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Sun Bowl 101: Two young QBs ready to square off in WSU vs. Miami

ONE OF THE conventional storylines for the Sun Bowl has been that Miami's pass defense has been stout this season and figures to provide a significant challenge for Washington State's high-powered passing attack. I'm not convinced.

The Miami Hurricanes, much like the Sun Bowl, aren’t the sexiest name in the football these days but both pedigrees remain exceptional. “The U” boasts five national titles, but haven't won a bowl game in 10 years. Miami is still a solid ball club, but the Cougs are catching the Canes at a relative low point for a match up in college football's second oldest bowl game .
 
Cougars (8-4) vs Hurricanes (8-4)
AT A GLANCE

KICKOFF:
11:00 a.m. PT

WHERE:
Sun Bowl Stadium (51,500)

TELEVISION:
CBS

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
WSU by 2 1-2

LAST MEETING:
This is the first meeting between the schools.

THE SERIES:
None.

MATT MOORE’s PREDICTION:
Cougs 28, Miami 23

THE HURRICANES ON DEFENSE
Players to Know

CB Artie Burns: Leads the team with six interceptions.  He combines with the speedy Corn Elder to give the Canes a solid pair of cornerbacks.

LB Jermaine Grace:  Injuries have hurt Miami's linebacker corps.  Grace stepped into a starting role in Week Three and now leads the team in tackles.

DL/LB Al-Quadin Muhammad: Another player who took advantage of injuries to enjoy a breakout season. He ranks second on the team with 51 tackles and leads the Canes with five sacks in only five starts.

Note: Backup safety Jamal Carter has been suspended for a violation of team rules and has been sent home. Carter has mostly backed up Deon Bush but Carter is still fifth on Miami’s defense with 48 tackles this season.

Overview
The Hurricane's 106th ranked rush defense is their Achilles heel, but their pass defense is not as great as advertised in my book. Miami has the nation's 29th ranked passing defense on paper and its turnover margin is exceptional. But they have not faced many pass-oriented offenses and even the teams that can throw the ball well have opted to beat the Canes on the ground.  Miami's 3-4 front is enormous, but lacks speed, something in sharp contrast with the rest of the Miami squad. Teams have simply run around them.  Miami averages 307-pounds along the defensive line and 248-pounds amongst their starting linebackers.  It will be by far the biggest defense the Cougs have faced all year.  Defenses like that tend to tire out against the spread -- but only if the quarterback gets protection.  The Hurricanes have managed 24 sacks this year, ranking 71st nationally.

Strategy
The most comparable team Miami faced this year was Cincinnati who has the nation's fourth ranked passing offense.  The Hurricanes’ run defense, problematic to begin with, was left exposed all day and the Bearcats shredded them for 167 ground yards.  Luke Falk will be anxious to get back in the saddle, but he also needs to feed his workhorse running backs.  Spreading the ball across all targets and to both sides of the field should pay dividends as the game progresses. Miami's defense lives on their ability to take the ball away. If WSU does not get careless and turn the ball over, Miami's pass defense becomes a lot less formidable.

Key Stat
No. 108 Red Zone Defense: Miami's defensive problems really come to a head near the goal line.  The Hurricanes have given up 19 rushing touchdowns this year.

THE HURRICANES ON OFFENSE
Players to Know

QB Brad Kaaya:  The Canes can relate closely to the Cougs.  They have a promising sophomore signal caller who missed a key game with a concussion.  Kaaya has played conservatively this year, but has been largely mistake-free.  He has 3,019 passing yards and 15 touchdowns against just four interceptions.  A natural pocket passer who relies on quick throws but who also has a big arm.


RB Joe Yearby: Yearby has 939 rushing yards and another 273 receiving yards.  He has been Miami's most utilized offensive weapon, but he lacks explosiveness.  He has not recorded a 100 yard rushing performance since Week Four.  The 202-pounder has struggled to punch it in at the goal line.

WRs Rashawn Scott, Stacy Cooly and Herb Waters: The Hurricanes have three receivers with 600 yards this year, but non with more than 650.  This group tends to run shorter routes, but has shown good chemistry with Kaaya. 

Overview
Tight Ends coach Larry Scott was given the interim tag for the remainder of the season, and the Canes have continued to run the spread passing attack.  Yearby is essentially a scatback and Kaaya in general is not a threat to run.  Kaaya relies on short throws, as the Canes have struggled to generate cheap yards on the ground.

Strategy
Kaaya has talent, but this is not a complete offense.  They rely on quick, efficient passing to move the ball.  The ground game has not been dependable and they do not like to expose Kaaya to long stands in the pocket.  The Cougar defenders should not give an excessive cushion and need to tackle cleanly to force Miami into as many third downs as possible.  Miami ranks 97th in third-down conversion percentage. 

Key Stat
No. 116th Rushing Offense: With the tremendous legacy of NFL running backs at the U, you'd expect them to have a star or two in the making but Miami lacks an explosive ball carrier in 2015,
 
THE HURRICANES ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Michael Badgely leads the nation with 25 field goals this year.  Punter Justin Vogel has a solid 43.1 yard punting average.  Corn Elder has both a punt and kick return for a touchdown this year.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-A series of sanctions and bad coaching hires, combined with the tragic demolition of the Orange Bowl, has left the 2015 Hurricanes with little of their former swag.  Still, they have their pride and legacy to protect and they have plenty of team speed on offense. For most if not all of the current staff, and many of the current players, this is their last shot at a bowl win at Miami.  Expect this team to rally around each other this week, and try to put an exclamation point on an comparatively disappointing 2015 campaign for the Hurricanes.


-Miami historically plays poorly away from Florida when it comes to the postseason.  The Hurricanes have won seven out of eight bowl games played in their home town, but are just 3-6 in bowls played west of the Mississippi.  While El Paso represents a relatively sunny destination for the Cougars, it figures to be positively freezing by Miami standards, with the game day forecast calling for a high of 53 degrees.


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