Miami begins conference play against Virginia, looks to go over .500 for the first time in 2021

Freshman wide receiver Brashad Smith runs down the sideline in Miami’s 69-0 victory over Central Connecticut State University at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday Sept. 25.
Freshman wide receiver Brashad Smith runs down the sideline in Miami’s 69-0 victory over Central Connecticut State University at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday Sept. 25. Photo credit: Josh Halper

After four games that have been nothing short of a rollercoaster, the Miami Hurricanes are 2-2. The Canes got off to a rough start against Alabama, beat Appalachian State in a nail-biter, lost a disappointing game to a previously unranked Michigan State team and came out with a dominant 69-0 victory against Central Connecticut State.

Set to open its ACC schedule versus Virginia Thursday, Miami will face off against a far more daunting opponent than the last they hosted at Hard Rock Stadium, and with quarterback D’Eriq King being struck by the injury bug, UM will have to rely on their inexperienced reserves against the Cavaliers.

In last Saturday’s blowout versus the Blue Devils, Miami’s receiving unit shined. Out of the Hurricanes’ five receivers who had two or more receptions in the game, Brashard Smith, Xavier Restrepo and Charleston Rambo – all new additions to Miami’s roster – averaged over 15 yards per reception. Smith led the team with 91 yards in five attempts at an average of 18.2 yards per reception.

Freshmen Jacolby George and Romello Brinson also showed promise, with George scoring a touchdown on a 44-yard pass and Brinson putting his name in the national spotlight with a one-handed touchdown catch that was the No. 1 play in SportsCenter’s Top 10.

“Offense is so much about confidence and I think it was obvious for everyone to see that we weren’t the same confidence bunch through the first three weeks, offensively, as we were a year ago,” Miami head coach Manny Diaz said. “Our young guys are coming along and are going to continue to contribute to this football team.”

Despite the many positives that have been seen with Miami’s newest generation of Hurricanes, the offensive line continues to be a clear weakness and has not given the quarterback enough time in the pocket, causing him to roll out or throw a questionable pass into coverage. This was especially seen during Miami’s loss to Michigan State, in which King was sacked three times and ultimately missed the next game due to injury.

The run defense was also a glaring issue against Michigan State, and Miami has since been exposed as one of the worst tackling teams in all of college football. Running back Kenneth Walker put on a clinic for the Spartans’ running game, totaling 172 yards and pummeling the Miami defense. While he didn’t score a touchdown, Walker ran for over three times as many yards as all of the Hurricanes’ rush offense combined.

In playing a much easier opponent in Central Connecticut State, most of those issues did not come into play Saturday afternoon. Even though three sacks were given up, freshmen quarterbacks Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia both excelled, combining for five touchdowns, 417 yards and a completion rating of 60 percent. Miami also only gave up 29 net rushing yards and did not turn the ball over once.

“Both guys can obviously throw the ball,” Diaz said. “I thought the thing that was really exciting was that they made plays down the field … I’m really proud of both guys, but more importantly, I’m proud of the team for the confidence they put in the two quarterbacks.”

In their ACC opener tonight, the Hurricanes look to translate Saturday’s positive takeaways into consistency on the field. Even though Virginia is coming off two losses in a row, they have the country’s best passing offense. Led by junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, Virginia averages 430.5 passing yards per game. If Miami’s defense isn’t able to get to the quarterback, they will have a difficult time stopping Virginia’s airborne attack.

In the two contests versus Power 5 schools, Alabama and Michigan State, Miami’s defensive line failed to generate much pressure on the opposing offense. However, the Cavaliers have not relied as much on their rush offense as much as they have on passing, and as of last week’s loss to No. 24 Wake Forest, they are averaging 115.5 rushing yards per game.

If King is not healthy enough to start on Thursday, the team will have to decide who to start between Van Dyke and Garcia. Both looked very sharp against Central Connecticut State, but Virginia is without a doubt a step up from an FCS team. Despite their potent offense, Virginia’s weaker defense – ranked 100th in the country – should allow Miami’s quarterback reserves to put their talents to the test and find success.

Despite the losses Miami has faced to their roster from an injury standpoint, Miami will be seeing the 2021 debut of running back Jaylan Knighton after his four game suspension for violating team rules, which will grant the Canes much-needed depth in the running game with Don Chaney Jr. sidelined for the season.

Regardless, whether it is Van Dyke or Garcia handling snaps Thursday night, the Canes will have to keep up with a Virginia offense that has been slinging the football with astronomical success. On offense, the key to winning this game is to take advantage of Virginia’s defensive holes by maximizing Miami’s boosted running back depth and by taking advantage of the weak pass rush. On defense, the Hurricanes have to do all they can to stop Virginia’s deadly passing game and help the secondary do so by getting to the quarterback quickly in the pocket.

The action all starts tonight at Hard Rock Stadium with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m.