CHARLOTTE (CBSMiami) – For the first time in program history, the Miami Hurricanes are set to play in the ACC Championship Game.
The 7th ranked, Coastal Division champion Hurricanes will face top ranked Clemson of the Atlantic Division – winners of the ACC for the past two seasons.
The Tigers are defending National Champions, and have played in the title game for two consecutive years. The Hurricanes will try to keep Clemson out of the four team playoff, while punching their own ticket in the process.
“They are really an amazing team,” Miami head coach Mark Richt said of Clemson. “They’ve won 42 of the last 45 games – that’s pretty special…Not a good team, but a great team. A championship team. We know we’ve got a tremendous challenge. We’re thankful for it. I thanked the team today that I’m coaching today and not on the road – although I love recruiting.”
Miami will need to bounce back in a big way from their most recent outing. In their regular season finale, the Hurricanes fell 24-14 at unranked Pittsburgh in a sleepy performance. It was the Hurricanes’ (10-1) first and only defeat of the season.
Starting quarterback Malik Rosier, now 11-1 in his career, played his worst game as a Hurricane. Rosier went 15 for 34 for 187 yards. While he did throw two touchdowns, he missed open receivers on plays that could have led to several more.
For most of the season, Rosier has been a revelation for Miami. He’s thrown for 2,807 yards with 25 touchdowns to 9 interceptions, while also rushing for 408 yards and 5 touchdowns. His dual threat nature has made him tough to stop. He scored key rushing touchdowns in wins over Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and Virginia.
Rosier and Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant have a lot in common. Both have been pleasant surprises after taking over for established starters, Brad Kaaya and Deshaun Watson. Both offer dual threats.
Bryant’s passing numbers pale slightly to Rosier’s, but eclipse him on the ground. The South Carolina native has rushed for 639 yards and 10 touchdowns. Through the air, he’s thrown for 2,426 yards with 12 touchdowns and 6 INT’s.
The injury bug has hit Miami hard over the past week. Tight End Christopher Herndon, who’s second on the team in receptions (40), yards (477) and touchdowns (4), is out for the year with an MCL injury. The depth behind him is virtually untested. His backup, Michael Irvin II, has just 5 catches on the season for 56 yards. The only other two scholarship tight ends, Scott Patchan and Brian Polendey, have zero career catches apiece.
“He has played in games,” head coach Mark Richt said of Irvin. “He has played in big games. So it’s not like Michael hasn’t played any. He has played a good bit. He gets a ton of reps in practice. Our number two units get almost as many snaps as our number one unit. He knows what to do, he knows how to do it, you just have to do it. There’s hardly been a player that didn’t raise his level of play when he became a starter.”
Richt added: “I think he’ll be fine.”
Meanwhile, the wide receiver position suffered a huge loss. During Wednesday’s practice, sophomore Ahmmon Richards was carted off the field with a lower body injury. The university later confirmed that his season is done.
Richards had struggled with ankle and hamstring issues throughout the year, and still managed 439 receiving yards and 3 touchdown catches.
Without Richards, expect senior leader Braxton Berrios, Miami’s leading receiver, to carry much of the load. But Miami will need contributions from others like the speedy Jeff Thomas, Mike Harley, Dayall Harris and miracle-man Darrell Langham – to keep the pressure off Berrios.
Key Matchup – the trenches
Clemson’s defensive line features a pair of first-team All ACC tackles and two second-team defensive ends. Tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence clog the interior while ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant harass opposing quarterbacks. Can Miami’s talented O-line, book-ended by senior left tackle K.C. McDermott and freshman phenom right tackle Navaughn Donaldson, give Rosier any time to throw? And can they open running lanes for Homer and Deejay Dallas?
Defensively, Miami’s front seven has been a major strength. Tackles RJ McIntosh and Kendrick Norton anchor a group with speed and skill on the edges from ends Chad Thomas, Joe Jackson, and Trent Harris.
Miami’s starting linebackers, Shaq Quarterman, Zach McLeod and Michael Pinckney, are fast and aggressive. They’ll be tasked with containing Kelly Bryant when he decides to run.
Miami’s starting running back, Travis Homer, needs just 139 rushing yards to break 1,000 in his first season as a starter. And Homer didn’t get his first start until game 5, when he took over for the injured Mark Walton. Homer has rushed for 7 touchdowns on the year. He’s also caught a touchdown pass.
Miami has forced 29 turnovers this season and leads the nation with a plus-17 turnover margin. The Canes have gained 21 turnovers over their past six games – more than 93 FBS teams have gained all year.
Hurricanes safety Jaquan Johnson leads the team with 6 turnovers on 4 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries.
But Miami needs to capitalize on every takeaway if they expect beat a team of Clemson’s caliber. Against Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes forced 2 turnovers and turned those takeaways into zero points. Missed opportunities can lose games, as they did in Pittsburgh.
As noted by Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, his Tigers have scored 77 points off turnovers this season while Miami has scored 72.
Miami leads the all time series with Clemson 6-4, but their most recent matchup helped change the course of Miami football. In 2015 at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the Tigers crushed the Canes 58-0. It was Miami’s worst home loss in program history, and prompted the dismissal of then-head coach Al Golden. Mark Richt succeeded him and has so far succeeded in bringing the Hurricanes back toward national prominence.
And still, the majority of Miami’s roster was on that team that lost 58-0 to these Tigers, and surely have not forgotten. Miami will have a chip on their shoulder to avenge their bitter defeat.
Kickoff for 1 Clemson and 7 Miami, for the ACC Championship is set for 8:14 PM at Bank Of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina 0n Saturday, December 2nd.
You can listen to the game on 560 WQAM with pregame coverage starting at 4:00 PM.