Well, both teams are not exactly this young, but with Miami using a bevy of true and red-shirt freshmen and Virginia Tech using a defense that features scarcely anyone from its line-up last year, these two teams rekindle an old rivalry in a new setting with new players and dealing with new lowered expectations. Still, with identical 6-3 (3-2 in the ACC) records, tonight (7:30, ESPN) could be a tipping point for where each team's direction heads for the rest of the year.
A Little History
In the days of the Big East, especially in the late 90s and early in this decade, the Miami-Virginia Tech games had conference titles and national aspirations attached to them. In 1999 the resurgent Canes were handed a beatdown in Blacksburg by good old Michael Vick (insert Ron Mexico/dog-killing/jail joke here) in which Miami lost their only Big east conference game. Vick would lead the Hokies to the national title game but fall short to Florida State.
In 2000 Miami got revenge at the Orange Bowl, beating a slightly hobbled Vick and the Hokies by 20 and winning the Big East, but unlike Va Tech the previous season, Miami was shut out of the national title game despite being ranked higher than Florida State who they had beaten in both polls. The computers place FSU in the title game where they scored a grand total of 2 points. In 2001, Miami again got the upper hand on the road as they jumped out to a quick lead and then held on for a late 2 point win en route to their national title in the Rose Bowl. In 2002, the two teams lit up the scoreboard for 101 points in Miami with the Canes coming out on top. Miami made it to the Fiesta Bowl where they faced Ohio....oh wait, there's a flag on the field. In 2003 the Hokies snapped the skid against Miami by stomping new QB Brock Berlin and the Canes 31-7 at home and ending Miami's regular season winning streak and more importantly, pushing them behind the the BCS standings. Miami would lose again and be out of the national title picture for the first time in 3 years.
In 2004 both teams joined the ACC and Virginia Tech beat the Canes in the Orange Bowl to capture their first ACC title. Tech went on to lose to an undefeated Auburn team in the Sugar Bowl and Miami finished 9-3 and began to slide in national prominence even though they beat rival Florida in the Peach Bowl. 2005 saw one of the most unusual games in the series occur. The Hokies met on a Saturday night in Blacksburg with Marcus Vick (plenty of chances for more joke insertions) leading a 3rd ranked Hokie team against the 5th ranked Hurricanes. Miami dominated the game winning 27-7 and collecting 6 Vick turnovers. The Canes would later throw away an ACC title shot against Georgia Tech a few weeks later and then get destroyed 40-3 in the Peach Bowl to LSU. The Hokies had some hard luck too as they lost the inaugural ACC Championship game to FSU. The last two years have belonged to the Hokies and Miami has not been the same since. The Hokies won the ACC last year but fell to Kansas in the Orange Bowl. The two teams were on the national title landscape for a 6-7 year span but now are dealing with rebuilding. This year's game offers a chance to both teams not to re-enter the national picture but to gain an opportunity to make the ACC title game and attain a conference championship.
Since there are so many conference implications in this game many of the other teams in the Coastal division will be watching the outcome of this game. North Carolina sits atop the division right now with the same 3-2 record as Miami and Virginia Tech. The Heels will be rooting for the Canes tonight because they defeated Miami but lost to Virginia Tech earlier in the season. If Miami wins it will give Carolina the chance to control their fate by winning agaisnt Maryland, NC State and Duke to win the Coastal. Georgia Tech will also be in the Canes' corner tonight due to their loss at Va Tech earlier this year. The Jackets will also then need to beat Miami next Thursday night and hope UNC loses one of it's next three games while they win out. Virginia needs a lot of other teams to lose but they are still in it. They lost to Miami but beat Georgia Tech and North Carolina. They need Miami to lose and then beat Virginia Tech and have Carolina and Georgia Tech lose once more while they win the rest of their schedule. If Virginia Tech wins, and stays in a tie for first, they will have the head-to-head tie-breaker over Miami, Georgia Tech, and Carolina. If Miami wins and ends up tied for first they will hold tie-breakers over Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech (if they beat them next week). It should be a furious finish but it looks like the two teams with the upper hands after tonight's contest will be Carolina if Miami wins and Virginia Tech if they win.
The question mark in this game is how will Miami's young players handle the game under the lights in front of a national audience on ESPN. They have won 4 in a row, and skidded under the radar but now the conference title hopes are on the line. If Miami had been in the rankings, people would be making a big deal out of their 2 quarterback system. Robert Marve has been the starter since the Florida game, but Jacory Harris has seen a lot of action. Randy Shannon looks at this not as a dilemma but an advantage; plugging in the QB who is having the better game at the time. Marve seemed to be the front-runner early, but he has thrown 10 picks and some of them have been into double coverage. One of these against Duke prompted Shannon to put Jacory Harris in for the second half as they trailed 24-14. Harris lead the Canes to a 49-31 win but was not named the starter. Jacory then came in late in the 1st half in his customary role at home versus Wake Forest. Marve was the better man that day as he made a long run setting up the winning TD and a key late completion to ice the game. In Miami's last game Marve struggled and was replaced by Harris in the second half who again sparked a Miami comeback win in OT. The two QB system does not always work, but with a red-shirt freshman and true freshman who posses slightly different styles, Miami is making the most of it.
Tonight there is no telling who will get the nod in the second half and Bud Foster usually has something special cooked up for young QBs. Limiting mistakes will be the focus early for Marve, but at the same time, Miami has to take some down the field shots to allow the running game to get going. The young Miami receivers will have a tough task ahead of them and they have had some crucial drops in games so far. Travis Benjamin had been the one steady freshman on special teams and at wideout but in the Virginia game he muffed a punt early and had a key drop late on a thrid down. Aldarius Johnson, a freshman out of the highly touted Miami Northwestern High School has had his share of drops so far this season but also made a spectacular catch for the Hurricane's score in OT at Virginia. If the wideouts can make the plays, it helps the Canes' ball possesion tremendously.
Javarris James returned from an ankle injury a few weeks ago and had some solid runs against UVA. Graig Cooper has been great all year when he gets the ball. This two-headed attack could be the difference against the Hokie defense which does not have as many playmakers as it has in the past. The two RBs have combined for 793 yards and 5 TDs and both are averaging 5 yards a carry.
The Miami defense has had its ups and downs this season. They played great against Tebow and Florida but then gave up big plays to North Carolina, allowed FSU QB Christian Ponder to gain the most rush yards by a seminole QB since Charlie Ward, and let Duke put up 31 on them. They have regrouped since allowing only 10 points to Wake Forest after the Deacons scored an opening-drive TD, and forcing some big turnovers against Virginia. Losing Eric Moncur on the defensive line hurts, but Adewale Ojomo has stepped up and made plays. Ojomo has 3 sacks, 1 fumble forced and 1 recovered on the year. They will have to be stout up front to slow down the Hokie run attack.
I Like Wild Turkey
The Virginia Tech running game as begun to assert itself led by Darren Evans who has 9 rushing TDs on the season to go along with 772 yards. He set a school record last Thursday against Maryland as he ran for 253 on the ground. The Hokies beat the Terps 23-13 to keep pace in the division. A new formation was brought out by Virginia Techa s well and by new I mean every single team is doing it now. However, I think the Va Tech name for the single wing formation is my favorite.
The Wild Turkey features Greg Boone behind center and the QB split out wide. Boone did not attempt a pass against Maryland, but rushed for 22 yards. I'm sure it will make an appearance tonight.
The QB situation at Tech has been their white elephant all year, and lately it has been due to injury. Sean Glennon started the Maryland game and went 14-20 for 127 yards. Tyrod Taylor, who had become the Hokies ful-time starter has been bothered by a sprained ankle. It was said last week that Frank Beamer did not know who he was gonna have start until after he watched warm-ups last Thursday. If it is Glennon it will be more favorable to the Miami defense because of his drop-back style but if Taylor comes in, Miami will have to contain his scrambling ability. The main source of attack for the Hokies in the run game and that is where the burden of Miami's defense will fall.
The lunchpale defense as discussed has not been its usual stingy self this year but against Maryland the Hokies held the Terps to -12 yards rushing. I don't expect them to equal that tonight but if they can force Miami into 3rd and long situations, the ability to force a mistake increases. The Beamer Ball special teams have had some slips this year but in an anticipated close fought battle like tonight's a big return, block, or kick could decide the ballgame.
I usually like to refrain from making predictions when it involves my alma mater, especially on a night where my NFL team is playing a game as well, but if forced to choose a winner I would give the edge to Miami very slightly because I think the defense has made strides and will limit Evans on the ground. The game not being in Blacksburg also helps, and hopefully Miami's young players will use what they have learned over the wins and losses this year and limit those mistakes. Either way it should be a great installment in the series between these two.