It’s not even Halloween yet and the University of Miami football team is fighting for its life.
Deep into the mish-mash of what is known as the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Hurricanes will attempt to stay relevant when they meet Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. Thursday.
With the autumn beauty of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains and a possible sellout at Lane Stadium making an already thunderous venue even more imposing, this could be fun.
“When one team is getting cheered for, it gives them juice,” UM coach Mark Richt said. “When one team is getting cheered against, it pumps them up, too.
“There will definitely be a lot of emotion going into this thing.”
Two weeks ago, the Hurricanes (4-2, 1-2 ACC) were ranked 10th in the nation in both major polls, ahead of in-state powers Florida State and Florida.
Now, losers of their past two games at home against the Seminoles and North Carolina, they are teetering between a downward spiral and uplifting rebound. A victory would make Miami a more significant player when it goes into South Bend, Indiana, 10 days later to face Notre Dame.
The Hokies (4-2, 2-1) are coming off an especially stinging loss at Syracuse (they were a 22-point favorite), and though they have the same overall record as Miami, their extra Coastal victory makes it even tougher for the Canes. North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Virginia also only have one league loss, with Georgia Tech and Duke’s three ACC losses pretty much eliminating them from contention.
“It’s like I told them,” Richt said after the loss to UNC, “if you look at the scores across the league, everybody is battling every day. You don’t know for sure what can happen. You want to put yourself in position just in case something breaks your way, because it can come around.
“You just have to keep fighting.”
Like Richt, Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente is in his first season with his program. But Fuente is following heralded coach Frank Beamer, who was with the Hokies for nearly three decades but sadly wore out his welcome among much of the fan base.
Fuente runs an up-tempo offense led by quarterback Jerod Evans, who has completed 96 of 153 passes for 1,346 yards and 17 touchdowns (two interceptions) and leads the ACC in pass efficiency.
Evans, unlike UM quarterback Brad Kaaya, also can escape the pocket and run. He has 319 yards and two touchdowns rushing, just 8 yards fewer than leading rusher Travon McMillian.
Kaaya is the ACC’s fourth-most efficient quarterback, completing 98 of 158 passes for 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns (four interceptions), but he’s been struggling of late. Kaaya has been hit and sacked and hurried far too many times the past couple games, which UM offensive line coach Stacy Searels lamented about this week.
Searels, by the way, was the offensive line coach at Virginia Tech the past two seasons.
“I’d like to get our first five to play together as a better cohesive unit right now,’’ Searels said.
How has the pass blocking been for Kaaya?
“Did you watch the game?’’ Searels asked about UM’s final offensive play against UNC, in which Kaaya was sacked and lost the ball. “Not very dang good.”
Defensively, the Hurricanes will be stretched to the limit this week to keep the points down, which until now they have done by allowing an average of only 14 points per game — the fourth-stingiest scoring defense in the nation.
The Canes announced Tuesday that three defensive linemen, including starting defensive end Demetrius Jackson and integral backup tackle Gerald Willis, are out for the game with injuries. The other starting defensive end, Chad Thomas, was listed as questionable with an “upper extremity’’ injury but already has a broken right hand in a thickly wrapped club.
With Jackson already out, if Thomas also can’t play, then 6-5, 250-pound true freshman Joe Jackson, a Gulliver Prep graduate, would make his first career start. Jackson shares the team lead in sacks with Thomas — 3 1/2 apiece. He had 4 1/2 tackles for loss and an 18-yard strip sack that he ran back for a touchdown at Georgia Tech.
“It’s been an unusual year, there’s no doubt, with guys being in and out of the lineup,’’ defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “We’ll have 11 the first play of the game Thursday night.’’
One of them, senior cornerback Corn Elder, said they all look forward to another opportunity for victory.
“The excitement is always there to get another chance to play,’’ Elder said. “Short week and you can get that loss out of the way quick.’’