Miami refuses complacency as it prepares for Virginia

Photo credit: Josh White

The No. 3 Hurricanes are coming off their most impressive win of the year, but that doesn’t mean they can relax.

With hopes to be one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff, undefeated Miami must close the season strong. Despite already winning the Coastal Division for the first time in program history and having a matchup with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game set for Dec. 2, UM must maintain its focus

“We know that we are in the top four and that the top four get to go,” head coach Mark Richt said. “But, we also know how we got here. We got here by being a team that was grinding away and trying to find ways to win. I think we are trying to stay humble and trying to earn everything we get.”

The Canes (9-0, 6-0 ACC) play their home finale against the Virginia Cavaliers (6-4, 3-3 ACC) Nov. 18.

Virginia is coming off a loss to Louisville last weekend, but the Cavaliers have had a successful year. With six wins, they are eligible to play in a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

The Cavaliers are led by starting quarterback Kurt Benkert, who ranks No. 4 in passing yards in the ACC and has started every game. They also have two dynamic running backs, Jordan Ellis and Olamide Zaccheaus. Ellis, the traditional running back, ranks No. 6 in the conference in rushing yards. Zaccheaus, the pass-catching running back, ranks No. 5 in the conference in receiving yards.

“They prevent you from ever being comfortable defensively,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said about Virginia’s offense. “They are always presenting you with a different personnel group, a different formation, a different pre-snap motion, a shift. It’s a team you absolutely have to pay attention to because you can get beat before the snap.”

Defensively, Brenton Nelson and Micah Kiser are two Virginia players to watch.

Nelson, who started the season as a walk-on athlete, is a redshirt freshman safety. He is now a starter and leads his team with four interceptions, which is tied with Miami’s Michael Jackson and Duke’s Mark Gilbert for No. 2 in interceptions in the ACC.

Kiser has been one of the best defensive players throughout college football. He ranks No. 1 in the conference and No. 7 in the country in total tackles with 106.

“We’ve got a challenge,” Richt said. “It’s not just a normal look. It’s going to take a lot of film study to get ready for this one.”

Miami will be missing an important part of the linebacker core with Charles Perry out for the rest of the season after sustaining a lower extremity injury against Notre Dame last week.

“Wilder has been training for this moment,” Diaz said about Perry’s replacement, De’Andre Wilder. “We’ve been impressed with him since he’s been here. We always tell those guys, ‘You never know when your chances will come about.'”

Despite blowing out their last two opponents, the Hurricanes could face some problems against the Cavaliers. Wins against unranked teams have not come easy to UM – Georgia Tech, Syracuse and North Carolina all being clear examples.

“You are playing for where you are going to be at the end of the year,” Diaz said. “The sole intention of our football team is trying to find a way to improve off of how we played last week, and we are really not thinking of anything past Virginia.”

It will Senior Day at Hard Rock Stadium when these two teams face off, meaning this game will be an emotional one for players who will be taking part in their last home game as a Hurricane.

“It hasn’t hit me yet,” senior receiver Braxton Berrios said. “It’s very bittersweet. I’m not ready to be done here. I’m not ready to leave the locker room, this group of guys, this group of coaches and everything the University of Miami stands for.”

Kickoff will be at noon Nov. 18 at Hard Rock Stadium.