Canes once again shine in fourth quarter at Virginia Tech

Defensive lineman Jaelan Phillips celebrates a stop during the second half of Miami's game versus Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia on Saturday, Nov.14. Photo credit: AP Photo / MATT GENRTY, The Roanoke Times, ACC Pool
Defensive lineman Jaelan Phillips celebrates a stop during the second half of Miami's game versus Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia on Saturday, Nov.14.
Defensive lineman Jaelan Phillips celebrates a stop during the second half of Miami's game versus Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia on Saturday, Nov.14. Photo credit: AP Photo / MATT GENRTY, The Roanoke Times, ACC Pool

To a casual observer, it may have looked like the Miami Hurricanes were poised to win easily Saturday afternoon at Blacksburg, Va’s. Lane Stadium. After all, the Canes entered the contest with just a lone loss, while the Virginia Tech Hokies were fresh off a home defeat at the hands of Liberty.

But the Miami-Virginia Tech rivalry has never been defined by blowouts. In the annual battle between programs defined by opposite brands and identities, sometimes the flashy and trendy Canes have beaten the more down-to-earth and hard-nosed Hokies. Other times, the team from Southern Virginia gets the best of the program from South Florida.

For the second consecutive week after coming back at North Carolina State, Miami faced a two-score deficit in the second half. For the second consecutive week, things looked bleak on the road. But for the second consecutive week, the Hurricanes answered the bell when they needed to, rallying once again steal a win late as they outgained the Hokies 386-362 in total yardage.

“Week in and week out, with all of the adversity that they have to face, they find a way to make it,” said head coach Manny Diaz. “They play for each other so hard. Obviously, we had to grind it out.”

With the 25-24 win, No. 9 Miami (7-1, 6-1 ACC) kept their Atlantic Coast Conference Championship hopes faintly alive, but more importantly, proved that they do belong in the national conversation.

COVID zaps depth up front

The Hurricanes almost didn’t get to play this game.

“We were on the brink [of not being able to play]. The players’ attitude I thought was the most telling. They wanted to play. We were right on the brink in some position groups on whether we could even function as a team,” said Diaz.

UM was missing 13 players on Saturday. Some of these players are bigger parts of the team than others, but there was little doubt that the Hurricanes were missing depth Saturday.

Offensive lineman John Campbell, Jr., Jakai Clark, Cleveland Reed, Jr. and Jalen Rivers were all held out. On the defensive side of the line, Jason Blissett, Jr., Jared Harrison-Hunte, and Zach McCloud were missing from the front seven. The rest of the inactive players were a mix of reserves as well as individuals who were previously reported to be out for the entire season.

The aforementioned players are a mix of up-and-coming stars, veteran leaders and simple depth pieces. Their contribution had varied throughout 2020, but there would’ve been a place for them all Saturday. This was apparent looking at the offensive line, which allowed six sacks.

Offensive line starters Zion Nelson, Ousman Traore, Corey Gaynor, DJ Scaife, Jr. and Jarrid Williams all played every snap of the contest, with no substitutions.

On the other side of the ball, the Hokies showed why they’re the top-ranked rush attack in the power five. With limited depth on Miami’s defensive front, the Hokies had success on the ground, rushing for 160 yards and 3.9 yards per carry.

But these issues were just a price that came with playing at all.

King and his weapons more limited, but efficient

After carrying the Hurricanes back from behind late at NC State last week, quarterback D’Eriq King put up somewhat more modest numbers at Virginia Tech. He did throw for 255 yards to six different targets, but several key weapons were held in check.

Tight end Brevin Jordan returned to action after missing three games, but was placed in tight man coverage all day and only caught two passes. Mike Harley, who has been a mainstay of the aerial attack in recent weeks, was also limited to just 51 yards on six catches, after logging 170 and 153 yards respectively against Virginia and NC State.

And on the ground, UM had just 131 yards on 48 attempts.

Still, UM was able to mount enough scoring drives to win by sticking with the game plan, even as the Hokies executed their own plan well all day.

“I think with any great team, you’ve got to find ways to win,” said King. “Obviously, this week was really tough for us, missing a lot of guys, but we found a way to win. And I think [there] was no doubt in the locker room. Everybody had each other’s back.”

Defense inconsistent, but aggressive

The defense had far from a perfect day, giving up 362 yards and allowing 24 points. But they got back to their identity of aggression for much of the afternoon, sacking Hokies quarterback Hendon Hooker six times and making eight total tackles for loss. The turnover chain came out in the fourth quarter when Hooker missed his target, but found defensive back Te’Cory Couch in the middle of the field to make the play.

“The way the game went defensively, we had one poor drive where we didn’t tackle very well in the third quarter that led to a touchdown. In the first half, we really felt that there were a lot of good signs for a good defensive performance because we were stopping the inside zone and we were stopping the stretch…We did feel like we were winning the battle up front, and we were playing better than we have played on some of those run plays,” said Diaz.

“With the depth, it’s definitely hard when you don’t have any backups,” said Phillips. “I really only came out for a handful of snaps today, but you just got to step up when the opportunity is there. We’ll be excited to have our guys back next week, but you just got to play the cards you’re dealt.”

In the last two fourth quarters, Miami has allowed just three points. They have outscored opponents 20-0 in the final period against NC State and Virginia Tech. The offense has been consistent throughout all four periods in recent matchups, but the defense has been finding a new gear in the final 15 minutes.

Another game, another abundance of penalties

Sometimes, teams will get unlikely with injuries, or in the case of 2020, the pandemic. This stuff happens, and there isn’t much that can be done.

But discipline is a front where teams have complete control over. And Miami has made little progress in this area all season. It’s inexplicable as to why this is an issue every game.

On a day Virginia Tech led for nearly the entire matchup, the Canes surrendered 77 free yards to the Hokies on eight infractions.

Some of those penalties were extremely untimely. Safety Bubba Bolden turned a 3rd & long into an automatic first down for the Hokies late in the third quarter when Miami was badly needing a stop. On the ensuring offensive drive, a false start put UM behind the chains in the shadow of their own end zone before even taking a snap.

The Hurricanes have won in spite of these shortcomings. If this issue can be fixed at any point in 2020, it’ll potentially elevate UM to another level.

Next Up

Since Notre Dame dispatched Clemson a week ago, the Hurricanes’ hopes of making the ACC Championship game have slimmed. However, they are still alive at all now because of their ability to pull out close wins. Regardless of how the conference race finishes, UM can still focus on concluding the season strong and winning 10 games for just the second time since 2003.

They’ll return home to face Georgia Tech next week. That is a program that like Virginia Tech, handed Miami an upset loss in 2019. UM will look to avenge a defeat from last year for the second week in a row at Hard Rock Stadium as they continue to fight to get to 10-1 this regular season.