THE MATCHUP: #24 PITT (7-4) AT MIAMI (6-5)
WHEN: 3:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: HARD ROCK STADIUM, MIAMI GARDENS, FL
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
Pitt secured a spot in the 2018 ACC championship game with their win over Wake Forest last week. Ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2016, the Panthers can now make a statement before the title game by defeating the Miami Hurricanes on the road. A win will not matter from an ACC standings perspective, but it will show that the Panthers intend to finish the regular season strong and remain a Top 25 team.
Miami entered 2018 ranked No. 8 in both the AP and Coaches polls. They were favored to repeat as ACC Coastal division champions and appeared poised to challenge Clemson for the conference crown. A convincing 33-17 loss to LSU on opening weekend quickly tempered those expectations, but Miami’s proceeding five-game winning streak – paired with LSU’s rise up the rankings – restored optimism and momentum. The Hurricanes would drop their next four games to Boston College, Virginia, Duke and Georgia Tech, though, before defeating Virginia Tech last week, 38-14. Since their FBS-best 15-game winning streak was snapped last year by Pitt, the Canes have lost seven out of their last thirteen games (including the loss at Heinz Field). Head Coach Mark Richt isn’t on the “hot seat” after one subpar season, but four-game losing streaks aren’t welcomed at the U, and avenging last year’s loss against Pitt and closing the year with a string of wins might ease the fan base’s disappointment.
Miami averages an underwhelming 377.3 total yards-per-game (92nd in the FBS), and their 31.5 points-per-game (t-47th) is inflated by the 173 total points they scored against Savannah State, Toledo and North Carolina. They average 188.6 yards-per-game in both the run game and the passing game, although that yardage is more impressive from a rushing perspective. Mark Richt has a reputation as an offensive guru, but this has not been his finest year.
Heading into the Hurricane’s game versus Virginia Tech, the crew on ESPN’s College GameDay rained criticism upon Miami’s quarterbacks, blaming their play for the team’s mediocre record. Mark Richt has been rotating a pair of dual-threat passers, redshirt-senior Malik Rosier and redshirt-freshman N’Kosi Perry, looking for one to grab the starting position. Overall, Perry has been the slightly better passer, and after his performance last week, his hold on the starting position is strengthening. Against Virginia Tech, Perry completed 21-of-34 passes for 171 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also added a touchdown on the ground and orchestrated some key drives in the Canes’ come-from-behind win.
Miami’s quarterback play deserves its share of credit for the team’s struggles in the passing game, but losing top receiver Ahmmon Richards to a career-ending neck injury at the beginning of the season hasn’t helped. Without Richards, speedy sophomore slot receiver Jeff Thomas emerged as the team’s top pass-catcher, but Thomas left the program earlier this week and will no longer factor into the passing game. Z-receiver Lawrence Cager, a 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound redshirt-junior, is the logical “next man up” at the receiver position with Thomas out. With 19 receptions for 344 yards and a team-high 6 touchdowns, he is the most productive active receiver in 2018.
The Hurricanes have just as much claim to the title of “Tight End U” as any team in college football, and true-freshman Brevin Jordan appears like the next man to carry on this reputation. After losing yet another All-ACC tight end to the NFL after last season in Chris Herndon IV, the Canes have turned to Jordan, the No.2 tight end recruit in the class of 2018. Jordan made ESPN’s Midseason Freshman All-America team, and the 6-foot-3-inch, 245 pounder has 30 receptions for 275 yards and 4 touchdowns. With Thomas out, Jordan’s importance in the offensive game plan may even grow.
At running back, Travis Homer, a second-team All-ACC honoree in 2017, leads Miami in rushing for the second year in a row with 146 carries for 801 yards and 3 touchdowns. DeeJay Davis is the team’s second-leading rusher overall in carries and yards, but true-freshman Cam’Ron Davis might be the second option on Saturday. Having officially burned his redshirt against Virginia Tech, Davis led the team in rushing yards last week and is watching his role grow.
If Miami’s success was measured strictly by its defense, then the Hurricanes would still be in the ACC race, and perhaps even the Top 10. Ranking 3rd nationally in total yards allowed-per-game (274.5) and 19th in scoring defense (19.5), it is tough to both move the ball and score against them. While they do limit the run, their 2nd-ranked passing defense is conceding a mere 141.7 yards-per-game through the air. Once again, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has put a fine product on the field.
Defensive success starts up front, and Miami’s line has lived in opposing backfields this season; they lead the nation in tackles-for-loss per-game (10.2), and they’re tied for 20th in sacks-per-game with 2.82. Defensive ends Joe Jackson (CBSSports.com’s 36th-ranked prospect overall for the 2019 NFL draft) and Jon Garvin, and defensive tackle Gerald Willis III have combined for 15 sacks and an overwhelming 43.5 tackles-for-loss. This will be the toughest front four that the Panthers’ offensive line has faced so far this season, and they will be doing so without center Jimmy Morrissey, who was lost for the season after sustaining an ankle injury against Wake Forest.
For the third season in a row, Miami will feature the same trio of linebackers: juniors Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud. Quarterman, a second-team All-ACC selection in 2017, leads the group from the middle linebacker position with 70 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, 5.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. On Monday, Pat Narduzzi provided a brief but complimentary scouting report on what Pitt fans can expect to see in Quarterman.
“This guy is a scary dude that goes sideline to sideline, and he’s been playing for three years and playing at a high level,” said Narduzzi. “That guy is an NFL linebacker if I’ve ever seen one.”
Rounding out the defense is a secondary that may make it difficult for Kenny Pickett to follow up last week’s stellar performance with another dazzling display. Miami has forced 15 interceptions this season, tying them for 9th in the country, and while the team’s pass rush creates the pressure, their secondary has come away with many of the picks. Michael Jackson, Sr., a second-team All-ACC honoree in 2017, highlights the cornerbacks, although he has yet to register an interception this year. Playing with Jackson are Trajan Bandy and Jhavonte Dean, a pair of corners who have registered 3 interceptions each. And at safety, 2017 second-team All-ACC honoree Jaquon Johnson is the team’s second-leading tackler with 69 total tackles, and Sheldrick Redwine has contributed 3 interceptions to the team’s total this year.
|Points Per Game||30.3||28.1||31.5||19.5|
|Yards Gained Rushing||2987||2118||2333||1846|
|Yards Lost Rushing||264||319||258||385|
|Average Yards Per Rush||6.1||4.3||4.9||3.4|
|Average Yards Per Game||247.5||163.5||188.6||132.8|
|Average Yards Per Game||155.5||241.4||188.6||141.7|
|Average Yards Per Play||6.4||5.8||5.6||4.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||403.0||404.9||377.3||274.5|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||21-547||25-515||26-619||23-522|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||14-120||20-147||17-329||16-213|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||9-148||5-67||15-230||10-257|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||26.1||20.6||23.8||22.7|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||8.6||7.4||19.4||13.3|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||16.4||13.4||15.3||25.7|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||14-7||19-7||15-9||15-8|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||77-749||55-455||69-567||51-496|
|Average Per Game||68.1||41.4||51.5||45.1|
|PUNTS – YARDS||47-1930||43-1821||52-1958||67-2747|
|NET YARDS PER PUNT||36.7||38.2||33.2||34.6|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||32:00||28:00||30:17||29:43|
|4th Down Percentage||50%||55%||43%||46%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||27-192||22-160||31-190||25-171|
|Willis III, Gerald||31||55||17.0||0||1||0||3.0|
Despite fielding the better recording and owning the title of ACC Coastal Division Champions, Pitt enters Saturday as 4.5-point underdogs. The game will kick off at 3:30 P.M. on ESPN, and local radio listeners can tune in to 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.