After the first four weeks of the season, the University of Miami made it through with an unblemished record, a consensus No. 14 ranking (AP/Coaches Poll) and a growing confidence for the future that’s permeating through the school and the fan base.
But as Damon Wayans told his exhausted troops after a strenuous workout in the comedy movie Major Payne: “tomorrow, we’re gonna start the hard stuff”.
The month of October is still shaping up to be a scary stretch – starting this Saturday when Miami (3-0) travels to Georgia Tech (3-1, 1-1 ACC) for its ACC opener at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The Canes, who will host bitter rival Florida State (Oct. 8) and North Carolina (Oct. 15) before traveling to Virginia Tech (Oct. 20) and Notre Dame (Oct. 29), know that their season will be made or broken by what happens over the next four weeks.
“I mean we really haven’t done anything yet,” junior quarterback Brad Kaaya told reporters this week at practice. “Obviously, it is great that we are ranked high and started the season 3-0. But the season pretty much starts now. Because, to be honest, the last three weeks were supposed to happen. We were supposed to beat FAMU and FAU and really we were supposed to beat Appalachian State two weeks ago.”
“So this weekend is when things get real and it is time for us to fully lock in,” Kaaya said.
Miami will need to lock in defensively this weekend, going against the Yellow Jackets and their triple-option offense.
Since Georgia Tech hired coach Paul Johnson in 2007, the team has used an option scheme – and despite critics calling it “antiquated” and “gimmicky”, the Yellow Jackets have consistently been one of the nation’s top scoring offenses over the past six seasons and they’ve finished in first or tied for first place in the Coastal four out of the past seven seasons.
To the credit of the previous coaching staff, the Hurricanes have won four out of their past five meetings with Georgia Tech – including defeating the Yellow Jackets 38-21 in the 2015 home finale.
Head coach Mark Richt does have an impressive 13-2 all-time record against Georgia Tech, coming from his days with the University of Georgia where he played the Yellow Jackets on an annual basis.
But Richt said Wednesday that he’s always leaned on the expertise of his defensive coordinators. For the Canes, that means Manny Diaz will be responsible for dialing up a game plan that balances gap discipline with his penchant for “unwavering violence”.
“I never felt that the two were at odds with each other,” Diaz said about playing with gap discipline and attacking ball carriers.
“You have to have gap discipline when you play against anyone. There’s a mentality that ‘assignment football’ only shows up when you’re playing an option team. But there’s always an A gap, a B gap and a C gap and someone has to be responsible for it and the demeanor in which they play it really shouldn’t change.”
“The challenge for our guys is to not let what [Georgia Tech] does make us play slow. That’s what they want to do – they want you to become slower and they do a lot of things that will make you think and make you slow down. But we have to play fast and play through those things,” Diaz added.
Through the first three games of the season, Miami is allowing just 65 rushing yards per game – ranking No. 4 in the NCAA – and the Canes are the No. 1 team in points allowed with 7.7 a game.
Georgia Tech had it rough last week in its 26-7 lost to No. 5 Clemson. The Tigers held the Yellow Jackets to 124 total yards of offense (95 rushing) and put the clamps on senior quarterback Justin Thomas.
A lot of the Hurricanes defensive success will be tied to the trio of freshmen linebackers.
Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud have quickly ingratiated themselves with fans with their impressive performances through the first three weeks.
Pinckney’s 16 total tackles is tied for the team lead, while Quarterman and McCloud have registered 12 and seven total stops respectively.
Coaches have said repeatedly that they don’t view Pinckney, McCloud and Quarterman as freshmen. All coming to Coral Gables as high school blue chips, the trio enrolled early and has been on campus since the spring.
“As a coach, you see the ups and downs that they have,” coach Diaz said. “They’re learning the grind of college football…not feeling 100 percent and having to learn how to play when your shoulder is sore. They’re coming to terms with that. But the big question has been ‘will they play fast?’ and the answer up to this point has been yes.”
“That’s the challenge in this game against Georgia Tech’s offense – can they process what they practiced and can they play fast in the game. That’s what we’ll find out on Saturday,” Diaz said.
The three held court Wednesday after practice, speaking to reporters as a group.
When asked about how they’ll fight against being deceived by Georgia Tech’s option offense, McCloud and Quarterman sounded like seasoned veterans playing it close to the vest.
“It all starts with eye discipline, if you don’t follow your keys or your eye progressions – things can escalate really fast,” Quarterman said.
“You can’t try to make plays that are not really meant for you. Everybody has their man, everybody has their assignment; just have to follow yours and trust the game plan that the coaches came up with,” McCloud added.
Pinckney spoke with veteran swag, though.
“It’s a boring offense, really,” Pinckney said. “They don’t do too many different things so it’s a lot of repetition. That can lull you in, so you just have to stay focused.”
The Canes can’t get lulled into a false sense of accomplishment. Georgia Tech will present a new set of challenges and things will only get tougher as October wears on.
“We haven’t had any success that really counts,” Quarterman began.
“We haven’t done nothing,” Pinckney chirped.
“This is the first week. This is the first game that really counts. In some ways, we just finished the preseason. Those were all good wins and we learned things throughout each of those weeks. But now is when it all starts – when we get in the big part of our schedule.”
ACC Championship Game Moved To Orlando
The ACC officially announced Thursday that it has moved its football conference championship game from Charlotte, North Carolina and will play it in Orlando, Florida at Camping World Stadium (formerly The Citrus Bowl).
The decision to relocate the game stems from North Carolina state legislature enacting a law that discriminates against the LGBTQ community. The NCAA as a whole has moved other sports events out of the state also as in reaction to the discriminatory laws.
The 12th annual conference title game between the ACC’s Atlantic and Coastal Division Champions remains scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 3 and will kick off in primetime at 7:45 or 8 p.m.
Miami, which has never played in the ACC championship game, would be a huge draw if it won the ACC Coastal division – allowing fans to make the short three-hour drive to Central Florida for a potential showdown with ACC Atlantic division favorites Clemson, Louisville or Florida State.