Frank Beamer is taking off the gloves. After playing a nonconference schedule that included matchups with Alabama and Nebraska, Virginia Tech's coach is ready for, as the Flight of the Conchords might say, Business Time.
"We've had our exhibition season now," Beamer said this week. "We've had three nonconference games. And now it's serious time."
Beamer's Hokies couldn't face a more crucial ACC game this early in the season. The reigning kings of the conference are eyeing a third straight title, but the surprising Miami Hurricanes, arguably the biggest story of the young 2009 campaign, are looking for a win to solidify their resurgence -- and put them in the driver's seat in the Coastal Division.
"There's no question about the importance of this game," Beamer said.
1. No team has impressed more than Miami. Throughout the end of the Larry Coker era -- a time marred by frustrating mediocrity and even more frustrating transgressions -- and the first two years of the Randy Shannon regime, one question lingered: When would the once feared and reviled Miami program return to prominence?
It seems the swagger's back at last. Miami has opened with wins over two Top 25 opponents, and first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple deserves much of the credit. Yes, sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris (who ranks third nationally in pass efficiency and boasts a 69.49 completion percentage) has been a revelation, and yes, a rock-solid offensive line and a young, athletic defensive front have helped the 'Canes return to relevancy. But Shannon made one of the best moves of the offseason by bringing in Whipple, who has installed a quick-strike attack that has stirred envy among Miami's former players.
Under Whipple, Miami is averaging nearly nine more points and 139 more yards per game than a season ago, but the distribution has been even more impressive than the production. Against Florida State, eight different players caught a pass. In the win over Georgia Tech, Harris hit nine Hurricanes. Twelve players have caught at least one ball heading into Saturday, and that depth will be key against the best pass defense the 'Canes have faced thus far. The Hokies have intercepted three passes and allowed just one passing touchdown (against Alabama), but to force Harris into a mistake they'll have to get pressure. That hasn't been an issue in Miami's first two games, as the veteran offensive line that boasts three 6-foot-7 starters has allowed just one sack.
2. The Hokies must lean on the running game. Despite the fact two big pass plays -- including Tyrod Taylor's game-winning touchdown strike -- keyed the win over Nebraska and the fact the Hokies managed just 86 rushing yards, Virginia Tech's ground game can't disappear if it hopes to keep pace with the 'Canes.
The Hokies rank 106th in passing offense and 93rd in pass efficiency. They simply don't have the kind of explosiveness on the perimeter or a consistent enough quarterback (Taylor's 47.6 completion percentage ranks ninth in the ACC) to make opposing defense's fear the pass.
Virginia Tech's running game, meanwhile, is averaging 198 yards per game behind Taylor and freshman Ryan Williams, good for second-best in the conference. But that's not the full story. Through three games, Taylor has run just 26 times but attempted 63 passes, seemingly allowing his commitment to becoming a pocket passer rob him of his biggest asset -- his legs. Williams, meanwhile, is coming off two 100-yard games, but ran just six times in the second half against the Cornhuskers.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring needs to stick with the run against Miami. It's Virginia's Tech biggest strength, and it's the best way to limit the amount of time Harris and the Miami offense spend on the field.
3. Miami is ready to show it's the class of the ACC, but Virginia Tech still holds the torch. If there's one knock on Miami, it's that those two wins over Top 25 teams came against a Florida State squad that's been unpredictable and a Georgia Tech team that has more problems on offense than we realized.
A win over Virginia Tech, though, would leave little doubt. It would also set the stage for the biggest Miami game in years, as Oklahoma heads to the stadium named after Jimmy Buffett's brew the following week.
Miami's success is clearly good for the ACC. The 'Canes are a marketable team with a storied history. The conference has longed for the program's return since it absorbed it. But the infatuation with Miami's revival only further illuminates how underappreciated the program that has been the ACC's flag bearer since its expansion has been.
The Hokies have won three ACC titles in the past five years, and though they've rarely played aesthetically pleasing offense (they've ranked 78th or lower in total offense four times in that span), it's hard to knock the consistency of Beamer's crew. Still, Beamerball isn't sexy, even if it does work. Remember, the Hokies' recent Orange Bowl win over Cincinnati drew the lowest rating in BCS history.
The love affair with the 'Canes has made its way to Las Vegas, and Virginia Tech finds itself a rare two-and-a-half-point underdog at Lane Stadium. But until the Hokies are unseated, this remains their conference.
Just how much has Harris progressed in his second year? I asked Charleston Southern defensive coordinator Thielen Smith, who faced Harris and the Hurricanes a year ago. Here's what he had to say:
"When we saw him that was his first game starting. He probably didn't know who he was. He played against us and I saw him the past two games and I knew the potential was there, but I just didn't know he'd arrive at it so fast.
"When he was in our game basically he handed the ball off and he threw underneath passes. Right now it looks like he's just got the whole command of the game. He can throw the ball deep, he can throw it short. He just looks like a much more confidant kid than he did in that first start against us.
"I think in the ideal world I'd try to give him the look of one coverage that may look like a Two High look or a Cover 2 look and then it's a Three Deep or maybe a Man Under. Try to give him something where he has to read in a hurry and it would help if you could have guys that can get the ball out of his hands in a hurry. If you line up in vanilla coverage, I think he'll tear it apart."
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'Canes win by 10 and Michael Irvin gets the boot from Dancing with the Stars. Balance is achieved.@SportsCentaur
Miami 30, Virginia Tech 17. Outstanding pass protection has made Miami's offense prolific. If teams can't pressure Harris, he won't have to make throws he's not comfortable with. Bud Foster's defenses have traditionally excelled at making quarterbacks force throws, but this year's unit doesn't seem to have that same bite, ranking an uncharacteristic 77th in total defense with just one sack. This game will test Virginia Tech's defensive motivation, but there may not be enough there to slow down the balanced 'Canes.