Preview: How does UVA football fare in another must-win game?

uva-miami1First UVA must-win game in 2014: Louisville. The ‘Hoos needed a win to avoid a 1-2 start in advance of a road trip to BYU, and won, 23-21.

Second UVA must-win game in 2014: Pitt. A win gives Virginia a 4-2 start before the first bye week of the season. Up 24-3 at the half, the Cavs hold on for a 24-19 win.

Third must-win game of 2014: North Carolina. After a 20-13 loss at Duke, and before a two-game stretch on the road at Georgia Tech and on the road at Florida State, a win gives UVA its fifth win, and makes becoming bowl-eligible that much easier. Up 14-0 midway through the first and 27-21 driving for a game-clinching field goal, Virginia turns the ball over, surrenders the go-ahead score, watches UNC recover an onside kick and then lets the Tar Heels run the clock out.

Fourth must-win game of 2014: Miami at home on Saturday.

This is perhaps the final must-win game of the Mike London era at Virginia. A loss on Saturday guarantees a losing season, which would be the fourth in London’s five years in Charlottesville, and all but signals the end of his tenure.

A win gives us one more must-win game, at Virginia Tech, which has won 10 straight against its in-state rival.

The writing, thus, is on the wall for the end of the London era.

Or is it? Might the ‘Hoos be competitive on Saturday against a Miami team that Virginia has had some success against in the London era, winning three of the four games in the series under London?

Offense: Miami can move it with the best of them. The ‘Canes gain 442.4 yards per game and score 32.3 points per game, both figures that actually seem low considering the weapons they can deploy on offense. Tailback Duke Johnson is running for 134.3 yards per game and 7.3 yards per carry, and Miami averages 5.5 yards per carry as a team. True freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya leads the ACC in pass efficiency (155.2) with 22 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, 2,403 yards and a 59.9 percent completion rate. Watch out for Phillip Dorsett, the deep threat at wideout (28.8 yards per catch, seven TDs). Virginia has been regressing offensively of late, now averaging 383.5 yards and 26.0 points per game after spending much of the season over 400 yards and 30 points per game. The Cavs are averaging just 362.5 yards and 15 points per game in its ongoing four-game losing streak. Starting quarterback Greyson Lambert, a redshirt sophomore, has a passer-efficiency rating of 116.4 (10th in the ACC), with eight touchdowns, nine interceptions, 1,275 yards and a 59.8 percent completion rate.

Defense: Two solid units. Miami gives up 323.0 yards and 22.7 points per game, limits opponents to 3.4 yards per rushing attempt and has a 110.1 pass-efficiency rating on defense. The ‘Canes have forced 22 turnovers that have resulted in 116 Miami points. Virginia gives up 347.8 yards and 25.2 points per game, holds opponents to 3.2 yards per rushing attempt and has a 123.4 passer-efficiency rating on D. The Cavs D has forced 24 turnovers that have resulted in 95 UVA points.

Special Teams: Miami placekicker Michael Badgley is 9-for-11 on field goals this season, including 3-of-3 on kicks between 40 and 49 yards. Punter Justin Vogel averages 44.3 yards per kick with just one touchback and 10 kicks of 50 yards or more. Returner Stacy Coley averages 7.0 yards per punt return and 24.8 yards per kick return. Good stuff on that sideline. Virginia has a good kicking game, with placekicker Ian Frye 17-of-20 on field goals, including 4-of-5 on kicks between 40 and 40 yards, and punter Alec Vozenilek averaging 42.9 yards per kick, but with eight touchbacks. The return teams have had issues. Kick returns have been pretty good, with Darius Jennings averaging 27.2 yards and Taquan Mizzell averaging 24.2 yards per return, but punt returner Khalek Shepherd is averaging just 4.3 yards per return, and has had an issue with kicks flying over his head in key situations.

How this one plays out: Weather will be a factor. Temperatures have been in the upper 70s all week in Miami, but when the ‘Canes step off the plane in Virginia, it will be in the low 40s, and game time Saturday night will see a kickoff temperature in the mid-30s. Yeah, brrr. You also have to wonder about Miami psychologically. Late Saturday night, The U was on the verge of upsetting Florida State and taking control of its own destiny in the race for the Coastal Division title and thus was still alive for a berth in the orange bowl. The FSU comeback win eliminated Miami from the Coastal race, ended the orange bowl chase and put Miami in line for a second-, third- or fourth-tier bowl game. Win or lose on Saturday, the story of the 2014 UM season will be yet another underachievement.

Virginia, on its side, is playing for its coaching staff’s future. That much is obvious. They don’t call ‘em must-wins for no reason. And it’s not like these teams aren’t on somewhat of an even playing field. Both played well against a recent common opponent, Florida State.

Miami just has too much firepower. Al Golden, who should be on the hot seat himself for doing so little with so much talent on his roster, can’t afford another loss to a woeful Virginia program, and can’t afford in general falling to 6-5 with a team that has 10-win talent. Expect the ‘Canes to come out swinging, swaggering, running Duke Johnson through the teeth of the Virginia D, then seeing Kaaya and Dorsett connecting on a couple of deep balls after the safeties start to cheat in to try to help with the run.

Meanwhile, the regressing Virginia offense has shown no signs of life in recent weeks, and won’t reverse that trend on Saturday night against a Miami defense that is fast, hits hard and is opportunistic in its own right.

Miami is a six-point favorite, and will cover and then some: Miami 34, Virginia 17.

– Column by Chris Graham

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