After falling to Wake Forest 40-23 last weekend, Virginia football looks to halt a three-game slide against No. 11 Miami Saturday in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Cavaliers (1-3, 1-3 ACC) have struggled to stop opposing offenses this season, allowing an average of 34.8 points per game — the second-worst in the ACC. The Hurricanes (4-1, 3-1 ACC), on the other hand, have benefitted from the stellar play of senior quarterback D’Eriq King, who is sure to be an All-ACC selection come season’s end.
Miami welcomes Virginia having posted three solid ACC wins against Louisville, Florida State and Pittsburgh. The Hurricanes’ offense — headed by first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee — has played a massive role in Miami’s rejuvenation as an ACC stalwart, averaging over 40 points per game when not including a blowout loss to Clemson. King and junior running back Cam’Ron Harris have been particularly outstanding, as Lashlee has used them both in option plays to confuse defenses and gain big yardage on the ground.
On the other hand, Virginia has allowed 38 points or more in three straight contests and will face another tough offense to contain in Miami. Despite being perceived as the Cavaliers’ strong point coming into the season, the Cavalier defense has looked disorganized, allowing teams to open up early leads that became insurmountable for the new offense. For Virginia to have a chance to defeat Miami for the second time in six seasons, the Cavaliers must play with purpose and discipline on both sides of the ball.
Players to watch
Virginia senior inside linebacker Zane Zandier
While it’s no secret that Miami likes to run the option offense with King and Harris, the sheer power the two run the ball with often surprises teams. King weighs in at 202 pounds while Harris sits at 210 pounds, and both are unafraid to lower a shoulder and drive through contact. It will be up to Zandier to organize the defense against this dynamic duo and make quick decisions quickly in order to stop the ball-carrier. Similar to King and Harris, Zandier has a physical style of play when it comes to approaching the run, and the Pittsburgh, Pa. native will need to be relentless to bottle up Miami’s rush attack. Furthermore, on pass plays, Zandier will often be called upon to be a QB spy and prevent King from breaking out of the pocket and into the open field. If Zandier can have a big night and play hard-nosed football for four quarters, Miami’s offense will have trouble getting in a groove.
Miami senior quarterback D’Eriq King
After spending four years torching the American Athletic Conference at Houston, King has seen his talents translate well to the ACC. The Manvel, Texas native accounts for 1,332 yards in the air and on the ground and 12 total touchdowns, serving as the cornerstone of a Miami team that looks to restore its former glory. As a whole, Cavaliers have struggled at times with dual-threat quarterbacks like Virginia Tech junior Hendon Hooker and Louisville junior Malik Cunningham and will face one of the better ones in the country in King. If King is able to hit his receivers early and beat Virginia in the air, it’ll open up rushing lanes for him and set up a long night for the Cavalier defense.
Keys to the game
Limit King’s passing options
For Virginia to keep King’s running lanes plugged, the Cavalier defense will first have to focus on stopping the pass. When King is able to establish the pass, opposing defenses are forced to drop more players in coverage — opening clear running lanes for King to shoot through. In particular, the Virginia secondary has struggled with covering the deep throws this year, and if the Cavaliers continue this trend, Miami is sure to jump out to a huge early lead. Senior cornerbacks Nick Grant and safety Joey Blount — both of who have struggled this year — will need to step up and prevent the secondary from getting out to yet another sluggish start.
Lean on the three-quarterback system
While senior quarterback Lindell Stone has been a serviceable replacement for the injured Armstrong, the simplicity of his reads makes Virginia’s passing attack more predictable as the game progresses. However, when Stone is combined with dual-threat quarterbacks in junior Keytaon Thompson and freshman Ira Armstead and the improved play-calling of offensive coordinator Robert Anae, the Cavalier offense is a force to be reckoned with. In a game against a top-15 ACC opponent and with nothing to lose, Virginia should get creative with the offensive play-calls and use Stone, Thompson and Armstead to the fullest, as the success of the system is tantamount to the Cavaliers’ potential to defeat the Hurricanes.
Kick-off at Hard Rock Stadium is set for Saturday at 8 p.m. The game will be televised on the ACC Network.
Miami roster: https://miamihurricanes.com/sports/football/roster/