Miami Hurricanes vs. Pittsburgh Panthers: Complete Game Preview

Chris Bello@christianrbelloContributor INovember 26, 2013

Miami Hurricanes vs. Pittsburgh Panthers: Complete Game Preview

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    The Miami Hurricanes (8-3) ended a three-game losing streak with a recent 45-26 win over the Virginia Cavaliers. They head north on Friday to battle the Pittsburgh Panthers (6-5) at Heinz Field.

    Pittsburgh is coming off a 17-16 win at Syracuse, but lost four of its previous six. One of those two wins was a home upset of No. 21 Notre Dame on November 9.

    Turnovers were the name of the game in the takedown of the Cavaliers, though the Hurricanes' defense struggled to get stops. 

    Virginia put up 483 total yards on Miami's defense, but the 'Canes won the field position battle with four forced turnovers—two of which directly resulted in touchdowns. The Hurricanes also gave up 243 rushing yards a week after the Duke Blue Devils ran for 358 in a 48-30 upset

    Will Pittsburgh go after Miami through the air with veteran quarterback Tom Savage? Or will it be the two-headed running back duo of Isaac Bennett and James Connor who chew up the Hurricanes on the ground?

    For Miami, will the rushing attack return with someone stepping up in place for Duke Johnson? Can the defense continue creating turnovers where it can't make stops and force punts?

    A short week for both teams and some chilly weather for the boys from South Florida. Miami and Pitt going at it Big East-style, now as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference this Thanksgiving weekend. This should be a good one. 

    Time: 3:30 p.m. ET

    Place: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA

    TV: ABC Sports

    Radio: WQAM 560 (Miami)—KDKA 93.7 (Pittsburgh)

    Spread: Miami -2.5 (Hilton, Caesars, Mirage)

Miami vs. Pittsburgh: Time Capsule (2010)

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    Miami and Pittsburgh were former Big East foes who played their last conference game in 2003 and will meet as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time on Friday.

    The last time the two squads took the field was 2010, when the Hurricanes were in their seventh ACC season and the Panthers were still part of the now-defunct Big East.

    The video above shows highlights from Miami's 31-3 rout of Pittsburgh in 2010. Fueled by the passing attack of quarterback Jacory Harris and the running back duo made up of Damien Berry and Lamar Miller, the Hurricanes put up 348 yards to the Panthers 232, while the teams combined for five turnovers and 17 penalties.

    Miami jumped out to a 10-0 halftime lead, went up 17-0 after three and pulled away with two fourth quarter touchdowns.

    Harris' vision and ability to spread the ball around was the key for Miami as seven different Hurricanes caught passes. Travis Benjamin led with 96 yards and a score, while LaRon Byrd hauled in six grabs for 69 yards. Leonard Hankerson had a three reception, 36-yard performance, with a touchdown.

    A mid-fourth quarter interception by DeMarcus Van Dyke was returned 74 yards, setting up Miami's final scoring opportunity and making for a bigger blowout than appeared.

    This year's matchup at Pittsburgh comes ten years to the day from the November 29, 2003 season finale. A Big East title was on the line for the No. 9 Hurricanes, who topped the No. 20 Panthers, 28-14 in an affair featuring some future NFL talent.

    Miami defensive back Antrel Rolle and the late Sean Taylor were all over Panthers wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was held to three receptions for 26 yards. Other Hurricane greats in the matchup—Vince Wilfork, Kellen Winslow II, D.J. Williams and Jon Vilma.

    The Hurricanes' road win resulted in a Big East title, wrapped the regular season 10-2 and earned a trip to the Orange Bowl for a rematch against Florida State, who Miami topped 22-14 during the regular season.

    The 'Canes went on to win the Orange Bowl 16-14, though there was lingering resentment that Miami didn't earn a 2004 Fiesta Bowl berth for a shot at Ohio State. The Hurricanes fell to the Buckeyes the previous January by way of a controversial pass interference call in overtime during the national championship game and were seeking redemption. 


Miami's Keys to Victory

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    Know What's at Stake and Toughen Up

    Pitt earned bowl eligibility last weekend with a win over Syracuse. Miami notched that sixth win in mid-October and has been postseason-bound since. For Miami, the goal is to win out and salvage the season by winning 10 games for the first time since 2003. While that won't erase the taste of an ugly three-game losing streak in November, it gives the Hurricanes a chance to close strong and enter 2014 on a good note.

    Win at Pittsburgh and a 9-3 Miami squad should earn a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta on New Year's Eve against a quality SEC opponent. Fall to 8-4 and it's yet another setback resulting in a lower-tier postseason matchup.

    This is a game about character, focus and toughness. Will Miami play like a berth in the ACC title game is on the line—still a long shot if the Canes win, and both Duke and Virginia Tech lose? Or will "The U" get outmuscled in a cold-weather game outside Miami's comfort zone?


    Find Someone Who Can Run The Football

    The Hurricanes need one of three running backs to emerge with some toughness. Lower the head, deliver the blow and get earn some hard first and second down yards. Dallas Crawford did it at North Carolina and had his moments at Duke, but did little as a starter against Virginia Tech and Virginia.

    Gus Edwards and Eduardo Clements have also shone here and there, but one must truly emerge and be "the guy" this Friday. The Canes won't win if they can't pound the football and stay near even regarding time of possession, which has been a problem all year.


    Force Turnovers, Win Field Position Battle

    The only way Miami has effectively stopped opponents this season are games when turnovers were key. Five turnovers (and a fourth down stop) against Florida. Key interceptions in the comeback win at North Carolina. Four turnovers forced last weekend against Virginia.

    Conversely, no turnovers in decisive losses to Virginia Tech and Duke, while fumbles against the Hokies and an early interception by the Blue Devils proved game-changing for the Hurricanes.

    Without the ability to create and capitalize on turnovers, Miami's offense will have to click on all cylinders just to keep pace.


Pittsburgh's Keys to Victory

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    Exploit Miami's Depleted Secondary

    The Hurricanes' secondary has been the defense's strong suit all year, but not this week with Ladarius Gunter and backup Corn Elder injured. The pressure will be on safety Kacy Rodgers II, expected to player some cornerback, along with true freshman Artie Burns.

    Miami's front seven has struggled since September, while the secondary has come up big with some forced turnovers—especially in the red zone. Can some second- and third-stringers slow down a sometimes potent Pittsburgh passing attack? If not, the Panthers are going to rack up some serious yards through the air.


    Play Tough, Cold Weather Football

    In September and October, Miami oft has a weather advantage as many visiting teams choke on the heat and humidity. Come November and December, the opposite, as Hurricanes and frigid temperatures don't mix.

    The Miami program took some grief in December 2009 with its players huddling around heaters—in Orlando—for a Champs Sports Bowl showdown against Wisconsin. Has Al Golden truly toughed up this program four years after that embarrassing Randy Shannon-led night? This game in Pittsburgh will provide an answer.

    Friday night's high will be in the 30's and the low, in the teens. Look for Pittsburgh to try and out-tough Miami in a frigid, hard-hitting, Big East-style showdown, which the Panthers are used to.


    Keep the Pressure on Stephen Morris

    Morris has cleaned things up on the interception front over the past few weeks, but has still forced throws and made bad decisions under pressure.

    Getting after Morris will force him to look for the reliable Allen Hurns, who is oft doubled covered. If the Panthers are going to create some turnovers, it starts with rattling Morris and forcing throws to his primary receiver, the heavily-covered Hurns.


Players to Watch for Miami

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    Dallas Crawford and Eduardo Clements

    Miami has struggled to run the ball consistently since Duke Johnson went down with a broken ankle at Florida State. Dallas Crawford ran hard in a comeback win at North Carolina in mid-October, but hasn't put together a truly impressive performance since.

    The Hurricanes will have to run hard and tough in a gritty, cold weather game at Heinz Field and must find the hot hand. True freshman Gus Edwards has been spotty, while senior Eduardo Clements has rattled off some explosive runs here and there.

    Miami needs a steady dose of all three running backs, until it can lean on someone who can make plays. The Hurricanes have to run the ball and control the clock to open up the offense for Stephen Morris to take some deep shots.


    Stephen Morris

    By now, Morris' tale is widely known. The senior has battled an ankle issue since late-September and has regressed since a solid junior campaign. Whether that has to do with a change at offensive coordinator, the nagging injury or something not clicking, Morris needs to play smarter, consistent football.

    When on, Morris can make NFL-caliber throws. When off, passes have been too high, or well short.

    He goes through the progressions, finds those second and third option receivers and puts the ball where it needs to be. Tight ends haven't been used as of late, either. Look for Clive Walford and Beau Sandland to get more opportunities this week.

    Morris has two interceptions over the past three games. If the senior can protect the football and keep the chains moving—especially on third down where the Hurricanes have struggled—Miami can get out of Pittsburgh with a win.


    Kacy Rodgers II

    The pressure is on the senior safety slated to play cornerback, due to injuries suffered by Ladarius Gunter and freshman Corn Elder, which also hurts Miami's depth on special teams.  

    Sophomore cornerback Tracy Howard will lock down either Devin Street or Tyler Boyd, so expect quarterback Tom Savage to go after Rodgers, or true freshman Artie Burns, who will need to grow up quickly due to a lack of depth and  sidelined starters.


Players to Watch for Pittsburgh

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    Tom Savage

    The senior quarterback has thrown for over 200 yards in five straight games. Against Duke in late-September, he had himself a 424-yard, six touchdown performance. Savage was nursing a knee injury in a loss to North Carolina, but appeared healthy in a 17-16 win over Syracuse last weekend.

    Miami has made several ACC quarterbacks look like Heisman candidates this season. If Savage is "on," and the Hurricanes' pass rush remains off, it could be a long night for Miami's depleted secondary.


    Devin Street

    Street went down early at Syracuse with an ankle injury last week and is questionable against Miami. Based on the Hurricanes' defensive woes, Street's presence and agility weigh heavily in this matchup. The senior wide receiver has 854 yards on the year, having hauled in 51 receptions and seven touchdowns.

    Tyler Boyd is the Panthers' leading receiver yardage-wise and will command the attention of the Hurricanes' best corner, Tracy Howard. With Miami's Ladarius Gunter injured, the combination of Boyd and Street could result in big time match-up problems for "The U".


    Aaron Donald

    The senior defensive tackle is coming off a dominating nine-tackle performance against Syracuse and blocked the decisive extra point in the win. If Donald's motor is running, it could force Hurricanes' quarterback Stephen Morris into more rushed throws and mistakes—a common theme as of late. Miami's offense line must bring their best against Donald.


What They're Saying

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    As the season winds down for Miami, injuries mounting has become the biggest storyline for the Hurricanes. Al Golden touched on the topic in last Sunday's press conference, as reported by (subscription required).

    In regards to keeping players fresh this late in the season:

    We do a great job in terms of our practice schedule. We're not a team that goes out in pads four days or three days. We do a good job of keeping the guys fresh. Until recently we've really done a good job with our injuries. Our out-for-the-season list has been minimal. We've had some unfortunate circumstances here of late and it's disappointing because a lot of them are coming in this instance at corner, coming together at the same position. I think mental fatigue and physical fatigue are some of the things you're fighting, but we do a good job on that. We have to go finish now.

    When asked about the injuries in the secondary and how it impacts special teams, Golden elaborated:

    Tremendously. It's been a trickle-down. Obviously starting with Duke (Johnson) and Phillip and then obviously in the Duke game just having a number of other guys, Herb (Waters) and Artie (Burns), Corn (Elder) and Nate (Dortch) this week, Ladarius (Gunter), all of those guys that we're mentioning are skill guys. And they're guys that obviously play a lot for you on special teams. I don't think there's any question it's had an impact on us. The good news is we've had guys step up, guys ready for their opportunity. Jamal Carter has stepped up for us. Jermaine Grace has stepped up for us. (Tambu) Fentress, Hugo Delapenha has stepped up for us. Obviously Stacy Coley has stepped up for us. Guys like Eduardo Clements even though he's playing a lot of tailback, he's expanded his role on special teams to help the team which is great.

    Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst used his weekly press conference to talk Miami, most-notably how the Hurricanes' offense changed without the presence of running back Duke Johnson, out for the season since November 2:

    He was a really good player, a really good back. But as you play different teams you can’t be sure how exactly they change. If you say they’re every bit as dangerous now, then it seems like you’re saying he wasn’t a good player but I think they still present all the same problems to us now. In the run game and throw game I think they’re explosive and I think they have some good players across the board offensively. I thought he was one of the top backs in the league and nobody wants to lose their best players but I think they’re every bit as dangerous now.

    Chryst also broke down what the Panthers will have to do to defend against the Hurricanes' overall team speed:

    They absolutely have that speed. Receivers can blow the top off of coverages and their tight ends can run. Defensively, they fly around the ball. You’ve got to be right with your preparation [when learning how to defend their speed] because if there’s any hesitation, then I think you can be behind it. Now if you can anticipate it, play with good eyes and not take false steps, then you have a chance. If you hesitate, though, that’s where the speed can get you. If you’re a lineman and you go to block it, instead of being on it you’re behind it now. Anything defensively, if you hesitate and aren’t right or don’t trust your eyes … I think your eyes can be an equalizer if you anticipate, then you can hopefully minimize if there’s any type of difference.


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    The weather, the opponent and the fact that Miami hasn't been in a late season, grind-it-out cold weather game gives this showdown a strange feeling.

    Pittsburgh has seen it all this year—a 58-55 shootout win over Duke, as well as low-scoring, hard-fought games against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Syracuse.

    Miami started strong with the win over No. 12 Florida, giving up big yards, but forcing turnovers and starting to resemble an improved squad. From there, key injuries to an offense that was supposed to help carry a young defense, has caused some overall chaos.

    Without running back Duke Johnson, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett—expected back in some capacity this week for the first time since mid-October—and minor injuries to Stacy Coley and Herb Waters, quarterback Stephen Morris' options have since  been limited.

    Allen Hurns and Coley have been spectacular, but the tight ends have vanished. Will they be worked back into the game plan?

    Miami and Pittsburgh have history dating back to the Big East days. The Hurricanes topped the Panthers seven-straight, most recently in a 31-3 drubbing at Heinz Field in 2010. Pittsburgh's last win, a 21-17 Thursday night upset over No. 21 Miami in 1997.

    The Panthers and Hurricanes are both playing for an improved postseason slot, but Pittsburgh has the emotional advantage of 18 seniors suiting up for their final game.

    This is a very winnable game if Miami's offense comes out firing and if the defense can at least stop the bleeding, forcing some key turnovers. The Hurricanes have it in them—it's simply a question regarding which UM team shows up, and can this squad overcome the injuries in the secondary? 

    Miami definitely wins the overall team speed battle, but will the Hurricanes put that talent to good use? Short screens to the speedy freshman Coley in the flats seem like the safest bet these days. 

    Unfortunately, home-field advantage and weather in the low 20's by the time the fourth quarter gets underway, spells bad news for warm-blooded Miami, until proven otherwise.

    Savage and the Panthers get a late score, unless that Canes' depleted secondary makes a play and pulls down a big game-saving pick on the final drive.

    Prediction: Pittsburgh 33, Miami 30