It’s not often that a game between 4-4 teams can be called pivotal or crucial.
But for the University of Miami, Thursday night’s game against Virginia Tech is all that. It is a more important test for the Hurricanes than the Hokies, and for UM coach Al Golden than Tech coach Frank Beamer.
UM needs to beat a better opponent, and this year Tech is barely that.
Good athletes seize opportunities, mediocre athletes squander them. Here is a chance for UM to improve its undistinguished record against the Hokies, halt the constant bedevilment by Tech’s mobile quarterbacks and defuse Beamer-ball tactics.
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It’s not the marquee matchup it might have been because both teams are stuck in low tide. But it is a home game for Miami, on national TV, coming off a bye week (with Tech coming off a short week and Superstorm Sandy disruptions in Blacksburg).
The Atlantic Coast Conference title game and a BCS bowl berth are in the balance — assuming UM does not opt out and sanction itself to mitigate expected NCAA penalties in the Nevin Shapiro case. The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations could be delivered by the end of the month.
The ACC is a weak football conference slogging through a weak year. Tech is down, down, down. Three additional so-so opponents await on UM’s schedule.
If ever there was a time for the Canes to capitalize, this is it.
Golden is 8-10 against FBS opponents. Victories over ranked Ohio State and Georgia Tech don’t really count because they nosedived after losing to UM. Golden may be in only his second season here, but he needs to win a big one.
A three-game losing streak has revealed slight signs of discord on the team. UM’s inexperienced roster has been dented by nagging injuries, such as Duke Johnson’s turf toe. A victory over Tech would do wonders for the psyche of players and coaches.
So, the moment is ripe for a statement game. UM needs to grab it.
UM, ranked 119th of 120 FBS teams in run defense (yielding 249.5 yards per game) has to play the entire 60 minutes the way it played the first half against Florida State: aggressive, marauding, resourceful.
The defensive line, the Achilles’ heel of the team, must invoke the names of Russell Maryland, Cortez Kennedy, Jerome Brown, Bill Hawkins and Warren Sapp and play larger than it is. Refuse to be outmuscled. Don’t settle for lazy, incomplete tackles.
Do not allow Tech quarterback Logan Thomas to fool everyone with a fake handoff and slip through the heart of the defense for a last-minute, game-winning touchdown, as he did last year.
“Logan is tough when he gets going, like EJ Manuel and Collin Klein,” said Golden, referring to the FSU and Kansas State quarterbacks. “He does a great job with the read option and he can make all the throws.”
As Golden said, he and his coaches have had extra time “to tinker with some things.” So why not blitz more to help out the defensive linemen? Why not have defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio utilize a couple creative packages the way the Dolphins did against the Jets?
On offense, UM needs to convert on third down at least 50 percent of the time.
“Someone has to shake free and make a play,” Golden said. “And you can’t drop one.”
Better catching by the receivers, yes, and better passing from Stephen Morris, who has been prone to overthrows on his long and intermediate attempts lately. He completed just one pass for 30-plus yards against Florida State. His ankle had an extra week to heal.
The early excitement about UM’s running game has melted away. What a waste with game-breaking Mike James in the backfield. Against Florida State, James and Johnson rushed a mere 16 times. UM netted a grand total of 29 yards on the ground.
“Clearly, at Notre Dame it started to get away from us. We had to abandon the running game,” Golden said. “We have to have patience. We’ve played best when we’ve been balanced.”
It’s also time to stop blaming Randy Shannon for UM’s .500 fortunes. Shannon dealt with limitations and a questionable inheritance, just as Golden has. He beat Virginia Tech, though. Enough with the excuses that have burdened the program since it was last ranked among the elite.
Pluck the Hokies. Win a big one.