Miami is set to take on West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl, so here are some storylines and predictions for the Hurricanes ahead of the game.
Miami will battle West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Wednesday, Dec. 28 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, FL.
The Hurricanes (8-4, 5-3 ACC) had a solid campaign under first-year head coach Mark Richt, though it was a streaky one. Miami had two four-game winning streaks sandwiched around a four-game skid in the middle of the season.
The biggest contest was perhaps a 51-28 win over Pitt, as it broke a four-game losing streak and helped the offense break out of a slump. The ‘Canes had 534 yards of total offense and paved the way for their four-game winning streak to close out the season.
‘The U’ is motivated
The Hurricanes have not been able to claim a victory in the postseason in a decade, as they have lost six straight and seven of their last eight postseason contests, so they would like to end that skid and allow Richt to finish his first season on a five-game winning streak.
This is also very likely star quarterback Brad Kaaya’s final game, as many NFL Draft prognosticators believe that he will leave Coral Gables early. The junior became the Hurricanes’ career passing leader, throwing for over 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. The O-Line let him down during the losing streak, but wide receiver Ahmmon Richards and tight end David Njoku were big targets for him down the stretch.
He’ll face a tough defense, however, coordinated by Tony Gibson. But Kaaya will produce at least 200 yards and two touchdowns through the air in what will very likely be his final game.
One of the better offseason hires before the 2016 campaign was Richt hiring Manny Diaz to be his defensive coordinator. The ‘Canes switched over from the 3-4 they employed under Al Golden to a 4-3 scheme after finishing No. 105 in tackles for loss last season. Even with some younger players, Diaz had a more explosive unit this fall, as the defensive front was among the best in the ACC. Expect a strong effort from Diaz’s unit even against a potent WVU offense. The defense as a whole allowed just 355 yards per game in 2016, and the play on that side of the ball has dramatically improved in just one season. The Mountaineers will rack up their share of yards, but this defense will produce a big play or two.
Special special teams
This game figures to be close, so the field-position battle will be huge. ‘Canes punter Justin Vogel had a very good year, averaging over 44 yards per attempt. And Braxton Berrios has averaged nearly 13 yards per punt return. The Mountaineers do not have an explosive return game, so Berrios could be a real X-Factor for Richt and Co. Expect him to have at least one return that sets up the ‘Canes in very good field position for Kaaya and the offense.
‘Canes running back Mark Walton had a really good year, producing 1,065 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. But the rushing attack as a team has been just okay. The ‘Canes only rushed for 200 yards or more once over the last ten games of the season. However, WVU’s run defense struggled over the final three contests and was steamrolled by Oklahoma. The ‘Canes may not dominate on the ground, but they will get a strong game from Walton. And that will only help open things up for Kaaya and the passing attack.
There was a lot of buzz about a recruit making his college decision based on the winner of this game. After winning a third consecutive state championship at St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida, wide receiver Mike Harley said that he said he was going to go play for whichever team wins the game between the Hurricanes and Mountaineers. However, he later tweeted this:
A Bowl Game Will Not Determine My Future..!
— Mike Harley Jr. Ⓜ️ (@harleyxvi) December 12, 2016
Harley has been committed to West Virginia since June, but he plays his high school football in South Florida. Although he could fit into WVU’s spread offense very nicely as a speedy slot receiver, I predict that Miami wins the game, and he ultimately does flip to the Hurricanes before National Signing Day.