5:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Miami (Fla) -3, Over/Under: 57
A pair of teams that no doubt fell short of expectations look to conclude their respective seasons on a high note, as the sixteenth-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers face off against the Miami Hurricanes in the Russell Athletic Bowl from Camping Ground Stadium in Orlando, Florida. Now in his sixth year on the job, Dana Holgorsen has made West Virginia (10-2, 7-2 in Big XII) his own program, guiding them to their first ten-win campaign in five years, which was coincidentally his inaugural term in Morgantown. Now, he has the opportunity for their first eleven-win season since the program strung together three straight such campaigns from 2005 to 2007 in the days of the Rich Rodriguez/Bill Stewart Era. No doubt, the Mountaineers had the opportunity to take advantage of the chaos that consumed the Big XII in 2016, but in the end, they came up considerably short in their two biggest contests, falling 37-20 at Stillwater to Oklahoma State, and 56-28 to Oklahoma in a snow-covered Morgantown. Ultimately, turnovers did them in against the Oklahoman programs, as Holgorsen’s charges committed seven turnovers while forcing just one. With that said, they managed to clean up their act over the final two contests, besting Iowa State (49-19) and Baylor (24-21) en route to a Third Place finish in the conference, in which unsurprisingly, the turnover differential flip-flopped, as the Mountaineers totaled eight takeaways in turn committing zero themselves. At twenty-five on the season, that particular figure has been of utmost importance for a team that has relinquished a large amount of yards throughout the season; West Virginia has been gashed for an average of 431.2 Total Yards, including 255.7 through the air and another 175.5 on the ground. Apart from a four-game midseason stretch in which they managed to limit the opposition below 400 yards, this Defense has been absolutely torched by their opponents. Granted, playing in the conference of wide-open offenses that is the Big XII these days has certainly played a role in their defensive woes, but their own Offense’s prolific nature has had a habit of granting possession back to their foes; the Mountaineers have averaged 32.6 points (45th Overall) on a sizeable 506.9 Total Yards, including 267.4 through the air and another 239.5 on the ground. Senior Quarterback Skyler Howard has been a threat with both his arm and his legs, completing 60.8% of his attempts for 3,194 yards (8.4 Y/A), twenty-six touchdowns and ten interceptions, while rushing for another 400 yards and nine scores. Shelton Gibson (40 REC, 927 YDS, 8 TD) has been a big play machine in the passing game, averaging a whopping 23.2 yards per reception, while Justin Crawford (157 CAR, 1,158 YDS, 4 TD) has ripped off yards in chunks spearheading the rushing attack, racking up a healthy 7.4 Yards per Carry. However, he’s not the only weapon lying in Holgorsen’s Backfield, for just about everyone that has carried the ball for the Mountaineers has found nothing but open spaces to run through; Tailbacks Rushel Shell (107 CAR, 514 YDS, 5 TD) and Kennedy Mckoy (72 CAR, 466 YDS, 3 TD) have been potent when given the opportunity, while Martel Pettaway (46 CAR, 244 YDS, 1 TD) too has impressed the Coaching Staff with his play. West Virginia survived a shootout in last year’s Cactus Bowl, narrowly beating Arizona State in a 43-42 thriller that featured 1,196 Total Yards of Offense, with the aforementioned Howard connecting on 28-of-51 passes (54.9%) for 532 yards, five touchdowns and a pair of interceptions, with Gibson accounting for 143 of that total yardage and a touchdown on just four receptions.
Meanwhile, what began as a season of possibilities in Miami (8-4, 5-3 in ACC), quickly spun off the rails; the Hurricanes won each of their first four games of the campaign, only to drop four consecutive contests afterward, as the level of competition raised considerably. Mark Richt’s return to his Alma Matta was received with much fanfare, which only grew after the Hurricanes’ quick start, but those expectations were tempered rather harshly as reality set in quickly once they became embroiled in their midseason swoon. Miami’s first four victories came at the expense of the likes of Florida A&M (70-3), Florida Atlantic (38-10), Appalachian State (45-10), and Georgia Tech (35-21), but once they faced the proverbial meat of their schedule, it became rather apparent just how much work Richt and his Staff had ahead of them. Home losses to bitter rival Florida State (20-19) and North Carolina (20-13) followed by road defeats to the likes of Virginia Tech (37-16) and Notre Dame (30-27) provided the veteran skipper with the opportunity to take some sorely needed honest inventory of his charges, which evidently paid off as the Canes promptly righted the ship and put together a four-game winning streak to end the Regular Season. It now begs the question: who are the real Miami Hurricanes? The team that narrowly lost the four biggest games on their schedule, or the team that rallied to win four straight down the stretch? The answer, as usual, is probably somewhere in between the two. Arguably the biggest issue that has faced the Hurricanes this season is the fact that their Offense has been woefully erratic, stemming from an inconsistent Offensive Line that has been plagued by injuries and inexperience. Without a clean pocket from which to operate, Junior Quarterback Brad Kaaya (61.2% 3,250 YDS, 23 TD, 7 INT) has (in the eyes of some) failed to make the leap in development that many earmarked him for, particularly given Richt’s past history with Quarterbacks. With one year of eligibility remaining, it remains to be seen if this will in fact be his last game in Miami uniform, though he could in all likelihood use another year of tutelage under Richt and Co. Look for him to lean on the running game tonight, which is something that the Canes haven’t necessarily committed to this year; averaging a healthy 4.7 Yards per Carry, this is a team that could no doubt benefit from running the ball more often, particularly with a Backfield consisting of the likes of Mark Walton (192 CAR, 1,065 YDS, 14 TD) and Joe Yearby (99 CAR, 592 YDS, 7 TD). Just take a look at the difference between their performance on the ground in wins opposed to losses; Miami averaged a mighty healthy 203.9 yards per game in their eight victories, compared to a mere 65.3 in their four defeats. Not only will this allow Kaaya some insurance in the pocket, but it will also go a long way towards helping out their Defense, which despite allowing a solid 18.9 points per game (14th Overall), has been hard-pressed to create the momentum-changing plays of their counterparts tonight. Richt’s Defense has forced just eighteen turnovers thus far, including just eight interceptions, despite totaling thirty-one sacks. While this is no doubt where they wanted to end up at the end of the season, a victory tonight would be of great significance moving into the Offseason, for this Program has gone a ridiculous ten years without a Bowl Win; their last such victory was the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl, which was coincidentally Larry Coker’s final game.