Russell Athletic Bowl: Miami vs. West Virginia game preview

BY The Sports Xchange • December 28, 2016


Time: 5:30 p.m.

Two teams that once competed against each other every fall as conference colleagues meet for the first time in more than 13 years when West Virginia and Miami clash in the Russell Athletic Bowl on .

The Mountaineers (10-2) and Hurricanes (8-4) haven't met since Oct. 2, 2003, when the then-No. 4 Hurricanes needed a big fourth-down catch by tight end Kellen Winslow to keep alive a late drive for the decisive field goal in a 22-20 victory over the one-win Mountaineers.

The victory was the 16th for Miami to three wins for West Virginia in the series that was initiated in 1942 and was an annual affair from 1991 through 2003 when they were competing in the Big East Conference.

They both have moved on to different conferences with Miami going to the ACC in 2004 and West Virginia joining the Big 12 in 2012. This will be the first time they have met at a neutral site, which in this case is Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

It promises to be a classic matchup of the irresistible force against the immovable (nearly) object. The Mountaineers feature an offense that averages nearly 507 yards a game -- 12th best in the country -- against a Miami defense that made giant strides in 2016.

After surrendering about 405 yards per game to rank 69th in defense in 2015, the Hurricanes under new coordinator Manny Diaz have held opponents to about 354 yards per game this season and rank 27th overall in FBS statistics.

"They're well coached, they play their tail off, and they get better and better and better throughout the course of the season," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They have five or six true freshmen who play for them a lot, so they are going to continue to get better.

"Their three linebackers, all three of those dudes are all true freshmen. I don't know if I have ever seen that."

That would be Shaq Quarterman, who is tied for the team lead in tackles with senior safety Jamal Carter with 79 stops; Michael Pinckney, who has 2.5 sacks among his 57 tackles; and Zach McCloud, who had a season-high six tackles in the finale against Duke to give him 31 for the season.

Against that defense, the Mountaineers put up an offense that averages more than 267 yards a game passing with quarterback Skyler Howard throwing for 26 touchdowns.

Four different players have at least 32 catches with receiver Daikiel Shorts Jr. leading with 58 for 833 yards, but only three will be available. Ka'Raun White (48-583) is out with a broken leg.

The Mountaineers average nearly 240 yards a game rushing with running back Justin Crawford leading with 1,168 yards.

The Mountaineers also like to press the issue with an up-tempo pace similar to what the Hurricanes faced against North Carolina.

"You just have to be on your P's and Q's, making sure you are getting ready so they are not catching you off guard," Miami sophomore defensive tackle Kendrick Norton said.

Miami takes a more conventional approach. Junior quarterback Brad Kaaya passes for nearly 271 yards a game with senior wide receiver Stacy Coley (58-703), freshman wide receiver Ahmmon Richards (46-866), and junior tight end David Njoku (38-654) as the leading pass catchers.

But the key to Miami's offense has been its ability to run the ball. Not coincidentally, in their four losses, the Hurricanes averaged just over 65 yards on the ground. In their eight wins, their average was nearly 204, though the figure is a bit skewed by the big numbers against Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic.

"They don't turn the ball over, they can score at any point, and they can control the clock," Holgorsen said. "It's going to be a huge challenge for our defense."

Sophomore running back Mark Walton went over the 100-yard mark in six games, three of them in Miami's last four outings on his way to 1,065 yards for the season.

"It's hard to give the kind of physical effort he gives," Miami coach Mark Richt said. "I think part of it is that he loves football. You can tell that. I think he loves the camaraderie of the team, and I think he loves Miami."

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