It’s tournament time in the Atlantic Coast Conference — and we’re not talking basketball.
After kicking off the season unranked, then rising to No. 14 with a 4-0 start for the first time since 2004, the Miami Hurricanes begin their ACC schedule at home against Georgia Tech (3-1, 2-1 ACC) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
“What else do you need to be motivated?” UM coach Al Golden said. “They’re one of the two teams that have either won the division or the [ACC] championship — and we haven’t.
“There’s urgency in the ACC. It’s like a tournament, and this is tournament game No. 1.”
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Not for the Yellow Jackets, who are in the Coastal Division with Miami and lost their first game this season a week ago Thursday to Virginia Tech, the other team of which Golden spoke. This is the fourth consecutive week the Jackets will face a team playing its ACC opener, and if it’s anything like last season’s Miami matchup, be ready for some heart-pounding drama.
Last year’s game in Atlanta was decided in overtime when then-senior Mike James dashed 25 yards to give Miami the 42-36 victory. UM blew a 19-0 lead before rallying late, and receiver Malcolm Lewis sustained a severe ankle injury that ended his season in September.
“Yeah, it was an intense game to say the least,” said Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, who will start Saturday but has been recovering from a deep, right-ankle bruise sustained two weeks ago. “Definitely was mentally challenging to stay in the game.”
Coach Paul Johnson and his Yellow Jackets are famous for the deceptive triple-option in Tech’s spread-option offense. Tech labels what most would call the fullback as the “B-back,” played by 6-0, 225-pound senior David Sims. “A-back” Robert Godhigh, a 5-7, 190-pound senior who is third in the ACC with a 9.9-yards-per-play average, is another main cog in this machine.
Basically, the quarterback can hand off, or has the option of running, pitching or throwing the ball. Often — especially early in the game when the defense hasn’t gotten accustomed to the look — it means trouble to players who don’t zero in on their assignments.
Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee, who had a bad game against the Hokies (7 of 24 for 144 yards, with two interceptions and a lost fumble), is expected to be replaced Saturday for at least “a series or two” by redshirt freshman Justin Thomas, Johnson said this week.
The Hurricanes and Hokies are the only teams in the ACC with a four-game win streak against the Yellow Jackets.
“It’s difficult,” said UM linebacker Denzel Perryman, who missed last year’s game with an injury. “There are many plays you can run out of the formation they run. You’ve got to have guys do their job and [be] disciplined. If you have the pitch, stay on the pitch. If you have the quarterback, stay on the quarterback. Your opportunity to make a play is going to come.
“And then defeat the cut block — that’s a difficult task, too. The offensive linemen will come at you like they’re going to block you and at the last minute they’ll drop. You’ve got to have the mental toughness and be smart.”
The Jackets are 10th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 291.3 yards per game and taking lots of time off the clock.
The Hurricanes, 10th in total defense and ninth in scoring defense, have allowed 123.3 rushing yards per game. But those games include FAU, Savannah State and a struggling USF, which are a combined 2-12.
Miami is one of five schools that has not trailed this season, but Georgia Tech’s defense could end that distinction.
The Yellow Jackets rank among the top 11 teams nationally in scoring defense, red-zone defense, total defense, first-downs defense and rushing defense.
“Obviously, that defense is very well coached,” Morris said. “Everything they do over there has a purpose. Every single game they’ve had a turnover. They’ve done an unbelievable job of getting off the field.”
This will be the first of eight consecutive ACC opponents for the Hurricanes. Last year, Miami won the Coastal Division in a three-way tiebreaker with North Carolina and Georgia Tech. But the Hurricanes self-imposed their second consecutive postseason ban, UNC already was on probation and Georgia Tech got to play in the ACC title game, losing 21-15 to Florida State.
“It wasn’t awkward,” Johnson said at the ACC Football Kickoff before the season. “It was different. I mean, we all tied for the division so it wasn’t like we finished in third place. We beat North Carolina by 18 points.
“The Miami game — we probably should have won that one, too.”