The last time Stephen Morris walked into Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium 22 months ago, he was a baby-faced true freshman making the first road start of his University of Miami career.
His job then? Get the ball in the hands of gritty veterans Damien Berry, Leonard Hankerson, Graig Cooper, Lamar Miller and Travis Benjamin and let them do the hard work. Those Hurricanes rolled to a 25-point victory (Randy Shannon’s last as head coach) over a banged-up and reeling Yellow Jackets squad, whose then-young quarterback, Tevin Washington, was making his first college start.
Fast-forward to Saturday’s 3 p.m. Coastal Division showdown and the tables have turned.
The Yellow Jackets (2-1, 1-1 ACC) are 14-point favorites, a finely tuned and explosive offensive machine under Washington with a veteran-led aggressive defense. UM (2-1, 1-0) is young just about everywhere, and shorthanded on defense.
What hasn’t changed in this series for Miami? Focus, Morris said.
“I think we’ve been able to have success over the last three years [in this series] just because how focused this team is when we play Georgia Tech,” said Morris, who is 4-4 as a starter.
“All around the building here at the University of Miami, we’re all focused in. We all understand the challenge that lies ahead of us. We know we have to play our absolute best. This is an ACC Coastal game for us, which are the most important games on our schedule. So, everybody is locked in, ready to go. You can see it in everyone’s eyes. Everybody knows how big this game is and what a great opportunity it is to showcase our abilities.”
There’s little doubt the Yellow Jackets’ vaunted spread option has caught the attention of the Hurricanes defense, which will be without middle linebacker Denzel Perryman and will send out its 12th different starting lineup in Al Golden’s 16th game as coach.
Georgia Tech not only ranks third in rushing (374 yards per game), has three of the ACC’s Top 10 rushers (Washington ranks second with 84.3 yards per game) and has scored eight touchdowns in back-to-back games, they can strike quickly, too. The Yellow Jackets are the only team with four plays of 70 yards or longer in the FBS this season and have produced eight touchdown plays of 30 yards or longer this season.
That’s why playing keepaway might be UM’s best shot at an upset.
Through three games, though, the Hurricanes have done a terrible job at that. They rank 116th out of 120 schools in time of possession in the FBS. They average 24 minutes and three seconds of clock-chewing per game. That might be acceptable if the Canes were scoring a ton of points (UM ranks 89th in scoring with 31.33 yards per game). But for every big play true freshman Duke Johnson has provided (he has accounted for 40 percent of UM’s yardage and six of the team’s 11 TDs), UM’s offense has also misfired at times with quick three-and-outs or two series possessions.
UM offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said Canes receivers have combined for 11 drops in three games. Holding onto the football and getting quality production from other sources besides Johnson, Golden said, is important – especially against a Yellow Jackets defense Fisch said is “the best defense we’ll face so far.”
TECH DEFENSE ALSO STRONG
The Yellow Jackets rank 18th in total defense (288.67 yards), 20th in scoring defense (14.33) and 26th against the pass (17.67). Al Groh’s 3-4 defense has evolved, Golden said, into a more aggressive unit now that he has the personnel he has recruited over the last three years to to run it.
“They’re long. They’re physical. Their linebackers are 235 pounds-plus. They’re 6-6 at the ends and the nose is about 345 pounds. So this is a big and physical group,” Golden said. “They give you multiple fronts, have a very aggressive linebacker corps. They slow down playmakers. The biggest change is how aggressive they are in the back end and how they’re challenging receivers on the perimeter.”
Georgia Tech is one of just 10 schools that hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown this season. The Yellow Jackets also have not allowed any points in the second and third quarters.
“There’s no doubt Stephen is going to have to recognize what they’re doing at the line of scrimmage [in terms of pressure],” Golden said. “We’re going to have to do a better job of protecting Stephen. They really got to the young man from Virginia a lot and got him rattled in the pocket [last Saturday]. It’s going to be important we protect and get in the right play for Stephen.”
Golden is urging his young team to remain poised.
“It’s going to be a challenge. We understand that,” Golden said. “Again, I want our kids to appreciate it and look forward to these opportunities and not get anxious about them. Hopefully, we’ll go in with a lot of confidence and be ready to go.”