Hurricanes prepare for resurgent Virginia defense

Freshman defensive back Rayshawn Jenkins (29) takes down redshirt freshman Demitri Knowles of Virginia Tech during last Thursday’s win. Miami has the opportunity to reach the ACC Championship game for the first time since moving to the conference in 2004. The Virginia Cavaliers will host the Canes in Charlottesville at noon Saturday. Kenneth Rubi // Contributing Photographer 

First place will meet last place in the ACC Coastal Division on Saturday. On paper, it seems like an matchup to predict.

But the way this season has played out so far, counting either Miami or Virginia out this week would not exactly be sensible.

After a three-game, four-week homestand, the Hurricanes will hit the road once more to Charlottesville, Va. to take on the Cavaliers in another pivotal conference test. Miami (5-4, 4-2 ACC) will look to maintain its division lead, while Virginia (3-6, 1-4 ACC) has struggled for most of the year. The Cavs are coming off a 33-6 win over N.C. State.

Miami – which beat Virginia Tech soundly in primetime last Thursday – is in position to make the ACC Championship game for the first time in program history. Coach Al Golden recognized that it’s a new feeling for most players on the team, and they will have to learn to work through it.

“It’s difficult because it’s the first time that we’re navigating that – we were pretty much out at this point last year,” he said. “This is where you’re either disciplined, and your habits and your process either hold up or crack. We’re trying to teach them how to make it so habitual, so disciplined and ingrained, that it can withstand anything. For us to want to go where we want to go in the coming years, this is the first step.”

While fans may be clamoring for the team’s first visit to a game that has BCS implications, that’s not to say the Hurricanes are crowning themselves just yet. Even through their struggles, Virginia did defeat Miami 28-12 last year at Sun Life Stadium, and they looked rejuvenated against the Wolfpack following a bye week.

Golden credits the Cavalier defense as the main reason for that resurgence, and noted his team must be prepared to handle them.

“I think they only had seven sacks coming into N.C. State and they got to [N.C. State quarterback Mike Glannon] six times. They were minus-16 going in and now they’re minus-12,” Golden said of Virginia’s turnover margin. “They’ve done that with system and personnel. I’m sure they put a great emphasis on protecting the ball and taking it away. They’re strong, they’re efficient, they’re physical. We’d better be ready to go.”

After starting off the season at a near unstoppable pace, Miami quarterback Stephen Morris has cooled off over the past few weeks. Golden believes Morris needs to focus on making plays when they’re there, rather than trying to force passes into coverage.

“I think Stephen is developing every week. He’s getting better every week,” he said. “We’ve faced some really good defenses and we’re going to face another good one coming up. I think he just has to get back to trusting those around him. Stop looking for the big play and just hit some singles.”

With a victory on Saturday, the Canes would have the six wins necessary to become bowl eligible, which includes being able to compete in the ACC Championship game. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the school will self-impose another bowl ban in anticipation of NCAA sanctions for illicit benefits allegedly provided by former booster Nevin Shapiro.

The school is expected to make a decision if and when the Canes become bowl eligible.