When Virginia Tech meets Miami in football, the stakes are always high. That will indeed be the case this weekend when the Hokies travel south to meet the Hurricanes.
Both teams are coming off a loss last week. The Hokies were defeated by Boston College, their second straight loss, while the 'Canes suffered their first defeat of the season at the hands of Florida State.
Miami currently leads the ACC Coastal Division with a record of 3-1. The Hokies are 3-2 in the conference. A win by the Hokies would obviously go a long way in determining if they can win the Coastal.
Miami leads the all-time series 18-12. However, since 1996, the Hokies have won 12 of the last 18 meetings.
Make Miami One-Dimensional
This should be much easier with Duke Johnson's injury. The outstanding sophomore running back was injured in last week's loss to Florida State and is out for the year. So the Hokies catch a break here. Johnson shredded the Hokies in Miami's 2012 win. Sophomore Dallas Crawford now steps into the starting lineup to replace Johnson. Crawford is a talented back and leads the 'Canes with nine rushing touchdowns this season. Is he ready to be the man? The Hokies need to make sure he isn't this weekend.
Logan Thomas went three straight games without a turnover and the Hokies were efficient on offense. Not prolific, but efficient. And efficient is what Virginia Tech needs from its offense. They win with defense. In the last two weeks, both losses, Thomas has turned the ball over eight times. Thomas turned the ball over twice in the last seven minutes in last Saturday's loss to Boston College. If Thomas doesn't turn the ball over against Miami, the Hokies will win.
Pressure Stephen Morris Early
For as much as everyone criticizes Thomas, Morris' play is worse. He has the ACC's second-best running game and a talented group of receivers, yet still throws way too many interceptions for a senior. Thomas has little around him. Bud Foster must get after Thomas early in the game and force him into bad decisions. Creating turnovers would flip field position and help a struggling offense.
Win the Battle Up Front
The Hokies have a deep and talented defensive line that is very good at getting to the quarterback. The Hurricanes have one of the biggest and most experienced offensive lines in the country. Whichever team wins this battle will likely win the game. It is truly the matchup to watch.
Force the Hokies to Run the Ball
This almost sounds crazy, as Virginia Tech has always been a run-first team. That has changed this season with their running game being one of the worst in FBS. The Hurricanes need to commit extra defenders to the passing game and make Tech run the ball on them. They haven't proven all season they could consistently run the ball, with the exception of Logan Thomas. If the Hokies are able to run the ball, then Miami could put an extra defender in the box and play man coverage on the outside. Miami can truly dictate what VT does on offense.
Stay Balanced on Offense
For Stephen Morris to succeed, he needs help from those around him. Dallas Crawford is now the starting running back and the 'Canes should be fine. But they can't put too much pressure on Crawford. They need to run the ball consistently while also taking chances downfield. Allen Hurns and Stacy Coley are both downfield threats and need to be involved in the game.
Quarterback Logan Thomas
Thomas was rolling through the first half of the conference schedule. He led the Hokies to six straight victories, including three in the ACC. Things changed two weeks ago vs. Duke. Thomas threw four interceptions, including two deep in Duke territory. That trend continued last week. Much of the blame will go on Thomas, and rightfully so, his pick-six against BC was a terrible decision. However, it is time for those around him to step up and help ease the burden.
Wide Receiver Joshua Stanford
Speaking of someone stepping up, Stanford answered the bell last week against Boston College. Stanford caught six balls for 171 yards. Was this Stanford's breakout game or an anomaly? Thomas had a lot of confidence in the redshirt freshman in the spring. When the season started, though, the Hokies went with D.J. Coles, Demitri Knowles and Willie Byrn ahead of Stanford. By virtue of his game last week, Stanford is now third on the team in catches and first in yards. If he can develop into a consistent threat on a weekly basis, the Hokies' offense would be much better.
Defensive End James Gayle
Gayle is having a solid senior season leading the Hokies' veteran defensive line. His stats may not show that consistency, though. He has only three sacks, but Gayle has 6.5 tackles for loss and a whopping 24 quarterback hits. Gayle needs to get in the backfield often this Saturday and help force Stephen Morris into bad decisions. If he can do that, turnovers will follow.
You can find Virginia Tech's complete depth chart here.
Quarterback Stephen Morris
Morris is having a disappointing senior season. Yes, the Hurricanes are 7-1, but Morris has left a lot of points on the field. He can amaze you at times with NFL-caliber throws, then on the next series hold onto the ball too long and force a ball into double coverage. He made some good throws against FSU last week. He will need to do more of that against a stout Hokies defense this week.
Running Back Dallas Crawford
Crawford has a big opportunity in front of him this week. With Duke Johnson's injury, Crawford is no longer a part-time back. He has the skills to be the next great Miami running back. He is deceptively strong, fast and has a nose for the end zone. The question is, can he take the pounding of carrying the ball 20 times or more? That will be something to keep an eye on this week.
Safety Deon Bush
Is Bush the next star Miami safety? It's too early to make that statement, but there is no doubt how talented and athletic Bush is. The 6'1", 203-pound sophomore recorded his first career interception last week against Florida State. With a quarterback like Thomas, there will be opportunities for turnovers. Whether it be Thomas throwing the football into coverage, or running into the secondary, fighting for extra yards. Bush has the type of ability to create multiple turnovers. If he has a big game Saturday, that is bad news for Virginia Tech.
You can find Miami's complete depth chart here.
Despite Logan Thomas' struggles the past two weeks, head coach Frank Beamer remains firmly behind his senior quarterback, per Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Absolutely, he’s the quarterback,” Beamer said. “He gives us a chance to win. There is no question in our mind that he’s the guy.”
Thomas himself was adamant that he would remain the team's starter, also transcribed by Barber:
You can go ahead and ask anybody in this building right now, you can walk across the street to Merryman, ask anybody over there, you can ask anybody that’s a part of this program if they think there is any chance of me being taken out for a series.
Miami coach Al Golden has high praise for Beamer, via the Associated Press:
I kind of cut my teeth at Virginia when Frank was growing that program and learned so much from him. No matter how much that rivalry was, Virginia-Virginia Tech at that time, Frank was always class. In our conference, he's kind of the patriarch, if you will. When Frank talks, we all listen. He's done it the right way.
With Miami going through a renaissance of sorts and Virginia Tech struggling a bit, it would seem the 'Canes would be an easy choice to pick for the win this weekend.
Not so fast.
These teams are generally even matched and their games are proof of that. Both are coming off losses, but the Hokies are the more desperate team.
This game will come down to late in the fourth quarter. The Hurricanes are good on defense, but the Hokies are better. Neither team is great. This matchup will likely come down to which defense forces more mistakes. Duke Johnson's loss will be felt by the 'Canes.
On Saturday, the Hokies will get just enough from their offense to pull this one off.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 20, Miami 16