Jerry Ratcliffe, who covers University of Virginia football for the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, asked me three questions about the Miami Hurricanes. I asked three of my own regarding the Cavaliers. Here are our Q&A’s and predictions.
SMD: Virginia started off the season with a 5-1 record and now stands 6-4 heading into Saturday's Miami game. What happened?
JERRY: “After being picked to finish last in the Coastal Division, the Cavaliers surprised most everyone with a fast start, including handing Boise State its worst home loss since 2001 (42-23). Perhaps it was too much too soon for a program that had suffered eight losing seasons over the past nine years in terms of being on the verge of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.
“Part of the three-game slide over the last four outings can be traced back to a shaky offensive line. There was some reshuffling of positions when left offensive tackle Jack English was injured against Boston College, but even with a healthy lineup, the Cavaliers couldn't block Louisville last week and paid dearly. The inability to score (the Georgia Tech game being the exception) of late has also put too much pressure on a good Virginia defense.”
SMD: While Virginia is nearly a 20-point underdog, it would make the Cavaliers season if they could spring an upset over Miami. Why should the Hurricanes be concerned?
JERRY: “UVa is accustomed to being the underdog, and has thrived on the notion of playing the role of spoiler. The Cavaliers know that they could ruin Miami's perfect season and impact the Hurricanes' chances of making the College Football Playoffs with an upset.
“Mark Richt mentioned this week that he is aware of Miami's history with Virginia. Miami leads the series 8-6, but only 7-6 since joining the ACC. For some reason, the Cavaliers have never been intimidated by the Hurricanes, regardless of the venue. UVa pulled off upsets in 2012 (41-40) and 2014 (30-13), but the one Wahoo fans will always remember was when Virginia played the spoiler in Coach Al Groh's final year, 2007, when the Cavaliers ruined Miami's last scheduled game in the old Orange Bowl Stadium with a 48-0 stunner.”
SMD: Now that Miami's "Turnover Chain" has gone viral, how aware is Virginia of the chain, and have the Cavaliers been turnover prone?
JERRY: “Coach Bronco Mendenhall and several Virginia players said this week that they like the "Turnover Chain" idea, that it's fun, and adds excitement to college football. Still, none of them want to experience it. Offensive right tackle Brandon Pertile, who transferred to UVa from Oklahoma State, said: "I respect the chain, it's a pretty cool thing that they do. But the worst thing that can happen to an offense is to turn the ball over. I don't want to see a turnover in practice, in a game, or even in a nightmare when I'm sleeping."
“Virginia has turned the ball over of late. After throwing only three interceptions in the first six games, the Cavaliers have been picked off six times in the last four games, although two of those were thrown by a true freshman in his only appearance of the season late against Boston College. UVa doesn't fumble much (it has lost only three fumbles all season after a remarkable run of luck in recovering every one of their first 13 fumbles).
“What has hurt the Cavaliers during their latest three losses is that opposing defenses began to make Virginia one-dimensional, not allowing them to establish a run game and forcing third-and-long situations. That put a lot of pressure on Benkert, who was under duress for much of the three losses over the last four weeks (Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Louisville). Virginia ranks dead last in the ACC in rushing with a mere 112.6 yards per game.”
SMD: Score, please?
JERRY: “Miami 36, Virginia 19.”
JERRY: It seems like Malik Rosier is the perfect example of a player patiently waiting his turn rather than jumping to the transfer route, and becoming an effective quarterback. What are Rosier's best qualities?
SMD: “Off the field, Malik is a very friendly, warm and sociable young man who is comfortable conversing and sharing his feelings. On the field, he is as poised and calm a quarterback as I can remember. If he makes a mistake, he stays even-keeled and focused. Even in the Virginia Tech game, when he threw a career-high three picks, he kept his cool. He doesn’t openly chastise players or emote after a bad play. And down the stretch, in the clutch, he’s gold. Evidence: Those heart-palpitating victories at Florida State (drove the team 75 yards in 1:18 to throw the winning touchdown pass with six seconds left); Georgia Tech (drove the team 85 yards on 15 plays to set up a winning field goal with four seconds left); and Syracuse (secured the victory with an 85-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 33-yard scoring run by Travis Homer). Another invaluable quality: He can run. He’s strong and smart, and can make it tough for defenses. He has 339 yards and four touchdowns rushing in addition to his 2,410 yards and 20 touchdowns passing (with seven picks).”
JERRY: How has Manny Diaz turned this defense around in only one year to become one of the nation's best? Their statistical comparison to last year is impressive. I know it's symbolic, but has the "Turnover Chain" made that big a difference to the defense?
SMD: “Diaz actually turned the defense around last year, and this year it’s becoming even more dominant. Diaz is a brilliant man, who I call the “master motivator.’’ He runs a man-to-man oriented defense that focuses on aggression and playing “violently,’’ as long as it’s clean and within the rules. The opposing quarterback is at risk in Diaz’s defense. UM now allows only 4.4 yards per play, eighth nationally. The Canes are second in team tackles for loss (8.8 per game) and sacks (3.67) and fourth in turnovers gained (24).
Speaking of “turnovers,’’ that chain I believe has definitely made a difference to this defense. “There is no doubt that it seems to have some effect, for whatever reason,’’ Diaz said on Wednesday. “When we get the first one it seems like the second one isn’t too far off. It feels almost as if it has a similar effect in the negative way to the other team. All week it’s probably such a major point of emphasis for them to not turn the ball over. They talk about how they’re not going to turn it over against us and then all of a sudden when a turnover occurs, they’re suffering a letdown as much as we’re benefitting from a boost by getting our first turnover of the game. They’ve obviously been coming in bunches. It just feels when a team turns the ball over the first time, it gets better for us and worse for them from there.’’
JERRY: When Mark Walton went down with an injury, some outside observers wondered what Miami would do for an effective running game. Travis Homer has answered the bell. How good is he and the 'Canes running attack?
SMD: “Travis Homer is a top-notch talent averaging 6.7 yards a carry. But the running attack has been up and down, or more accurately, down and recently up. When the offensive line can’t open holes for Homer, who is not big (5-11, 195) but is very fast and physical (he’s also a special teams star), the Canes struggle. But the past two games, the offensive line has been immeasurably better in the run-blocking game. After being stifled by North Carolina with 59 rushing yards, Miami has run for 176 against the Hokies and 237 against Notre Dame. The blocking by receivers has been outstanding as well. Behind Homer, freshman DeeJay Dallas has just begun getting integrated into the running game after he was switched from receiver when Walton got injured. But there is very little depth beyond that.”
SMD: “Canes 45, Virginia 13.”