The bottom line going into a tussle with Pittsburgh is that the Miami Hurricanes are superior at every position. If both teams play well, the Hurricanes will win. A few things that will not factor into the game:
- Home field advantage. Having attended a Pittsburgh Panthers game in the past (I lived in Pittsburgh for 2 years), I can personally attest to the lack of crowd atmosphere. Pittsburgh is a town that loves its Steelers and Penguins, but not much else. The Panthers are an afterthought. The fact that the game is on a Thursday should further impact the crowd. In fact, tickets are still available for purchase (and not just upper deck corners) from the Pitt web site. Compared to the atmosphere in Columbus and what awaits the Hurricanes in Clemson next week, this will be a picnic.
- The weather. We all joke about the Hurricanes wilting in the Champs Sports Bowl, succumbing to those brutal Orlando winters. I’ve actually seen it snow in early October before in Pittsburgh, and it can easily drop into the 50s at night in late September (which could be a danger zone for our players). Fortunately, the temperature will be in the low 80s into the mid-to-high 70s during the game, with only a 10% chance of precipitation. In other words, it will be unseasonably warm, and should be perfect football weather.
The keys to the game
- Tackling You will hear a lot of hype about how Pitt has a great WR, RB and LT. Well, the RB (Dion Lewis) who lit up college football last year is mired in a sophomore slump. Lewis is averaging only 2.9 YPC this year, including a paltry 10 carries for 27 yards against New Hampshire. In fact, Pitt’s entire team is struggling to run the ball, when you eliminate one 64 yard run by leading rusher (despite only playing against New Hampshire) Ray Graham. So, the key for the ‘Canes will be to continue that trend, and that means TACKLING. If New Hampshire and Utah can bottle up Pitt’s running game, Miami certainly has the physical ability to do so. It’s a matter of making plays when in a position to do so.
- Convert Scoring Opportunities. Take out the 2 special teams TDs, and Miami had 10 points against Ohio State, despite racking up over 350 yards of offense. The ‘Canes entered Ohio State territory 6 times, the results being a FG, a missed FG, an interception, a blocked FG, a TD, and a failure to convert a 4th down. That just won’t get it done. Moving the ball and not scoring not only demoralizes the team, but it also shortens the game and limits possessions, which is not something the Hurricanes want against an opponent where they have the talent advantage.
- Protect the QB. And I don’t mean the offensive line. Here’s looking at you Whipple. Against Ohio State, The run-pass balance was 25-to-39 (when you take out the blocked FG and 2 sacks conceded that technically count as rushing attempts). That 40% run/60% pass split is very similar to last year’s numbers. This was despite Hurricanes’ RBs averaging 5.1 YPC while Jacory Harris threw 4 interceptions. It would be insane for Whipple to continue to force the pass like this, especially considering the depth of the RB position and the fact that the Hurricanes’ OL is massive, basically playing 4 guards and a center. This team is set up to run, and if they run to set up the pass, the whole offense will run smoother while simplifying the game for Jacory. Pitt has one of the worst pass defenses in college football, but it would be a mistake for the Hurricanes to force the pass.
- Limit Jonathon Baldwin. Unlike Dion Lewis, Baldwin is having a strong early season. Through 2 games, Baldwin is averaging over 85 YPG and over 17 YPC. He has lived up to his big play hype, with TDs of 44 and 56 yards. Fortunately, the ‘Canes can counter with the one player on this team who appears to play consistently well, Brandon Harris. If the ‘Canes can limit Baldwin, Pitt does not have enough play makers to burn the often lost DVD. Baldwin will likely catch passes and make some plays, but Harris needs to win this battle for the ‘Canes defense to dominate.
- Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers. The great equalizer in football is turnovers. In fact, it is hard to imagine any scenario where Miami wins the turnover battle and loses the game. We all know about Jacory Harris’s interception issues. Pitt QB Tino Sunseri has been intercepted in each of the first 2 games, and if that trend continues, it will bode well for Miami. Miami was one of the top teams in the country last year at not fumbling, and that trend has continued through the first 2 games this year, with Miami not fumbling.. Pitt has fumbled once this year. Even if the ‘Canes lose the turnover battle, simply avoiding a blowout in the turnover department (like the 4-0 turnover margin against OSU) should be sufficient.