North Carolina plays a game of monumental importance on Saturday at Miami. Well, it’s as important as a mid-season ACC Coastal Division college football game can be, at least. A victory keeps the Tar Heels in the division race. A loss, as I detailed here earlier in the week, doesn’t look good for UNC.
Continuing our wildly popular “ask a writer” series, I’m joined this week by Matt Porter, who does a bang-up job covering the Hurricanes for the Palm Beach Post. Matt was kind enough to share his insight on the Hurricanes leading into Saturday.
Let’s get to it:
Andrew Carter: The Miami M.O. in recent years has been to collapse, to put it bluntly, after losing against Florida State. The Hurricanes lost 20-19 last weekend, in heartbreaking fashion, against Florida State. Can you tell anything differently about the way the team has responded in recent days, given the new coaching staff led by Mark Richt, or is it one of those too-early-to-tell type things?
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Matt Porter: Yes, 11-11 under Al Golden following FSU losses, with some of the least-inspired football you’ll see at this level. Miami’s FSU hangovers have been brutal. The Hurricanes always come out of that week nursing wounds both mental and physical. This year is no different. Injuries abound and everyone’s saying they can’t let another loss to the Noles sink their season. We’ll see how bad the hangover is on Saturday. Say this for Mark Richt: as Georgia’s coach, he was 5-10 against Florida, but 55-17 in the games that followed. Maybe he can navigate waters other coaches couldn’t.
AC: In addition to the potential psychological toll of losing like the Hurricanes did last week, there’s also the physical. The Hurricanes left that game, it appeared, with a bevy of injuries. What’s the latest on Miami’s health – especially as it relates to quarterback Brad Kaaya?
MP: Kaaya threw in practice this week, and in the little snippets we got to see, he looked OK. He wasn’t launching 60-yard bombs in those drills, but appeared to be fine. Whether or not his shoulder is ailing, he’s a gamer. Defensive end Chad Thomas, who has been excellent early in his junior season, will play using a heavily wrapped broken hand. He said he wants to smack people with it, which sounds painful for both parties. A key part of the defensive tackle rotation, Gerald Willis, is out with a sprained knee.
AC: UNC put a hurtin’ on the Hurricanes last year in Chapel Hill – similar to how Miami did to UNC down there in 2014. I know the Tar Heels were extra motivated for their game against Miami last season, given what had happened the year before. How much has what happened last year come up this week in South Florida, and do you get the sense Miami cares about the revenge factor?
MP: Talking to players, I get the sense that the veterans remember the game, how it spiraled out of control, how Marquise Williams and Ryan Switzer held up the ‘U’ and did that crotch-choppy thing with it. I wouldn’t expect this to be a genial affair. But everyone in Coral Gables knows Miami’s path to the ACC Championship becomes treacherous with a loss here. That would mean a two-loss UM, with its injury issues, would still have to beat Virginia Tech next Thursday, and in November, Pitt at home and a surprisingly plucky N.C. State on the road.
AC: How has the culture of this program changed since Mark Richt arrived, and how have those differences manifested on the field?
MP: Culture is one of those nebulous football terms. If a team is winning under a new coach, does that mean the culture’s changed? Not necessarily. Miami’s 4-1 start comes more from its easy September schedule, though the Canes executed at a high level in those games. Richt has put his stamp on the program in several ways, from expectations to practice schedules to uniforms. I see a team that’s calmer and more controlled than last year’s, and that, to me, is coaching. Richt and his coaches tolerate less and are more unified than the last group. They are also, at every position, a major upgrade in coaching ability over the previous staff. That’s probably the biggest difference in the program right now. He is a better, more experienced coach than Al Golden, and was able to bring in better people. UM, a small-money private school, should also get credit for opening its coffers to pay Richt $5 million or so a year. Never before has UM paid a coach or his assistants that kind of money.
AC: Last week wasn’t too, either, for the Tar Heels, who were blown out in miserable conditions against Virginia Tech. Before that, UNC won in the final seconds against both Pittsburgh and Florida State. What does Miami make of UNC, and what about the Tar Heels most concerns Richt and his staff?
MP: Mainly UNC’s offense, which is going against a Miami defense that has been surprisingly good. The Hurricanes lost a bunch of good players to injuries and dismissals, and as such are very young – no UM team has ever started three true freshmen at linebacker; entering the year, no team in the country started more than two true freshmen anywhere on defense. So a quarterback like Mitch Trubisky, whom UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz likened to a wise point guard, and his group of veteran receivers is worrisome. If Elijah Hood is close to 100 percent, that adds another problematic dimension. UM has done well against the run and made enough big plays in its pass rush and pass coverage to keep the yards and points down, but can UNC’s balance and air attack thwart that system? My guess is yes. It’s on Miami’s offense, which struggled last week, to keep pace.
There you have it. Thanks to Matt for his time, and perspicacity.
UNC at Miami
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
TV: ABC, ESPN2