The 12th-ranked Hurricanes enter Saturday's contest with a 7-2 (4-2 ACC) record. It appeared as though third-year head coach Randy Shannon was flirting with the proverbial hot seat entering ‘09 after two lackluster campaigns in Coral Gables, and a ridiculous quartet of early-season matchups would not help the situation. But Miami surprised most everyone north of South Florida in exploding to a 5-1 record that included wins at Florida State and home victories against No. 7 Georgia Tech and Oklahoma.
Since an overtime loss to Clemson (40-37) on Oct. 24, the Hurricanes have won two straight over Wake Forest (28-27) and Virginia (52-17). New offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has revived this Miami offense along with Jacory Harris, as evidenced by the Hurricanes outgaining the Cavaliers 282-57 in the final 30 minutes.
Miami's mental composure will be tested on Saturday – if Georgia Tech defeats Duke in the noon game, Shannon and Co. will know before kickoff that they are out of the running for the ACC Championship game. If the Yellow Jackets lose, the Hurricanes control their own destiny.
``Go look up and see if Miami has ever beaten North Carolina at North Carolina. I don't think we've ever beaten them there… That's more of an incentive than anything. They understand. We'll address it [Sunday] when we come back as a team and go from there." – Shannon, following the UVa victory
"We've got to just keep winning games. If we lose a game anywhere along the line, we're not where we want to be. We initially had the goal for the national championship; that's probably not in the cards now. But a nice BCS game is still a possibility if we just win out." – Miami center A.J. Trump
When tailback Graig Cooper first arrived in Coral Gables in ‘07, the initial thought was that while he would undoubtedly excel in situational downs due to his speed and agility, his size and tendency to dance in the backfield didn't bode well for his chances at one day becoming Miami's feature back.
Now a 6-foot, 200-pound junior, Cooper has developed the necessary tools to become an every-down back in Mark Whipple's backfield, but it just so happens that the Hurricanes can give him adequate breathers with another weapon by the name of Javarris James.
"This year, I wanted to work on everything," Cooper said on Saturday. "My pass-blocking, my running between the tackles [and] my speed."
Cooper amassed 200 rushing yards before suffering a hip-pointer early in the win over Oklahoma on Oct. 3, and while he promptly returned to action, the injuries have continued to build up.
"Every since I got hurt in the Oklahoma game, every day I'd come back a little healthier," Cooper said. "And then I'd get hurt somewhere else. It's been real frustrating, but I kept praying and tried to stay positive."
But all of those struggles melted away last weekend. Cooper tallied 152 rushing yards and a touchdown on 18 carries against Virginia, including a career-long 70-yard scamper.
"This is the first time he has really been healthy," Shannon said on Sunday.
The junior currently leads the team in rushing (478) and all-purpose (1,022) yards.
Matchups to Watch
Miami's Jacory Harris vs. North Carolina's Defense
"Whipple Ball" may have taken over South Florida, but it's been quarterback Jacory Harris (61.6 completion percentage, 2,336 yards, 18 TD, 12 INT) that has directed this Miami offense to a 402.0 yards and 32.2 points per game. The sophomore signal caller ranks 14th nationally and leads the ACC in passing efficiency (149.67).
It obviously helps to have options and Harris has plenty, completing passes to 16 different Hurricanes this season. Leonard Hankerson leads the program with 27 receptions for 517 yards and four touchdowns, while speedster Travis Benjamin (23 catches for 428 yards, 4 TD) and LaRon Byrd (24 catches for 342 yards, TD) provide serious threats for a passing offense that ranks 28th in the nation with 265.4 yards per outing.
Even more frightening is Miami's quick-strike ability – the Hurricanes have scored 15 touchdowns in two minutes or less this season.
North Carolina counters with a pass defense coming off a suffocating performance against Duke and the ACC's top-rated air attack. Thad Lewis and Co. entered Chapel Hill last weekend averaging nearly 400 yards through the skies in conference play, but was handcuffed to 125 total offensive yards.
ACC Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Quinn (41 tkl, 15.5 tfl, 10 sacks, 11 QBH, 4 FF) leads a pass rush that stands second in the ACC in sacks (2.56) behind Clemson. ``They have some real athletic guys on the defensive front, very good athletes on the defensive line,'' Shannon said. ``And their linebackers are very athletic, too.''
The Tar Heels front seven is likely salivating to get after a Miami offensive line is allowing 2.89 sacks per game (105th nationally). North Carolina shut down Duke by making David Cutcliffe's offense completely one-dimensional. If UNC can control Miami's ground game as it's done all season long (91.7 ypg allowed, 8th nationally), then there will be plenty of opportunities to keep intense pressure on Harris' back.
North Carolina's T.J. Yates vs. Miami's Pass Defense
Quarterback T.J. Yates' struggles have been well documented this season. The red-shirt junior (1,278 yards, 9 TD, 10 INT) did not deserve the heat that received early in the season with a smorgasbord offensive line and a nonexistent running game, but with those problems corrected, the third-year signal caller overthrew numerous receivers in Saturday's win over Duke en route to completing 16-of-28 passes for 119 yards and one interception.
With starting tailback Shaun Draughn shelved for the season with a broken shoulder blade, Miami (122.9 rushing ypg allowed, 4th ACC) will likely key on stopping Ryan Houston (451 yards, 7 TD) and forcing Yates to beat them through the air. His top targets are receiver Greg Little (40 catches 374 yards, 2 TD) and tight end Zack Pianalto (19 catches for 188 yards, TD).
Miami will send defensive lineman Allen Bailey (24 tkl, 10.5 tfl, 7.0 sacks) after Yates and hope that cornerback Brandon Harris (45 tkl, 12 PBR, 13 PD) can continue his stellar play in the secondary. The Hurricanes held Virginia to 149 total yards of offense on Saturday.
"Watching film I thought it was probably the best game we've played this season on defense . . . unbelievable," Shannon said following Saturday's win over UVa.
What's stunning about Miami's defense is the massive amounts of injury that unit has incurred. Ten defensive players missed the Virginia game due to injury, including seven individuals that are out for the season such as starting tackle Marcus Fortson and linebacker Jordan Futch.
With those huge losses, North Carolina's rushing attack may be able to wear down the Hurricanes late in the game, but Yates will have to keep Miami honest by proving that he can move the ball through the air when necessary.