago against Georgia Tech, my guess is the ‘Canes will come Saturday wanting to shut up the critics with some lightning. But don’t look for it to come from the running game. Look for Miami to turn the receivers and Wright loose.

    Sinorice Moss has caught three touchdown passes of 50 yards or more and is averaging 50.8 yards on his five touchdown catches this year. Lance Leggett hauled in a 76-yard touchdown against Wake Forest to give Miami four 50-plus touchdown passes this season.

    More than half of Miami’s 33 offensive touchdowns in regulation this season have eaten up less than two minutes on the game clock. The Hurricanes have totaled 18 scoring drives of two minutes or less and 12 scoring drives in a minute or less. A large chunk of these quick-scoring drives came against Duke and Temple. Five of Miami’s seven touchdowns against Wake Forest came on scoring drives of less than two minutes. But that doesn’t mean the ‘Canes can’t strike fast against Virginia and if the defense does give Chris Gorham , Mike Brown and Marcus Hamilton the responsibility of man coverage, the temptation and, more importantly, with young corners, the potential is there.

    Sure tackling is a must and Tony Franklin will need to have his best cover day ever to assist the corners in keeping the Miami receivers in check. The Cavaliers don’t need to worry about making big picks, taking chances and trying to strip the ball. Tackle the receiver, not the ball. Knock the ball out of bounds and live to play again on the next down instead of watcing the receivers run up the sideline after making a bad break trying to make a big play. The Virginia defense doesn’t need its corners to make big plays on Saturday; it needs the corners to stop Miami from doing so.

    2) Limit Miami to offensive scores only – In 2004 the Hurricanes scored non-offensive touchdowns at an alarming rate. For the second straight year the Canes finished the season with 10 non-offensive touchdowns. In 2003, Miami scored 10 touchdowns via non-offensive means (special teams or defense) and one safety. After being held without a non-offensive touchdown in the first five games of 2005, the ‘Canes scored one in three consecutive games. Hester scored on a 48-yard punt return at Temple, Hill blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone against North Carolina, and Kareem Brown recovered a fumble in the end zone against Virginia Tech.

    The ‘Canes have held six opponents to 10 points or less and have not given up more than 20 points in regulation all year. When you remove overtime and points the defense did not allow (returns, safeties, etc.), Miami is yielding just 10.2 points per game. Folks, don’t expect the ‘Hoos to score a lot of points. That’s why the offense and special teams cannot give away points and force the offense to win by trying to keep up with Miami score for score. No one has this season and there’s no reason to expect Virginia will do it.

    3) Play to win – If the ‘Hoos attack the ‘Canes with a creative, attacking offensive plan as they did against Georgia Tech and FSU, and if the defense aggressively goes after the Miami quarterback and Virginia loses 35-10, I’ll be OK with that. If they sit back and play bend-but-don’t-break and run the same, perimeter offensive runs and keep Hagans under center and in the pocket and lose 17-14, I’d say that was a waste. A three-point loss counts the same in the standings as a 25-point loss. It’s Hagans’ last regular-season game. You’ve relied on him all season. So give him the ball and let he and the receivers make plays. Don’t settle for wide screens on third and 13 from the Virginia 46-yard line. Go for it. If you punt, you punt. Better to punt after missing on a 40-yard bomb than getting stuffed for a three-yard loss on a play-it-safe screen pass. The ‘Hoos have nothing to lose in playing to win.


    Greg: Virginia has seen the speed and aggressiveness that Miami is bringing to the party before. The ‘Hoos handled it against Georgia Tech and imploded against it last week against the Hokies. One thing is for sure, after facing the league’s top three defenses over three consecutive weeks, they should know what to expect and hopefully have learned from the mistakes of last week.

    If I were paid $1.7 million to call the plays for this football team, I’d tell my offensive line and my big back Jason Snelling that on the first play we’re going to run right at the ‘Canes. “Line, you’re going to go out there and push that Miami defensive front 2-3 yards off the ball and Snelling, you’re going to put your head down and barrel through those holes and drag a couple of Miami linebackers a few yards down the field with you.” Then I’d line up and do it again. And again. Then, just for fun, I’d let the Miami defense chase Marques Hagans around the field on back-to-back quarterback draws.


    I think it would be fun and I think it would tell Miami this: Yes, we got waxed by Virginia Tech. Sure, we’ve been decimated by injuries and attrition and are starting 28 freshmen. Yes, we are one of worst teams statistically in the ACC. Yes, you have 85 high-school All-Americans on your roster and more speed than Dick Vitale on three gallons of coffee. But we didn’t come down here to be a sacrificial lamb. We came down here to kick your butts. We’re not afraid of that “U” on your helmet or the 38,000 fans who will be in the Orange Bowl.

    I think that’s what it will take. Will the ‘Hoos do it?

    You can’t lose in Florida and against good teams on the road forever. They have to win one of these kind of games sometime, don’t they? Yes, and I want to say I told you so. Virginia will pull out its biggest road win in the Groh era.

    Virginia 17, Miami 13

    John: Greg, it’s not going to happen. But I promise I won’t say I told you so.

    Miami 30, Virginia 10

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