Autumn leaves, cool air and a charming, historic campus designed by Thomas Jefferson await the University of Miami football team on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Frankly, they haven’t been very inspiring to the Hurricanes, losers of their past three road games to Virginia at Scott Stadium dating to 2010.
But judging by the point spread – the Canes were a 10 1/2-point favorite Friday – and surge of confidence for a Miami team that busted out of a four-game slump last week to dominate Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes could be on the verge of starting a new trend, and qualifying for the postseason in the process.
With a victory, Miami (5-4, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) would become bowl eligible, of which players are keenly aware.
“It means a lot,’’ said senior safety Jamal Carter. “We hope we’re going to get it, because we’re trying to go to a bowl and do something that hasn’t been done in a long time – get a bowl win.’’
Does it matter where you go, Jamal?
“You know, kind of,’’ he said, laughing. “You don’t want to go to just any bowl. We’re trying to go to somewhere a little nice so we can have a little fun up there – enjoy the time up there and get the W.’’
Added tight end David Njoku, who noted the Cavaliers (2-7, 1-4) are better than their record: “We don’t like losing no matter what the scenario. So each game from here on out we’re going to try to work hard and win.
“I guess it’s exciting that at this point it will be one that we acknowledge our bowl.”
After starting the season 4-0 and then losing four in a row, Miami and its offense regenerated with an excellent performance against Pitt. Quarterback Brad Kaaya was adequately protected for the first time in weeks, moved well and passed for 356 yards and four touchdowns, rushing for another score.
But the line got bad news this week when it learned it would lose starting veteran center Nick Linder to season-ending shoulder surgery, and that left tackle Trevor Darling (lower extremity) would be doubtful for Virginia. So now the Canes will have senior Alex Gall starting at center for the first time, and possibly veteran left guard Kc McDermott shifting one spot over to replace Darling. Sophomore right tackle Tyree St. Louis took over earlier in the season when starter Sunny Odogwu broke his leg.
If Darling can’t play, then reserve Tyler Gauthier, listed as the backup to right guard Danny Isidora, could fill in at left guard.
“We’ve always been a very tight group… and pushed each other everyday in practice,’’ McDermott said.
On paper, the Cavaliers are ranked among the worst schools in the nation in several offensive and defensive categories. Of 128 teams ranked in the FBS, they’re 96th in scoring defense (allowing 32 points a game) and 100th in total defense (445.4 yards allowed). They’re 87h in scoring (25.4 points per game) and 105th in total offense (365.6 yards).
But paper doesn’t sack quarterbacks.
The Cavs are tied for 35th in team sacks with 23, averaging 2.56, not something Miami would appreciate given its ailing offensive line. Then again, last week Pittsburgh came into the game ranked ninth in the country in sacks, but only managed one.
Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser has 6.5 sacks and 102 tackles this season, with defensive end Andrew Brown adding five sacks.
Offensively, the Cavaliers are led by tailback Taquan Mizzell, who needs only 10 receiving yards to become the first player in ACC history with at least 1,500 career rushing and 1,500 career receiving yards.
And let’s not forget that UVA led then-No. 5 Louisville 25-24 with 1:57 left in the game on Oct. 29, then gave up the deciding touchdown pass with 13 seconds left.
On special teams, UVA punter Nicholas Conte is No. 1 in the ACC and 10th in the nation with a 45.5-yard average.
“It’s hard to win on the road in any conference,’’ UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said this week. “Louisville found that out. We expect the same type of effort they had against Louisville.”
The weather forecast for Saturday: sunny and clear with temperatures in the mid-50s dipping to the high 40s as the sun sets – beautiful football weather, if not a bit chilly for the Canes.
“It’s a lot of fun,’’ said Carter of Scott Stadium, where he got his first college interception. “Their fans talk some trash, but you gotta ignore that.
“It’s conference play. Everybody gives it their all in the conference.’’