Things to watch, as No. 13 Tech squares off versus No. 9 Miami

By Jimmy Robertson

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – In a few hours, the game of the year in the ACC’s Coastal Division kicks off, as No. 13 Virginia Tech takes on No. 9 Miami at Hard Rock Stadium here in South Florida.

A victory gives the winner an inside track to the Coastal Division title and a spot in the ACC Championship Game. The loser will face a difficult road to claim a spot in the title game.

The Hokies (7-1, 3-1 ACC) enter the game having won three straight after an early-season hiccup to No. 6-ranked Clemson, the defending national champion. Miami (7-0, 5-0 ACC) is one of five remaining unbeaten FBS teams and has won 12 straight dating back to last year.

The two teams feature a lot of the same characteristics, which makes this an even more compelling matchup. Both teams play outstanding defense, and both take care of the football. So this could be a low-scoring, defensive slugfest.

That said, here are some things to watch:

The Miami crowd – The Hokies will be playing just their third true road game of the season. Tech’s schedule has featured a quasi season-opening home game at FedExField, a bunch of home games in September and October and road games in half-empty stadiums at East Carolina and Boston College.

But Tech may face a raucous crowd at Hard Rock Stadium. Miami fans like big games and there appears to be a lot of hype in South Florida surrounding this one. In fact, the ’Canes plan on breaking out their “Miami Nights” all-black uniforms for the first time when they take the field.

Of course, fans and uniforms don’t win games. Tech knows this (see: the Clemson loss). The Hokies’ young squad needs to stay poised early, get into some semblance of a rhythm and take the crowd somewhat out of it.

Miami on third down – Surprisingly, the ’Canes are the eighth-worst team in Division I in converting on third down, converting on less than 29 percent of their opportunities. Virginia Tech’s defense excels in this area, holding opponents to a 24 percent conversion rate, which ranks as the third-best in the country. The ’Canes rank in the top 25 nationally in total offense (465.6 ypg), but much of that comes in chunks (more on that), so getting Miami into third-and-long situations certainly works to Tech’s advantage.

Tech limiting the big play – Despite struggling on third downs, Miami’s offense thrives because it makes so many big plays, and therein lies the biggest challenge for Virginia Tech’s defense. In seven games, Miami has accumulated 55 plays of 20 yards or more, including 28 through the air.

Quarterback Malik Rosier leads Miami’s explosive attack, and averages 285.8 yards passing per game. Miami also averages 185.5 yards rushing per game. So far this season, the ’Canes have amassed at least 400 yards of offense in every game except for one.

In contrast, Tech has done a terrific job defensively this season, and Miami figures to find the going much tougher against the Hokies’ defense, which ranks second nationally in scoring defense (11.5 ppg), ninth in total defense (284.5 ypg), and 12th in rushing defense (110.8 ypg). Tech’s strategy centers on stopping the run first, which it has done this season and did last year in a 37-16 win over Miami – the ’Canes finished with just 42 yards rushing, primarily because of eight sacks.

If the Hokies limit the big play, they stand a great chance of winning – again.

Special on special teams – Tech fans know the story on the Hokies, who have been outstanding on special teams this season. Using Oscar Bradburn’s punts and Joey Slye’s kickoffs, they have been able to pin teams back, and that stands as a primary reason why the team sits at 7-1 on the year.

Tonight, Tech faces a team on par with it in regards to special teams, at least statistically. Miami punt returner Braxton Berrios averages 16.5 yards per return – tops in the ACC and the sixth-best mark nationally. Kick returner Jeff Thomas has 10 kick returns of 20 yards or more. Kicker Michael Badgley is 12 of 14 on the year, with both of his misses coming from beyond 50 yards. The ’Canes coverage units are solid, too, as the punt team hasn’t allowed a return yard this season.

In an evenly contested game, special teams is usually the difference. The Hokies have been exceptional this season – but need to be careful tonight.

Tech’s red-zone offense – The Hokies have been solid in the red zone this season, scoring on 86.5 percent of their trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. However, 11 of their trips have ended with field goals. Tech only scores touchdowns on 57 percent of its red-zone trips.

That said, this game marks the perfect opportunity to increase those numbers. Miami ranks just 52nd nationally in total defense (377.4 ypg), and in particular, it really struggles in the red zone. The ’Canes’ red-zone defense is tied for 97th nationally, allowing scores on 22 of 25 attempts.

It’s no secret how Miami thrives defensively – turnovers. The ’Canes rank tied for 25th nationally in turnovers gained, including tied for 12th in interceptions. That means Tech needs to take care of the ball, which it has done well so far this season (only six turnovers this season).

If the Hokies, though, can get in the red zone and punch it in two or three times (or more!), they give themselves a great chance of winning.

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