One for the Thumb
Finally, after months of waiting, itís show time. Time for the Hokies and Canes to settle this thing Ö for this year, anyway.
Miami comes into this game on a bit of a roll, with three straight wins by increasing margins of victory. The Hokies come into the game arguably on a bit of a downward turn, still undefeated, but winning by decreasing margins of victory, and last week struggling to beat a WVU team that many thought would not give them much of a fight.
In addition, the pressure of national attention is building to a fever pitch for the Hokies, who are used to toiling in relative obscurity in Blacksburg. All week long, since the BCS rankings came out on Monday with Tech a somewhat surprising third (thanks primarily to the volatile Dunkel Index), the focus has very much been on the rankings, not on the Miami Hurricanes.
To top it all off, ESPN GameDay is making an unusual, maybe even unprecedented, return trip to a college campus, coming back to Blacksburg for this one after being here in October for the Syracuse game.
This season, the Hokies have broken their practice huddles to shouts of "Win Number 1!" or "Win Number 6!" or whatever (just substitute the victory number of this weekís team, should the Hokies triumph).
Well, itís time to put away the numbers, and time to stop depersonalizing the opponent, and time to stop yammering about what a bunch of computers are doing. Itís not time to play #8 in the hopes of getting to #2 in the BCS.
Itís time to put that stuff aside, and itís time to play the Miami Hurricanes for the Big East Championship.
This game has produced some thrillers in recent years, and thereís no doubt that a four-game losing streak to the Hokies is stuck pretty hard and large in the Canes craw. The question is, can they do anything about it, or are they doomed to another year, and another loss to the Hokies?
Miami's Year Thus FarAug. 29 Miami 23, Ohio State 12
Sept. 4 Miami 57, Florida A&M 3
Sept. 18 Penn State 27, Miami (Fla.) 23
Sept. 25 East Carolina 27, Miami (Fla.) 23
Oct. 9 Florida State 31, Miami (Fla.) 21
Oct. 16 Miami vs. Temple postponed
Oct. 23 Miami 31, Boston College 28
Oct. 30 Miami, 28, West Virginia 20
Nov. 6 Miami 33, Pittsburgh 3
Miamiís victory over Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic was the perfect, uh, kickoff to this yearís edition of "The Canes are Back." Certainly, OSU is never a pushover, but most observers agreed that Ohio State is down this year and didnít play an impressive game in this one. For the Canes part, it was everyoneís first look at quarterback Kenny Kelly, who fared well statistically (17 of 25 for 245 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTís) but was bailed out a couple of times on poor throws when his wideouts, Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss, came back to catch the pass. At the time, the Canes were ranked #12 and the Buckeyes were ranked #9, so there was much celebrating in Miami.
The next Saturday, the Canes commenced their annual whipping of Florida A&M, 57-3.
After taking a week off, Miami came within a play of defeating #3 (at the time) Penn State. Leading 23-20, the Canes gave up a 79-yard TD reception to Penn Stateís Chafie Fields with under two minutes remaining. That single play derailed what was turning into a very promising season for Miami. Statistically, the Canes battled the Nitanny Lions pretty much even-up Ö except Kenny Kelly continued his unimpressive performance, throwing four interceptions.
If the Penn State game derailed Miamiís season, then the ECU game blew it up completely. The Canes rolled to a 23-3 lead early in the third quarter, but then forgot to take care of business, and the Pirates stormed back for an emotional and inspiring 27-23 victory. The Canes lost primarily because they quit tackling. The play of their defense in the last two quarters was atrocious, and after ECU went ahead with five minutes to play, Kenny Kelly misfired on several easy passes, and the Canes were unable to come back for the win. East Carolina rolled up 450 yards of offense and had their way when they needed to.
The next week, the Canes succumbed to Florida State, as expected, but they played fairly well and were tied 21-21 at the half. FSUís superior depth and talent took over in the end for the 31-21 victory. To his credit, Kelly played well on enemy turf, turning in an impressive 27-41, 370-yard performance.
The next week, Miami reached the low point of their entire season with 6:18 to go in the third quarter of their game with Boston College. Thatís the point at which Miami trailed 28-0. They were 2-3 and staring down the barrel of a MISERABLE season.
Since then, Miami has outscored their opponents 92-23, including a 31-0 run to beat Boston College. They toyed around with the idea of losing to WVU, but decided in the end to turn a 13-0 half time deficit into a 28-20 win. After that, they pasted a Pittsburgh team that was missing starting QB David Priestley easily, 33-3.
Summing it Up
You canít sum up Miamiís season. As one message board poster said the other day, "The entire team is an enigma."
Sometimes good, sometimes awful, but rarely (if ever) dominating, Miami is hard to figure out. They received a tremendous amount of preseason hype and were picked to finish first in the Big East, but with the exception of the Ohio State game, their season has been one of disappointment.
If they were truly "that good," then they could have beaten Penn State, they should have beaten ECU, and they shouldnít have struggled with Boston College.
The mercurial Kenny Kelly is a perfect reflection of this team. A minor league baseball player in the summer, Kelly often throws the football like a baseball player, and thatís not a good thing. He has struggled at times and has looked great at others, much like his team.
The bad news for Tech is that a Miami team that is finally winning ball games and playing well, and which has nothing to lose and much to gain, will show up in Lane Stadium on Saturday night. Despite all the pitfalls of their season, through all the losses, the Canes could still cling to the thought of their November showdown with the Hokies, and a Big East championship still waiting to be won. The Tech game is all theyíve got left, and itís finally here.
Hereís a rundown of how the Canes fare statistically:
From a team standpoint, nothing about the Canes really stands out. They're pretty solid all around, and the most notable statistic is probably the 110 rushing yards a game that their defense allows. That's a pretty impressive statistic, and it has to draw the attention of a Hokie team that hasn't run the ball well up the middle in the last two games. It becomes even more of a concern when you consider that Miami's defensive tackles are the strength of their defensive line.
For comparison purposes, the Hokies are 1st in the conference in rushing offense (245.6 yds/game), total offense (438.13 yds/game), scoring offense (39.0 points/game), rushing defense (66.3 yds/game), total defense (233.5 yds/game), and scoring defense (10.6 points/game).
Notable Individual Statistics
Kelly vs. Vick -- sure, they don't actually to up against each other, but this is a key matchup. Kelly is inconsistent and tends to throw more interceptions, and Vick has a better pure passing motion. Other than that, the two QB's are comparable.
Where Vick excels over Kelly is in his ability to come through late in the game, in clutch situations. With Tech clinging to a 14-11 lead over Clemson in the fourth quarter, Vick converted a key third down deep in Tech territory, and his performance at the end of the WVU game speaks -- no, screams -- for itself. Kelly, on the other hand, has been faced with late game pressure situations against Penn State and ECU, and has tanked it horribly both times, throwing two interceptions in the last two minutes against PSU, and missing wide-open receivers against ECU on the potential game-winning drive.
Frank Beamer vs. Butch Davis -- Frank Beamer always outcoaches Butch Davis. He makes better adjustments, and he always pulls something out of his hat. Late in the 1997 game, the Hokies kicked a field goal, and when Miami committed a penalty on the kick, Beamer pulled the points off the board and ate up four more minutes of game clock. It was four minutes that turned out to be crucial, because Tech was fading.
In the 1998 game, Beamer faked a punt late in the fourth quarter on Tech's side of the field. The Hokies kept the drive alive and almost won the game in regulation, but Shayne Graham missed a 35-yard field goal.
On the other hand, Butch Davis's most memorable coaching contribution in this series came in the famous "Chinese fire drill" exercise late in the first half of the 1996 game, in which he allowed Miami quarterback Ryan Clement to pitch a monumental fit and disrupt the team and the Canes sideline. Eventually, the Canes, who were inside Tech's ten-yard line, missed a short field goal to end the half. It was a ridiculous lack of control on Davis's part, as he allowed Clement's histrionics, among other things, to make him lose his composure.
Nick Sorensen and Ben Taylor vs. Bubba Franks -- Franks is a phenomenal tight end, and Taylor and Sorensen have not been sharp in pass coverage. Their run support has been good, but they haven't been ball hawks when defending the pass. This is Nick and Ben's chances to redeem themselves by shutting Franks down, or at least putting the clamps on him. Miami has always used the tight end as a very effective weapon against the Hokies, so this matchup is critical.
Tech DB's vs. Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne -- Moss and Wayne can both strike from anywhere on the field. It's doubtful that the Hokies can shut them out of the end zone, but Ike Charlton, Anthony Midget (if he plays), Larry Austin, and Ronyell Whitaker need to keep their cool and keep coming back.
The key here may be Whitaker. He had a terrible game against Pitt and was pulled out, while Larry Austin was left in. It's telling that against WVU, the coaches started Whitaker instead of Austin. Whitaker responded by playing much better. He's a fiery competitor, so it will be interesting to see if he will rise to this tremendous challenge.
Tech O-line vs. Miami D-Line -- since 1995, Tech's offensive line has been able to push Miami's defensive line around. It is critical to Tech's success that this trend continue, because it's how the Hokies have won the last four games against Miami.
I've made a habit of making outrageous predictions lately, picking the Hokies to beat Pitt and WVU by combined scores of 75-20. The actual scores wound up being 52-37. You won't find any more predictions here.
On Wednesday, I had a bad feeling about this game, and that feeling is still lingering. Way too much of the talk recently, from players, coaches, and fans, has been about the BCS and the Tennessee Volunteers, which I find ill-advised, given that the Hokies have three games left to play. It reminds me of the week leading up to the 1997 Miami of Ohio game. Everyone, including the coaches and players, wanted to talk about something other than that week's opponent.
The Hokies and their fans better wake up and pay attention to the here and now, or the dream season ends Saturday night, starting at 7:30.
Do I think Miami is a better team than Tech? No. All things being equal, I think Tech would beat Miami handily in this one, but the distractions of the last week have been too great. I fear that the Canes are focused on this one, and the Hokies aren't, and that, my friends, spells doom.
For the Hokies, the hope is that being at home in front of a ravenous crowd will get them pumped up and playing at peak efficiency. I doubt we'll see a blowout anywhere near the scale of what happened against Syracuse.
More than likely, this game will be a dogfight. The Canes usually start strong against Tech, then the Hokies take over with their running game. Miami comes on strong late, but it's never enough. We'll just have to see how this one goes, but I'm telling you, Tech better bring their "A" game.