I'm going to say it right now. Saturday's in-state showdown with UCF is not a must-win game for the Miami Hurricanes. It's not a conference game or game to decide if the Canes are bowl eligible (so it can't be must win). But it's as close as you get to must-win. I call it a GOTTA HAVE IT win. Why? Because if you lose this game and fall to 2-4 on the season, you put yourself in a position to head toward a very dark place. Not only do you lose some stature in recruiting (and get ripped by everyone in the state who can now officially say you've fallen behind UCF), but you now sink to a level where doubt for the future creeps in.
Coach Randy Shannon has said this team is more talented than his '07 team, even though last year's was 4-1 at this point. We know this team is younger. And we know Miami lost to a pair of 4-1 teams in North Carolina and Florida State by a combined 6 points in the past two weeks. But this week, the Canes simply Gotta Have It. UCF is 2-3. Yes, they played South Florida tough a couple weeks ago. And yes, they'll have 18 players from the South Florida area on their roster who will be hoping to make an impression with friends and family this weekend. But this isn't UCF from a year ago, which finished 10-4 and won Conference USA with one of the best running backs in the country in Kevin Smith. This is a UCF team that is 2-3 with a 58-13 loss to UTEP.
Yes, UM is young. Yes, UM is banged up. Yes, UM had monumental problems last week defensively that need to be addressed. But the U has got to win this week. Because otherwise, all that talk about this program heading in the right direction and being more talented is going to be much harder to believe -- for everyone inside and outside the program.
KEYS TO THE GAME...
1. Play defense:What Miami did last week against Florida State was pathetic. FSU ran for 281 yards, mostly on the legs of its quarterback Christian Ponder. UCF no longer has its star running back, but has still averaged 151 yards a game on the ground in its five games. In three of its games, its been UCF's quarterback and not redshirt freshman running back Ronnie Weaver who has led the team in rushing. So keeping an eye on the quarterback scrambling for yardage will once again be a huge key this week.
UCF ranks 113th in total offense, 109th in passing and 105th in scoring overall. This is a week, Miami's young defense should be able to take advantage and improve on third down and in the red zone.
2. Establish the run early and often: You look at the national rankings for UCF and the only number that positively shocks you is their run defense. The Knights currently rank 26th in the country in run defense -- tops in Conference USA by allowing just under 105 yards rushing a game. But the number is deceiving. UCF held SMU to 25 yards on 21 carries last week in a 31-17 victory, but don't let it fool you. SMU has ranked dead last in rushing in the NCAA for the last three weeks. Against USF, Boston College and SMU, the Knights surrendered an average of nearly 150 yards a game on the ground. Miami abandoned the running game last week after falling behind early. This week, I'm expecting a heavy, heavy dose of Graig Cooper and Derron Thomas. Look for UM to pick its spots more wisely when passing the football, too.
UCF entered the 2008 season with the most experienced defensive secondary in the country with four senior starters who have combined for 155 starts during their careers and a combined 42 interceptions. Cornerback's Johnell Neal and Joe Burnett and safeties Sha'reff Rashad and Jason Venson combined to finish third in the country in interceptions last year and already have 10 combined picks this year to rank third overall. UCF has picked off at least one pass in each of its last 13 games. But, there is a weakness. And that's the big play. Last week, UCF gave up a 94-yard touchdown pass and have given up at least two passing plays of 40 yards or more in their previous two games before it.
3. Win the return/field position battle: Much will be made of Daren Daly facing the Canes, his old team. But the real story on special teams will be who wins the field position battle. Travis Benjamin had a spectacular, breakout game against Florida State and ranks 11th in the country overall in punt returns (17.71 avg) and 10th overall in kick returns (29.86 avg). Benjamin is good. But so is UCF's Joe Burnett, who ranks 10th on punt returns (18.07 avg) and 13th in kick returns (29.00 avg). Burnett already had a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. With how much UCF's offense struggles on its own, Miami has to do a good job wrapping Burnett up and kicking the ball into corners, something UM's Matt Bosher improved on last week against FSU.
Sean Spence, linebacker: Spence had a solid first career start with 10 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown against FSU. With Colin McCarthy now out for the season, I believe Spence will be the best player on the field for UM on defense. This is his team now in my eyes. I predicted a freshman All-American season for Spence before the year. This week is when it really takes off. He'll lead the team in tackles again and grab another turnover this week.
Graig Cooper, running back: Super Coop had his back-to-back 100-yard rushing streak snapped last week against Florida State. He has by far in my opinion been the best player on the field for the Canes when he's been in there and used the right way. I think he will be again this week. UCF's run defense will make a concerted effort to stop Coop in the running game. But I still think Cooper will have a huge day -- especially catching the ball out of the backfield. Look for two TDs from Coop and more than 150 yards total offense.
Travis Benjamin, receiver/kick returner: Last week was Benjamin's coming out party. This week, I think you'll see UCF deliberately try and kick the ball away from him. That still means good field position for UM and means Benjamin is changing the balance of the playing field. Look for Benjamin to get more involved in the passing game this week -- especially vertically. He and Aldarius Johnson could have huge play days. Despite having a veteran secondary, UCF has been vulnerable to the big play. Benjamin and AJ provide that.
On The Bubble
Brandon Harris, cornerback: Brandon had a tough first career start last week against FSU, getting flagged three times and missing several tackles. I'm willing to bet he gets the start again Saturday and redeems himself. UCF has two solid receivers in Kamar Aiken (6-2, 205) and Brian Watters (6-2, 180). When the Knights do pass they'll go after Harris. If he responds with a good game, then he'll solidify his starting spot. If he struggles again, Shannon will have to go with Plan B and likely have to lean on a veteran and less talented guy like Carlos Armour.
Bill Young, defensive coordinator: Nobody needs a bounce back game more than Young, who made everyone happy with how UM's defense played against Florida for three quarters but whose last five quarters of coaching have been flat out bad. UM blew a 10-point lead against North Carolina with nine minutes to play and then got shredded by FSU last week. Another bad week this week against a bad UCF offense and folks are going to turn up the heat on Young. He needs to make the right adjustments this week, particularly making sure someone like UCF's QB isn't toasting his defense with scrambles.
Sam Shields, receiver: Last week's costly penalty as well as a few dropped balls have probably put Sam on the shelf -- if not the dog house. Shannon said earlier this week he plans on using his freshman receivers more and more because his veterans weren't cutting it. Shields is not a freshman. If Sam is going to get back in UM's good graces, he's going to have to make some plays on special teams and whenever he does get in at receiver.
My prediction: UM 34, UCF 21. The Canes are considered a two-touchdown favorite in the game. And although I think they'll come close to covering, I still believe UM is going to sweat this one out for the most part. Ultimately, what helps UM this week is that the Knights aren't very good on offense and simply don't have a go-to player to turn to. Miami does. Graig Cooper will be that guy this week and will do enough to put UM comfortably in front to avoid a few more defensive mental lapses.
OK guys, now it is your turn. Give me your prediction, your keys to the game, your stars of the game and your thoughts.
By the way, yesterday I was on 790 The Ticket with Jorge Sedano to talk about the Canes. Here's a link to our discussion.