After picking up the first conference win of Coach Tony Elliott’s career, Virginia will try to pick up a second straight win over Miami at Scott Stadium Saturday. The Cavaliers (3-4, 1-3 ACC) are coming off of an ugly road victory against Georgia Tech where the team committed four turnovers and 10 penalties, but benefitted just enough from an early injury to the Yellow Jackets’ starting quarterback to pull out a 16-9 triumph.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes (3-4, 1-2 ACC) are coming off a 45-21 loss to Duke and have lost four of their last five after peaking at No. 13 in the AP poll just six weeks ago. Despite the tough loss and a long trip up the east coast, Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric favors Miami by about three points.
Players to watch
Miami’s starting quarterback
For the third straight week, Virginia will potentially face a team’s backup quarterback. As of now, it’s unclear which passer will start for the Hurricanes come Saturday. Preseason Heisman candidate sophomore Tyler Van Dyke had disappointed before going down with an apparent upper-body injury in the first half against Duke Saturday. His backup, freshman Jake Garcia, threw a pair of touchdowns and had Miami leading 21-17 early in the third quarter, but he melted down after that, fumbling twice and throwing two backbreaking interceptions that let the Blue Devils rip off four unanswered touchdowns to end the game.
Van Dyke is still questionable for Saturday’s game, and Coach Mario Cristobal gave no update on the injury Monday morning. Even if the sophomore starts, he will probably not be at full strength. No matter who plays, the Miami offense will be susceptible to turning the ball over and an improving Virginia defense will be looking to pounce on any opportunities.
Virginia senior defensive lineman Chico Bennett
Bennett has been a bright spot in the trenches for a Cavalier defense that’s been better than expected. The senior defensive end has racked up six sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in seven games. In his return to his former school Georgia Tech last week, he registered two sacks and seven tackles, a performance that earned the edge rusher his second ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week award of the season.
Against Miami, expect Bennett to focus on pinning his ears back and getting after the quarterback. Duke racked up six sacks against Van Dyke and Garcia a week ago, and similar pressure from the Virginia defensive line should force lots of long third downs and bad decisions from either quarterback.
Keys to the game
Holding onto the football
While Virginia’s offense as a whole has regressed since the high flying days of 2021, the team has moved the ball just fine. However, they have had massive issues with turnovers. The team has a bottom-15 turnover margin in the FBS — minus-six — this season, with senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong throwing nine interceptions and the team losing 10 fumbles. This counteracts what has been a middle of the pack showing in yards per play.
Against Georgia Tech, Virginia turned the ball over three times. One of those was a pick-six from Armstrong that was the Yellow Jackets’ only touchdown of the game, and another was on a deep drive into enemy territory. This meant that despite outgaining its opponent by over 200 yards, the Cavaliers won by just seven. Virginia can’t afford to leave points on the board by giving the ball away in a game where the margins may end up being very tight.
Meanwhile, Miami is coming off of an even uglier game where it lost five fumbles and turned the ball over eight times against Duke. This took their turnover differential down to minus-five on the season, just one better than Virginia. Garcia turned the ball over five times in roughly three quarters of action, and Van Dyke has not been the most careful with the football either. Whichever team can win what should be a high-scoring turnover battle should have the upper hand in the contest.
Overcoming kicking woes
These teams project to be very even, with Miami’s slight advantage on paper mostly canceled out by having to play on the road. If the game is close late, then fans of both teams may end up sweating their kicking situations.
After starting the season as a backup, Virginia freshman kicker phenom Will Bettridge took the field goal kicker job from junior kicker Brendan Farrell after the incumbent struggled. So far Bettridge has been serviceable, making seven of nine points after touchdowns, or PATs, and three of five field goals. While the freshman is solid from long-range, having hit a 47-yarder earlier in the year, he’s looked shaky on more routine kicks, missing a pair of field goals from less than 40 yards.
Miami’s kicker, sophomore Andres Borregales, has been more solid. The Miami native is a perfect 25-25 on PATs, but has missed three field goals, two within his normal range. He has a career long of 55 yards, but has only maxed out at 48 this year. Borregales also missed a potentially game-winning 33-yarder as time expired against Virginia in 2021, giving the Cavaliers a crucial win in Miami Gardens, Fla. Ultimately Miami has the special teams advantage, but neither team should be comfortable calling to their kicker with the game on the line.
If Virginia can play a clean game, they have a very good chance to knock off the once-ranked Hurricanes. The game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. in Scott Stadium Saturday, and it will be broadcast on ESPN.