After Hours Showdown

Did I miss something? I mean, it's always been cool for everyone outside of Coral Gables to hate Miami – but when did consistently picking against this team become the hottest new trend? I thought the convincing win at #5 Florida State put all that to rest. As seven point underdogs, the Canes rolled into Tallahassee, jumped out to a 19-0 halftime lead and shut down every facet of the Seminoles game – or lack thereof.

Damn near everyone in the nation picked against Miami on October 11th and had to eat their words as soon as the clock hit 0:00. There were a few apologies spewed by the talking heads that called Miami out and it appeared the lesson was learned – don't pick against this team until you have a legitimate reason to. Give the Canes the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

Seems a 39-game regular season win streak doesn't mean all that much these days, either. God forbid mighty Oklahoma, Ohio State, Southern Cal – perish the thought – Notre Dame put together a streak like this. Those squads would have carte blanche every time they laced up and took the field. Not Miami, though. The Canes have to earn it week in and week out. Doesn't matter if that streak is 39 or 139 games – to the rest of the world, Miami is only as good as their last big win.

Going into this Saturday's match up with #11 Virginia Tech, you would think it was #2 Miami who lost last weekend. All the chatter is of a hungry, fired up Hokies team that will save their season with this monumental win. CBS Sportsline, Sporting News, FOX Sports and a handful of others have already made their prediction – Hokies by something in the neighborhood of a field goal. The Canes are a pretty good squad – but dammit, Virginia Tech is just flat out better. Who cares if they were embarrassed last weekend and exposed by West Virginia in that Wednesday night debacle? This is the same Mountaineers bunch that deserved to beat Miami and almost did a few weeks back!

Key word there opinionated and biased media members - almost.

West Virginia definitely gave Miami all they could handle in the Thursday night match up a few weeks back. Took them to the wire, but the Canes prevailed 22-20. Make no mention of the fact that the Canes got in the red zone six times walking away with five field goals and a poorly thrown sure touchdown pass to Kellen Winslow that was intercepted. Point being – Miami beat West Virginia. What is all this "almost" crap?

Conversely, then #3 Virginia Tech was manhandled by West Virginia. They got seven points on a bogus defensive play that should've been called back while their offense never even threatened to score. Tech's ineffective play mirrors recent Hokie teams who start the season with high hopes, are predicted to win the Big East and anticipate a match up with Miami where both squads will be undefeated – playing for a title game berth.

This season – like 2001 and 2002 – Virginia Tech has scheduled the standard cupcakes to pound on and climb the rankings with lopsided wins. Central Florida, James Madison and Connecticut were this year's victims. Other recent opponents have been Arkansas State, Western Michigan and Akron. As a result, a Top 15 Tech squad shoots out the gate, climbs the rankings as teams with real out of conference opponents stumble, remains undefeated halfway through the season and then gets beaten by an unranked opponent because they haven't been battle tested.

In 2001 it was a sub par Syracuse team that knocked off then undefeated #5 Virginia Tech, 22-14 in Blacksburg. The same Orangemen that Miami dismantled 59-0 three weeks later. Last season it was unranked Pittsburgh that took down a #3 Virginia Tech team 28-21 at Lane Stadium. In both cases, these losses sent the Hokies spiraling, going 2-3 after their first loss of the season.

This year West Virginia played the role of spoiler – which begs the question, why are media members using last week's loss to the Mountaineers as some sort of Hokie battle cry? Based on recent history, what has anyone believing Frank Beamer's team is going to turn it around and rebound against Miami? Since 1987 his Hokies are 0-13 against Top 5 teams. In their history they are 0-34 against Top 10 squads. Bouncing back against high quality opponents and righting the ship after an unexpected loss are not Virginia Tech's strong suit.

In no way am I counting Virginia Tech out of Saturday's game. They are a talented team that if they have an ounce of heart, should take out their frustrations on Miami. After last week's embarrassing loss on national television, someone should feel the brunt of their frustration. They're going through all the motions, calling this their National Championship game and saying a win over the Canes would save their season.

The lopsided beating by West Virginia could also change the perception Miami has of them as a team. A hard fought battle of pitting #2 against #3 for Big East supremacy, oozing with championship implications was what everyone expected. All of this could leave Miami taking Virginia Tech lightly and ripe for the upset.

Problem for Tech is Miami still feels they're David going up against Goliath.

Earlier this week Larry Coker, Maurice Sikes, Kevin Beard and Jarrett Payton were on ESPN speaking of being the underdogs. The Canes are comparing themselves to wounded animals – backed into a corner and ready to come out fighting. They spoke of the hatred they feel when they go on the road and how they love the challenge of proving themselves – silencing those hostile opposing crowds. The vintage Miami "us against the world" mentality is in full force. You're either with this team or against it.

This is the intangible those clowns at ESPN, Sporting News and CBS don't comprehend when they make their biased, trendy predictions. They all hear, "it's a Canes thing" but could never comprehend it.

Miami will be ready for this game. There is no overlooking Virginia Tech or assuming that their recent loss makes this match up any less dangerous. The 7-0 Canes know they have not dominated all their competition this season. Offensively this isn't the most potent Hurricane unit this decade. Defense and special teams have been called upon to step up and pave the way to victory at times. There is no reason to think that will change anytime soon. That is the dynamic of the 2003 Miami Hurricanes. If one facet of the team is sluggish, the others must put it in overdrive. Somebody always finds a way to step up and make a play.

2003 marks the third year in a row Miami enters this game undefeated and Virginia Tech limps in with at least one loss. But make no mistake; this should be another top notch Miami vs. Virginia Tech battle.

Offensively VPI brings back a similar attack as 2002. Bryan Randall is still the man calling the shots behind center with Marcus Vick anxiously waiting for his shot at the starting role. Beamer stuck with Randall last week in his 0 touchdowns, 3 interceptions performance and never went to Vick off the bench. Another lackluster performance by Randall and Mike's little bro could see some playing time sooner than later.

At tailback, Kevin Jones replaces the departed Lee Suggs while Cedric Humes will back up Jones. The offensive line has seen a little reshuffling since last season and while they took care of business against lesser competition, they struggled last week against West Virginia. The Mountaineers sacked Randall four times and hurried him for most of the evening which contributed to his three interceptions. He also rushed for a season low -8 yards.

Ernest Wilford is still the go-to receiver and will forever be out to prove himself against the Canes after his 2-point conversion drop in 2001 – a deciding factor in the game's outcome. Justin Hamilton has solidified himself as the number two receiver while defensive back DeAngelo Hall has seen minimal action at receiver as well. Tight end Keith Willis has essentially been a non factor with five receptions on the season.

Defensively it is difficult to figure out Virginia Tech. They return 10 starters, but defense wasn't exactly their strong suit in 2002. They were an untested unit going into last week's match up as Central Florida, James Madison, Rutgers and Connecticut are helped make up their then 6-0 record. In their biggest game of the season, West Virginia's Quincy Wilson rushed 33 times for 178 yards and a touchdown. Through the air Rasheed Marshall was 7 of 14 for 162 yards and a touchdown, spreading the ball to four different receivers. Of course 93 of those passing yards came on one play, but it showed there is vulnerability in regards to Tech's secondary.

One area where Tech remains sound is on special teams. Three blocked kicks on the season already and as the Canes can attest from past meetings, the Hokies have the ability to change the complexity of the game with big special teams play.

One would think that Miami coaches had a long, hard look at West Virginia's game plan last week. Pounding the ball at the Virginia Tech front seven with Jarrett Payton, Jason Geathers and Tyrone Moss has to be Priority #1. Until the Hokies prove they can stop the run, wear them out and exploit them with it.

Miami's play at offensive line has improved the past few games and Payton is getting a handle on the position, proving he is more than just a capable back up. The only downside to multiple carries is the increase in potential fumbles. All three Miami backs have been fumble-prone at times this season. In a game like this, coughing up the ball is not an option.

Same for interceptions. Brock Berlin needs to think twice before forcing a throw into tight coverage. While Berlin has looked stellar at time, there is nothing impressive about a 9 touchdown to 10 interception ratio seven games into the season. He has been extremely fortunate that after most turnovers, Miami's defense took the field and held opposing offenses from scoring. Eventually the defense will break and turnovers will equal points. In a game of this magnitude, the margin for error is infinitesimal. Keep it safe. Give Winslow the majority of the looks, find the veteran Kevin Beard or look to speedster Roscoe Parrish. If K2 has man coverage in the end zone moments before halftime, make sure to put that ball only where he can reach it. You can't leave seven gimmie points on the table in Blacksburg.

Defensively the presence of Sean Taylor will be felt. Question is how much? Is the shoulder fully healed? Can he put this team on his back as he did in Tallahassee? He may be asked to do so at some point of the game. He is that spark and ‘one of a kind' player who is the heart and soul of the Miami defense.

Containment of Randall proved to be ineffective last season. After the game some Miami defensive players said he was running for his life and wrote off his productive day while pointing to the scoreboard and big time win. Regardless, Randall rushed for 132 yards against Miami, threw for 165 yards and was interception-free. The only knock proved to be that he was fumble-prone – but he still helped lead his team to 38 offensive points against a well respected Hurricane defense.

Miami knows what needs to be done to prevail. They have been tested on several occasions this season. Down 33-10 to Florida late in the third quarter, the offense proceeded to score every time they touched the ball while the defense kept the Gators out of the end zone the remainder of the contest. The result was a thrilling 38-33 victory. A week later it was a road trip to Boston College – a venue that has proved to be challenging for the Canes in recent years. Miami shined on offense, defense and special teams while posting a 33-14 final score that was never in doubt from Parrish's early punt return for a touchdown.

Miami survived a monumental effort against West Virginia. The offense clicked on all cylinders for that final drive setting up Jon Peattie's fifth field goal of the night for the 22-20 win. Nine days later they played the role of underdog and took care of business in Tallahassee, knocking off the #5 Seminoles 22-14.

You never really want to believe it is really Miami against the world, but what other choice do Cane coaches, players and fans have? When any other top notch squad pulls out some last minute victory or finds a way to earn the ‘W' when not playing to their potential, all you hear about is their grit, heart and will to win. When the Canes struggle – there are constant knocks on this team's attitude, discipline or ability to play to their potential. They are chastised on national televison or picked against going into contests where they should be favorites until proven otherwise.

While this disrespect has Miami fans spitting nails, everyone just grins and bears it because it's backfiring on all the naysayers.

The more you disrespect Miami, the harder they work to prove you wrong.

Last year's Canes seemed too caught up in future NFL draft status and press clippings. They were media darlings for 2001 after the BCS snub of 2000. Problem is Miami never stopped dominating. Everyone was expecting one and done – but they relished the spotlight and were in no rush to give it up. Hurricane dominance equals Hurricane haters after a while. That is where this team sits today – a top the college football world without the respect they deserve for their stellar accomplishments.

How do you get respect? Earn it. How do you earn it? Win, win and win again. Don't stop winning until you are 13-0 and have taken out every obstacle in your path.

The Canes are in for a dogfight this weekend. Anyone who sees a Miami blowout needs to take off the orange and green shades. Virginia Tech will come to play. They have a chip on their shoulder and they will have half the state of Virginia behind them. This game is enormous to their program and they know a season can be salvaged with a win over the Canes.

Thing is, Miami knows all that. They also know they need this win more that Virginia Tech does. The coaches have driven the point home on the practice field for two weeks. They are halfway to New Orleans – but that dream dies in an instant if they lose.

November will be a hellish stretch for these Canes and it all starts this Saturday against an all too familiar foe. If Miami plays their game, stays hungry and maintains the attitude they have had all season, there is no way they depart Blacksburg with a loss.

Make the haters eat their words again, boys.

Miami 24, Virginia Tech 16

Chris Bello is the VP of Marketing for the PlayerLine (http://www.playerline.com) - a global fantasy sports website. He has been a CanesTime.com columnist since 1995 and resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to contact him at chris.bello@playerline.com


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