The University of Miami football team’s offense is starving for touchdowns. If there was ever a time and place for the unproductive unit to gorge itself on points, it would be Thursday night in Blacksburg, Virginia, when the Hurricanes meet the Hokies and try to end a two-game losing streak.
Miami’s refurbished defense, which has held opponents to an average of 14 points, is hurting.
Miami’s offense, which has scored just three touchdowns and an average of 16 points the past two games, can’t expect a depleted defense to save its skin and will be under pressure to hold up its end of things if UM (4-2, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) hopes to stay alive in the race against Coastal Division rival Virginia Tech (4-2, 2-1).
UM’s defense, already weakened by the preseason dismissals of Jermaine Grace and Al-Quadin Muhammad, will be missing starting defensive end Demetrius Jackson, out with a lower leg injury, and possibly starting end Chad Thomas, who was listed as questionable Tuesday with an upper extremity injury. Thomas had been playing with a wrap on a broken right hand.
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Without those stalwart bookends, UM would turn to Trent Harris and Joseph Jackson, with true freshman Pat Bethel as backup. Defensive tackle Gerald Willis (knee) and reserve end Scott Patchan (knee) are listed as out.
UM quarterback Brad Kaaya will be under more scrutiny after subpar performances and an assortment of off-target throws in the losses to Florida State and UNC, including an overthrow to wide-open Ahmmon Richards on Saturday. Kaaya and his teammates were prolific through the first three games against lower-tier opponents, scoring 70, 38 and 45 points. Against Georgia Tech, UM won 35-21, but two touchdowns were scored by the defense. UM’s poor third-down conversion rate has also strained the defense.
“The defense is playing phenomenal and giving us plenty of opportunities,” offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said Tuesday. “Guys have been shooting themselves in the foot in the red zone. And we’ve had too many third-and-longs. We’ve got playmakers all over the field. We’ve got guys open but we need to make sure protection is solid enough so Brad can step up and throw long. That’s when you can flip the field and flip a game.”
In six games Kaaya has completed 98 of 158 attempts (62 percent) for 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns with four interceptions. He’s averaging 228.8 passing yards per game and has a 150.8 efficiency rating. Nationally, he’s ranked 24th in efficiency (fourth in the ACC) but just 56th in passing yards and 47th in passing touchdowns. He’s had trouble hitting deep throws. Dropped passes haven’t helped.
“The game plan is good, we’ve just got to execute,” Kaaya said when asked why the offense has sputtered. “We can’t leave points on the field. We’ve got to get everyone on the same page.”
Kaaya has not progressed as expected midway through his junior year, which he began as a hot NFL prospect, projected by some analysts to be the second most in-demand quarterback if he chose to go pro in the 2017 draft behind Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Kaaya’s stock has dropped. He will evaluate after the season whether to stay for his senior year.
But Kaaya has had to adjust to a new offense and the deferral of play-calling to coach Mark Richt, an ex-quarterback. Kaaya, a pure dropback passer, has also seen his pocket deteriorate rapidly lately as the offensive line has faced heftier defenses.
“He’s learning a new language,” former UM quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta said. “Then, we couldn’t protect the edges against FSU and he got the crap beat out of him. When a pocket exists he’s been accurate throwing the ball.”
Torretta wouldn’t mind seeing Kaaya test his mobility and roll out more.
“If you move around it helps your offensive linemen, who are getting exhausted,” Torretta said. “When you always drop back to the same place, the guys on defense are going to put their heads down and race to that spot.”
Offensive line coach Stacy Searels described the line’s play as “not very dang good” in allowing five sacks the past two games.
“He’s a gifted passer but I don’t know how much confidence he has standing in the pocket right now,” said Greg McElroy, an ESPN analyst and former Alabama quarterback. “The first half against UNC he missed a lot of open receivers; the second, he made good adjustments.”
Richt said Kaaya has graded well in accuracy and has adapted smoothly to the playbook, which stresses the rushing game first but offers run-pass options.
“He’s been a very good leader for us,” Richt said. “He’s got a lot of responsibilities with the running game. We’ve got to make sure everybody understands their assignments. At times we didn’t get the information signaled well enough.”