Three-List Game Preview: Virginia Hosts Miami Under The Lights

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The University of Virginia football program seeks to rebound from its second loss of the 2018 campaign when it hosts No. 16 Miami, which comes to Charlottesville fresh off an emotion-filled come-from-behind victory over arch-rival Florida State.

Kickoff between the Hoos and the Hurricanes is 7 p.m. and the game will be televised by ESPN2.

While Miami is coming off an intense win over FSU, Virginia is coming off a bye week. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall says his team is “angry” following the September 29 loss at NC State, which handed the Hoos their first ACC loss and second loss overall this season.

The Cavaliers (3-2, 1-1) led the Wolfpack 7-3 after one quarter of play only to find themselves trailing 27-7 halfway through the third quarter. UVA surrendered 10 points to the Wolfpack in the final minute of the first half, turning a potential 3-point halftime deficit into 13. The Hoos had opportunities to make the second-half very interesting but couldn’t capitalize on the opportunities.

Dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins, running back Jordan Ellis, and wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Hasise Dubois are proven playmakers for a Cavalier offense averaging 30.2 points and 418 yards (226.2 yards passing, 191.8 yards rushing) per game. Virginia is still looking for more playmakers to step up consistently as well as consistent play from its offensive line.

Virginia’s defense is surrendering 324.6 yards per contest, including 198.4 yards passing and 126.2 yards rushing. The Cavaliers have forced eight turnovers, including five interceptions. What the Hoos haven’t done consistently is pressure the quarterback, totaling only nine sacks in five games. UVA will once again be without one of its most dynamic players, inside linebacker Jordan Mack, whose speed is a huge asset in the pass rush, in coverage, and against the run.

While the Hoos are razor thin at inside linebacker, the bye week did help Miami native Brenton Nelson, who appears set to return. The speedy safety missed the entire second-half of the NC State game after suffering a concussion in the first half.

Miami enters Scott Stadium boasting five straight wins and one of the nation’s top defensive units. Manny Diaz’ defense, which features big-time playmakers at all three levels, is yielding only 237.3 yards of offense (137.3 passing, 100 rushing) and 18.5 points per game. While Virginia is averaging 5.2 yards per rush, Miami is allowing only 2.7 yards per carry. The Hurricane pass-rush is fierce as well, totaling 20 sacks through six games.

Additionally, opponents have turned the ball over 16 times and are converting just 20% of third downs against Miami.

Leading the Hurricane offense is redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry, who, like Perkins, is a threat as a runner and a passer. The 6’4” Perry took the reigns as Miami’s starter from senior Malik Rosier after three games, and he has thrown eight touchdowns and two interceptions in the games since. He threw for four touchdowns – three in the second half – while leading his team to a comeback win last week against Florida State.

Miami will look to take the pressure off Perry with a rushing attack that is averaging 194.8 yards per game. Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas spearhead the Hurricane ground game. The duo has combined for 803 yards rushing and three scores to date.

Miami is 2-0 against Virginia since Richt and Mendenhall took over their respective programs. Miami has won three consecutive games in the series. The Hoos have won three of their last four home games against the Hurricanes, including a 30-13 victory in 2014.

Virginia Football Essentials

Three Big Questions

1. Is Virginia’s offensive line up to the task?

During his weekly Monday press conference, Coach Mendenhall admitted Virginia’s offensive line unit remains “a work in progress. Shows up on film and shows up every week. It’s still the position that we’re not deep enough and building as fast as we can. We’re still considering grad transfers and all other possibilities to build that unit. It’s the foundation of our offense, so it’s still at risk. It’s still a work in proceeding. It’s not stable. It’s not deep. It’s inconsistent. But there are glimpses and there are signs that we’re playing at a higher level there that than we have been. But it’s slow and steady and methodical in the improvement we’re making.”

Virginia’s offensive line issues are exposed when the Hoos take on tougher competition. NC State’s defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage for most of its win over the Cavaliers. Miami, which is allowing just 2.7 yards per carry and 100 yards rushing per game, boasts the most talented defensive front (line plus linebackers) the Hoos will face the entire season. The Cavalier offensive line will need to open holes for Jordan Ellis up the middle, and give Bryce Perkins time to throw. It’s unrealistic to think Virginia will be able to dominate against such a disruptive front, but it has to play better and more consistent than it has in any game up to this point.

2. Is the Virginia defensive front up to the task?

Attrition and injuries have Virginia made young and thin on its defensive front, which has had its moments but has been inconsistent. The Cavaliers need to make Miami one dimensional, which means maintaining gap integrity and shutting down Miami’s running attack. If the Hurricanes can get going on the ground the way NC State and Indiana were able to, Saturday night will probably be a long one for the Hoos.

The first step is stopping the run and putting the game in the hands of redshirt freshman quarterback N’Kosi Perry. The second is getting consistent pressure on Perry, who was sacked five times last week against Florida State. He threw four touchdown passes but completed only 13-of-32 passes (40.6%) against the Seminoles, who put consistent pressure on the talented young signal caller. Virginia is only averaging only 1.8 sacks per game, though, so the Hoos will have to ramp up the pressure.

3. Will Miami have a post-FSU letdown?

Miami is 1-1 in its first two seasons under Richt in games that follow the annual battle with arch-rival Florida State. The Seminoles defeated the Hurricanes, 20-19, in 2016, and Miami followed that up with a home loss to North Carolina. In fact, the Hurricanes lost three straight contests following the FSU matchup that season.

Last year, Miami dispatched FSU, 24-20, in Tallahassee before returning home for a matchup with Georgia Tech the following week. Thanks to a Michael Bagley field goal with four seconds on the clock, Richt’s squad squeaked out a 25-24 win over the Yellow Jackets.

After last week’s come-from-behind win over its rival, will Miami be able to keep its focus throughout against the Hoos? That’s a concern of Richt, who sounds like he is expecting a close one in Charlottesville.

“We have got a great challenge ahead of us,” he said. “We’re going into their house. It’s going to be at night. Their fans will be riled up, I’m sure. They’ll be well-rested, because they had an open date. We had an emotional ballgame and had to turn around pretty quick to get ready for this. Hopefully that won’t come into play by the end of it.”

Three Big Foes

1. Running backs Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas.

Homer and Dallas are tough, rugged runners. Think Jordan Ellis in terms of determination and effort, but with a bit more pop athletically.

Homer, who measures in at 5’11”, 205 pounds, rushed for almost 100 yards and scored a touchdown last year against Virginia. The standout junior has rushed for 434 yards and a touchdown this season, averaging 72.3 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry.

Dallas is a bigger back at 220 pounds (he is listed as being 5’10’). He has amassed 369 yards and two touchdowns in the 2018 campaign, averaging 61.5 yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry.

2. Defensive tackle Gerald Willis III.

The anchor of Miami’s defensive line, 6’4”, 300-pound redshirt senior Gerald Willis III has totaled 28 tackles (17 solo efforts) with 12.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He was productive in Miami’s toughest games to date, tallying eight tackles including four tackles for loss versus LSU and five tackles with two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery versus FSU. The experienced and talented big man has played consistent football all season long and figures to give Virginia fits in the middle.

3. Defensive back Jaquan Johnson

Virginia knows the 2017 All ACC Second-Team performer quite well, as he racked up nine tackles with one sack and a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown in last year’s matchup. Johnson is a big hitter, a ball hawk (four interceptions last season), and Miami’s leading tackler this season despite missing two games due to injury. He has 32 tackles this season, two more than star linebacker Shaq Quarterman.

Three Trends To Watch

1. The “Turnover Chain” is appearing often

The Miami defense has been able to showcase its “turnover chain” 14 times (eight interceptions, six fumble recoveries) in six games. As Coach Mendenhall noted earlier this week, the Hurricanes feed off turnovers. Not only does it get the defense rolling, but the Miami offense takes advantage of those turnovers. The Hurricanes have totaled 69 points off turnovers, good for an average of 11.5 points per game.

Taking care of the ball is a must in any game, but particularly in this game for Virginia, which has turned the ball over eight times in five games.

2. Zaccheaus and Dubois are Virginia’s top receivers … and it’s not even close

Senior Olamide Zaccheaus (33) and junior Hasise Dubois (22) have combined for 55 of Virginia’s 88 receptions. That’s almost 63% of the team’s catches. No other receiver even has double-digit receptions at this point in the season … wide receiver Joe Reed has nine while tight end Evan Butts has eight.

The production Virginia has received from OZ and Dubios are important. The duo will be counted upon to continue to produce the rest of the season. However, as has been mentioned in the past few weeks, more playmakers need to produce in the Cavalier receiving game. Whether it’s Reed or Butts or true freshman Tavares Kelly, Virginia continues to look for that consistent third option in the passing game. Two won’t be enough, especially against a team like Miami.

3. Winning the “50/50” battle

When it comes to defending the “50/50” passes, Coach Mendenhall believes his defense is winning about 49% of those battles. NC State hurt the Cavaliers several times with completions where the defender was in good position but just didn’t make the play. The Cavaliers need to win more of those battles and turn that number around, and Miami would be a great time to start.

Hey, Remember When …

Virginia last beat Miami? The win came in Scott Stadium in 2014. A spectacular touchdown catch by wide receiver Canaan Severin was among the Cavalier highlights, as Virginia took down Miami 30-13.

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