CORAL GABLES (CBSMiami) – The University of Miami will play in its 40th bowl game on Wednesday night at the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.
The Canes are 19-20 all time in bowl games and have lost 6 straight with their last win coming in 2006.
Miami drew a very good opponent in the 14th ranked West Virginia Mountaineers who come into the game with a 10-2 record looking to win 11 games for the 11th time in their 125 years of college football history.
West Virginia plays a 3-3-5 defense that is filled with veteran players. Linebacker Justin Arndt playing in his 48th game is the team’s leading tackler with 80.
Senior cornerback Rasul Douglas leads the nation in interceptions with eight.
West Virginia allows 431 yards per game but had the best redzone defense in the Big 12.
It will be vital for Miami to generate a running game with team MVP Mark Walton. The powerful 5-foot-9, 205-pound sophomore rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Hurricanes’ first three games, a stretch that included a career-best 155-yard performance against Florida Atlantic.
“He worked hard. He practices hard every day. He does it in the weight room every day. Some people wonder where the energy comes from [because] it’s hard to be up every day. It’s hard to give the kind of physical effort he gives,” said Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt. “I think part of it is that he loves football. You can tell that. I think he loves the camaraderie of the team and I think he loves Miami. And God has blessed him, obviously, with a really good skill set, too.”
By the end of the regular season, Walton earned the Hurricanes’ most-valuable player award at the team’s annual awards ceremony, and the 55-yard touchdown run he had against Pittsburgh to seal the victory was the number one play of the year.
He’ll enter the Russell Athletic Bowl showdown against West Virginia with 1,065 rushing yards and a team-high 15 touchdowns on 192 carries.
“I think coming off last year, I improved well,” Walton said. “This is one of my best years so far. I’m just trying to move on next year and try to top this whole year. But by far, this is my best year.”
Walton’s coaches have said similar things and they know his importance to Miami’s offense.
“I think Mark’s meant a lot. Being voted overall, team MVP was a huge accomplishment for him,” said Hurricanes offensive coordinator and running backs coach Thomas Brown. “I think he was kind of surprised he was actually voted that. He still has a lot of room to grow as a player and can become better, become more of a vocal leader. From a life standpoint, he’s a guy that I’ve spent a lot of time with, individually talking about things outside of football. There’s not much motivation to be had when it comes to him on the football field, but I want him to be great as a person first. Not that he isn’t, but I want him to continue to grow in those areas, as well as on the football field.”
The challenge for the Hurricanes defense is to make West Virginia one dimensional.
The Mountaineers run a balanced offense averaging 506 yards per game; 239 on the ground, 267 through the air.
Quarterback Skyler Howard has tossed 26 touchdowns and run for 9. Running back Justin Crawford has gained 1168 yards including 331 yards vs Oklahoma.
West Virginia is always looking for the deep ball and the main threat is receiver Shelton Gibson averaging 23 yards per catch, 3rd best in the nation. He has caught 8 touchdowns with a long of 71 yards.
“He has run by everyone that has played against him this year, and we told all our DB’s `He ran by all the guys they had last (game),’” Hurricanes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “So his speed is really frightening, and the quarterback does a good job, throws a good deep ball. We can’t simulate that in our practice, certainly with our scout team we don’t have a guy that can just blow by our guys the way that he can. So not just in terms of what he can do down the field, but after the catch issues. We were thinking about it as a staff, I don’t know that we’ve gone up against a wide receiver this year as explosive as he is, so it’ll be a great challenge for our DB’s.”
In 15 years as head coach at Georgia, Mark Richt’s teams went an impressive 9-5 in bowl games.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is aware that Richt gets his team prepared for bowl games.
“If you look at his bowl record as a head coach its good,” said Holgorsen. “He’s an experienced, established guy who knows how to deal with this, so they have a plan in place and I think we do too from the way we have done bowl games and my 16 years of doing bowl games, we’ve won a bunch of bowl games, so I think we have a pretty good handle on it too.”
Holgorsen enters the game with a 2-2 bowl record.