Amid all the recent turmoil in the Miami football program, one thing is constant.
“They have elite team speed,” said Washington State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who is tasked with slowing a Hurricanes offense that he compares with the best of the Pac-12.
On both sides of the ball, Miami’s quickness will be a major factor in the outcome of the Sun Bowl on Dec. 26. A deep corps of speedy receivers and an aggressive secondary are just two of the Hurricanes’ strengths going into next week’s game in El Paso, Texas.
The other strength is a nose for the ball, which has translated into one of the best turnover ratios in the country at plus-13. Only five teams in FBS are better.
On the debit side, Miami (8-4) is the most-penalized team in the nation, getting flagged almost 10 times a game for 82 yards.
They’ve also struggled to run the ball, even as a change-up in their pass-heavy pro set. In season-ending wins over Georgia Tech and Pitt, the Hurricanes had 66 carries for just 202 yards.
For the season, their rushing game ranks only 116th in the nation at 119 yards, but they’ve fumbled just four times. Top rusher Joe Yearby averages 4.9 yards a carry.
Their passing attack is another story. Led by rising sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya, Miami ranks 27th in FBS passing with 282 yards. Kaaya has many targets: Eight players have at least 10 catches, but none has more than 50.
“They do a little bit of everything. They will absolutely try to attack us on the perimeter,” said Grinch, who may do the same with his pass rush against an O-line that lacks a standout player.
Miami offensive coordinator James Coley said he expects pressure from the Cougars’ front seven.
“This is a defense that likes to be physical,” Coley said. “They hit you, and you fumble.”
Though not mobile, Kaaya works with confidence behind a line that’s given up just 15 sacks in 12 games. For the year, he’s 221 for 358 with 15 touchdown passes and four interceptions. That could be a telling stat against WSU: When Kaaya has more touchdowns than interceptions, Miami is 7-1. When he doesn’t, the Hurricanes are 1-3, including blowout losses to Atlantic Coast Conference division champions North Carolina and Clemson.
Kaaya isn’t afraid to go deep: 10 receivers are averaging at least 10 yards a catch.
On the other side of the ball, both teams will match strength in the air and weakness on the ground. WSU’s Air Raid offense will face a defense that gives up only 195 yards a game in the air and has a pair of lockdown corners in Corn Elder and all-ACC selection Artie Burns.
Up front, the pass rushers are eager to pin back their ears.
“We’ve got to keep our conditioning up and be relentless,” said Miami defensive lineman Chad Thomas, who has three pass breakup and four quarterback hurries this year.
The Hurricanes are weak against the run, giving up 219 yards a game, but it may not matter against a Cougars team that ranks first in passing offense and last in rushing.
On the other side of the ball, Miami has been at its best in the close games. In wins over Duke (30-27), Virginia (27-21), Georgia Tech (38-21) and Pitt (29-24), the Hurricanes are giving up an average of 359 yards.
Riding a four-game win streak, the coaches and players insist they’re not troubled by the turmoil following the midseason firing of coach Al Golden.
Former Hurricanes quarterback Mark Richt, the longtime Georgia coach, has been hired to replace Golden. Interim coach Larry Scott, who took over when Golden was fired, will coach the team in the Sun Bowl. Richt has made no announcement regarding how many current assistants he might retain.
Despite his uncertain future, Coley said there are no distractions.
“Right now we’re just focusing on WSU,” Coley said.
Likewise, the Cougars are looking at the Hurricanes’ entire body of work, including the six games under Golden.
“Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as saying we’re going to see X, Y and Z and we’re going to forget about the first half of the season,” Grinch said.
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