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Virginia football looks to break out of slump Thursday night against Miami

The Cavaliers’ defense will need to improve from its poor showings of late

<p>&nbsp;The Cavaliers seek their first road win in nearly two years against Miami Thursday night.</p>

 The Cavaliers seek their first road win in nearly two years against Miami Thursday night.

After a promising start to the season, allowing only two touchdowns through games against William and Mary and Illinois, Virginia football has suffered back-to-back 20-point losses while letting up a combined 96 points. The defense has shown little resistance to opponents, seemingly getting gashed on every play while also failing to produce momentum-swinging plays. Extending back to the Illinois game, the Cavaliers’ (2-2, 0-2 ACC) defense went 22 drives without forcing a punt, finally forcing Wake Forest to punt in the fourth quarter when the game had been all but decided.

Virginia now faces a short week as they travel to Miami for a Thursday night clash in what has become a must-win game if the Cavaliers hope to capture the ACC Coastal crown. Virginia has lost its last two matchups with the Hurricanes (2-2, 0-0 ACC), both of which were low-scoring affairs. Furthermore, the Cavaliers have not won an away contest since November of 2019, only adding to the hurdles that they will have to overcome to pull off the upset victory.

Players to Watch

Miami junior running back Cam’Ron Harris

In Miami’s 69-0 demolition of Central Connecticut State, Harris put together his best performance of the season, rushing 10 times for 100 yards. As the Hurricane top running back, Harris has averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per rush. In Virginia’s last two games, the defense has been gashed for nearly 600 combined rushing yards, so Harris certainly has a strong opportunity to make an impact in this game. Miami will likely turn to his services early and often as a means to both control possession as well as open up the passing game for whoever may be starting at quarterback for the Hurricanes — current starter senior quarterback D’Eriq King is currently battling an injury and questionable to suit up against the Cavaliers. If Harris is able to start slicing through Virginia’s defense, it could be a long night for Cavalier fans.

Virginia senior outside linebacker Noah Taylor

It is going to take significantly more than one player to step up on defense in order to put together a respectable performance, but perhaps one of the most important pieces in that improvement is Taylor. He currently leads Virginia in both sacks and tackles for loss but had zero of both against Wake Forest, as the Cavaliers put little pressure on sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman and failed to record a sack for only the third time since the beginning of the 2020 season. With a solid season, the lanky and athletic linebacker can put himself firmly in position to get drafted to the NFL, and he has a great opportunity to make his case on national television against Miami. Taylor and the rest of Virginia’s pass rush will need to make life uncomfortable for the Hurricanes’ quarterback and force him into making rushed and pressured throws. This will be crucial in allowing the Cavalier’s secondary to limit explosive plays.

Keys to the game

Capitalize on offense

Against both North Carolina and Wake Forest, Virginia struggled turning good drives into points, especially early on when the Cavaliers fell behind. The Cavaliers’ first two drives Friday night ended inside the Demon Deacons’ five-yard line, but Virginia was only able to turn those possessions into three total points. By the time the Cavaliers started their third drive of the game, they were already in a 14-point deficit. With a defense that is struggling to find stops, it is crucial that the offense takes full advantage of its opportunities. At the end of the day, points are more important than yards, as evidenced by Wake Forest’s 20-point walloping of Virginia despite totalling less yards on offense. Converting redzone trips into touchdowns are a must if the Cavaliers hope to earn their first ACC win in three tries Thursday night.

Make big plays on defense

In its two losses, Virginia has only turned the opposition over once — an interception of North Carolina junior quarterback Sam Howell in the endzone courtesy of sophomore cornerback Fentrell Cypress. Sure enough, that turnover completely shifted the game’s momentum, fueling the Cavaliers to 21 points unanswered and a halftime lead over the Tar Heels. The momentum-swinging play on defense was nowhere to be found in either the second half against North Carolina or against Wake Forest. Whether it was allowing a big third down conversion or dropping an interception, Virginia’s defense simply left the offense to keep up as best it could. Clearly, that is not a winning recipe. It seems unlikely that the Cavaliers will all of a sudden find a new gear on defense, but if they are able to find just two or three tide-shifting plays in the course of a game, Virginia will have a much better shot at taking down both Miami and other ACC opponents.

The Cavaliers are set to travel to Miami with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday night. The game will be televised on ESPN.

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