Photo courtesy of Danny Karnik

Walton Out

With Miami’s exciting win against Florida State came some disappointing news: Leading rusher Mark Walton would undergo season-ending surgery on his ankle. Prior to his injury, Walton accounted for 54 percent of the Canes’ rushing yards with 428 yards (with a whopping 7.6 yards per carry) and three rushing touchdowns. Walton’s absence in the upcoming game with the Jackets could limit the versatility of the Miami offense, but RB Travis Homer, who appears primed to receive the majority of touches in Walton’s absence, has actually outperformed Walton in terms of yards per carry this season.

If Miami opts to focus more on the passing game, the Jackets’ defense might play more Cover 3 and Cover 4 to limit the passing game. Indeed, quarterback Malik Rosier has found success in the air thus far, averaging 272.5 YPG. Regardless of the focus of Miami’s offense, Tech’s secondary will need to be on their game to limit Miami’s offensive production.

Miami’s offense is by no means ruined by the loss of Walton, but it is certainly a bad blow to a team that has had a few close calls thus far. Walton’s loss might prove decisive come Saturday.

Richt Rules

While Tech and Miami are tied in their all-time matchups at 11-11, Miami soundly beat Tech 35-21 and 38-21 in their last two matchups. Canes head coach Mark Richt, who served as UGA head coach from 2001-2015, has years of experience against the Jackets’ triple option.

While the unconventional triple option can perplex opposing defenses, Richt’s experience against it can serve as a boon to the Miami front seven. Richt also has a history of success against the Jackets with a 16-2 career record as a head coach. Although Tech has historically struggled against Richt’s squads, the Jackets have fought the odds before and come out on top, having beaten Richt as recently as 2014.

But as Tech’s early season contests have shown, even having ample time to prepare for the triple option is no guarantee of success. Tennessee, despite having an entire summer to prepare, still gave up 41 points to Tech, and Tech has averaged 36.5 points per game. Miami will have had only a week to prepare for the option, so Miami’s defense will be in for a rigorous test. Miami will need to keep the ball out of the offense’s hands to avoid the death march.

Battle for 1st

Miami and Tech both currently sit atop the ACC Coastal division with 2-0 records in conference play. This game will decide which team will take control of the ACC Coastal division. The last time the Jackets won the ACC Coastal division was 2014, when they lost to Florida State in the ACC Championship game.

There is more at stake than first place for Tech, though: Winning this game could mean becoming ranked. The Jackets currently sit just outside the AP ranked poll, at No. 26 in the AP poll and No. 27 in the Coaches poll. Beating the No. 11 ranked team can catapult the Jackets into the fringes of the CFB playoff picture.

With a win on Saturday, Tech could become ranked for the first time since Sept. 26, 2015, when Tech was ranked No. 20 in the country before losing to an unranked Duke team.

A Miami win would cement their status as the Coastal favorites — Miami’s remaining ACC schedule features only one ranked opponent in Virginia Tech, ranked No. 15, and there is little reason to doubt that a win over Georgia Tech could send them to the ACC title game. Both teams have plenty riding on this game.

Top Tier Defense

While Tech’s offense has shown to be potent through its three-game win streak, it has yet to be challenged by a formidable defense. Both Pitt and UNC rank towards the bottom of the ACC in points allowed per game; beating up on bad defenses doesn’t ensure that the Jackets can perform as they have recently against a better unit. That challenge is coming this Saturday: Miami’s defense has proven to be among the top in the conference and perhaps even the nation. The Hurricanes are allowing just 17 points per game, good for No. 17 in the country. Miami’s defense usually performs well against Tech’s triple option due to their strong defensive line.

That being said, their defense is relatively young and much of their current defensive players’ knowledge of the Tech offense comes strictly from tape, not game time — so inexperience could be an important factor going into Saturday. For players facing the triple option for the first time, the discipline necessary to foil various reads can be difficult to sustain.The Jackets need to find rhythm in the passing game to balance the ground game and meet Miami’s stout defense with an even more impressive offense.

Keys to Victory

For Tech, the key to winning will be coming out strong from the start of the game. Though it can be tough for a team to get going on the road, Tech needs to score early and stop Miami, as the Hurricanes have struggled on both sides of the ball in the first half of games so far this season. Time of possession will also be key for Tech – if Tech can eat up the clock as effectively as it did against UNC, the Jackets will limit Miami’s opportunities to score and give their defense plenty of rest. If Tech can secure an early lead to act as a cushion against any halftime adjustments Miami makes to score in the second half, they can bring home the win.

As for Miami, the key to winning is forcing turnovers. Given that their offensive production could be limited with the questions facing the Hurricanes’ ground game, forcing fumbles and interceptions will not only stop Tech from scoring, but also provide the Miami offense with favorable field position to put points on the board. As Tech has struggled to secure the ball in their games so far, the Miami defense has a chance to control the pace of the game by focusing on the ball and forcing turnovers.