As big games go, this one counts – regardless of win-loss records.
When the Miami Hurricanes meet Virginia Tech in a Thursday night showdown (ESPN) amid the autumn beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, both teams will undoubtedly be thankful they’re still in the hunt for an Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title.
Not close to one. Not necessarily likely to earn one. Just still part of the race.
“They’re all must-win games,” UM coach Al Golden said. “Every game is.
“I think maybe when we got back from Atlanta, we had some guys that maybe didn’t understand how early it was in the race. Based on what’s transpired since then, maybe they’re believing now. Maybe they have a little more faith that this thing is far from over.”
The Canes (4-3, 1-2 ACC), losers of all three road games this season – the opener at Louisville, on Sept. 20 at Nebraska and Oct. 4 at Georgia Tech – also have Coastal Division games Nov. 1 against North Carolina, Nov. 22 at Virginia and the regular-season finale Nov. 29 against Pitt.
And then there’s that pesky Atlantic Division rival Florida State, which comes to Sun Life Stadium on Nov. 15.
It’s too early to dissect the ACC tiebreaker, but for the Canes to have a fighting chance, the basics, for now, are that UM needs to win its four remaining division games, and Duke, Pitt and Virginia (the three Coastal teams with one divisional loss) need to lose an additional conference game.
The Hokies, like Miami, are 4-3 and 1-2.
Nobody said it would be easy, but the already unpredictable results of the vulnerable Coastal Division teams make it apparent that anything could happen.
“That’s what I’m always hoping for,” freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya said of his Coastal Division goal. “That’s our mentality every day, to win the Coastal.”
Senior Phillip Dorsett, on pace to shatter the NCAA record for yards per reception with his 34.4-yard average, is a believer.
“We always believe we can win the Coastal,” Dorsett said. “It’s not out of the picture. Teams are going to beat up on each other every game, so we’ve just got to win out.”
Dorsett is one of the Hurricanes who played in Blacksburg the last time UM traveled there in 2011. On that October day, Miami came back from a 21-7 deficit to go ahead 35-31 with 2:46 left. But the Hokies ran and passed their way through another porous UM defensive effort and scored on fourth down with about a minute left.
The Canes got the ball back but could only get to the Hokies’ 47 as time ran out.
UM won in 2012 and got hammered 42-24 last season, as running back Duke Johnson was out with a broken ankle.
This year, Johnson is back with a vengeance. He is sixth nationally in rushing yards per carry (7.2), 15th in rushing yards (787) and 18th in rushing yards per game (112.4). Johnson will run against a VT defense that will be without its leading tackler, linebacker Chase Williams, because of a knee injury.
Johnson’s protégé, freshman Joseph Yearby, has 317 rushing yards and is averaging 7.4 yards per carry.
“Probably going to be the most explosive offense we’ve seen today, right now,” respected Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “You’ve got two dynamic tailbacks in Johnson and Yearby. You’ve got Dorsett – he’s like a track champion. … They’ve got a young quarterback, but he’s improving and growing each week and has got a live arm, throws a nice deep ball.
“They have a very talented team …”
On the other side of the ball, the Hurricanes will face a Virginia Tech offense significantly weaker than the Hokies’ defense. Two of the Hokies’ top three tailbacks are out, but leading rusher Marshawn Williams is expected back from a sprained ankle – though it’s not known just how much he has recovered.
In Virginia Tech’s 21-16 loss at Pitt last Thursday, the Hokies ran for 26 yards. Hokies coach Frank Beamer has made changes to his offensive line for the Miami game, giving redshirt freshman Wyatt Teller his first start at left guard and moving usual left guard David Wang to center.
Golden will take a victory any way he can get it.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “They’re all big. This is the next one-game mission. This is a big one, for sure.”