Washington State (8-4) looks to put a bow on their fantastic season when they square off against the Miami Hurricanes (8-4), who like the Cougs, finished third in their division. By any statistical measure this is one of the most evenly matched bowl games this season, using SB Nation's Bill Connelly's advanced metrics, it ties with Michigan State v. Alabama as the third most even game you'll see in the post-season.
The game kicks off at 11 AM PST today (December 26th) in El Paso, TX, and will be broadcast on CBS with Carter Blackburn on the call and Gary Danielson as the analyst, with Allie LaForce on the sideline.
First up, we have a huge variety of previews for you that rolled out over the holidays:
- Craig helped you get to know the important Miami players
- Break down of Miami's offense - what plays they run
- Break down of Miami's defensive schemes
- Kyle, Jeff, and Eric produced their last fan's guide, for people who don't wanna not learn nothing about Miami
- Numbers your thing? We analyzed the match-up using advanced metrics
What has me concerned about the Canes
Rust. Quarterback Luke Falk won't have played in over a month, after getting knocked out of the Nov. 21st game against Colorado. I don't expect this to be a big thing, they've been practicing pretty regularly since then, but it is something to keep in the back of your mind...especially if he takes a few series to catch up to Miami's game speed.
Athleticism. The Canes don't bring anything terribly unique on offense or defense, schematically, but they do it faster than an average team with bigger-stronger-faster athletes. Precision beats speed any day of the week, so WSU will have to be more technically sound in what they do on both sides of the ball going against a team that will have an athletic advantage at most spots on the field.
Big exception is the Cane secondary against the Coug receiver corps, everywhere else probably slants Miami's way in shorts-and-t shirts measurables.
Coley and Njoku. Wide receiver Stacey Coley is Miami's leading receiver and big-play maker. He's got 645 yards on 44 receptions on the season, good for 14.6 yards per catch. Coley is extremely fast and a talented route-runner, and he's lethal on the smash concept they hammer in their play-calling.
Redshirt freshman tight end David Njoku is their biggest pass catcher, at 6-4 244 pounds, and is somewhat mis-labeled as a TE. In addition to being the end man on the line of scrimmage, he'll also line up in the inside slot and off-set like a Wing-T. Think Austin Hooper for Stanford -- 6-4 248 pounds -- who is used similarly in the Cardinal passing game. Njoku catches things you expect a TE to catch: 10 yard out routes, drags off play action, and seams.
WSU has relied on Isaac Dotson to help mitigate big pass-catchers earlier this season, and I would expect them to try the same things against Njoku. He creates a sizeable match-up disadvantage whenever he's in route.
Rather than get our usual interview with a beat-writer, since we know next to nothing about the Miami Hurricanes, we thought it would be fun to ask some people who know them best...their ACC conference opponents!
Anson Whaley, managing editor of the excellent Pitt Panthers blog Cardiac Hill stopped by. And we were lucky enough to hear from Brian Lewis, manager of one of the best college football blogs in SB Nation, the Clemson Tigers Shakin The Southland.
What does Miami do well offensively and defensively?
Anson (Pitt): "On offense, Miami has a much greater chance of hurting you with the pass than the run. Quarterback Brad Kaaya is one of the best in the conference and just doesn't make as many mistakes as he did last year as a freshman. He cut his interceptions way back from 12 last season to four this year as well as his sacks (from 20 to 12). He's a smarter player that you can't rely upon to give you the game. Unlike many of the quarterbacks Pitt faced this year, he's not a dual threat guy that will beat you with his legs. But he's such a good passer that it hardly matters. They are capable rushing the ball, but pass defense is really what will come in handy against them.
"Defensively, it's sort of the same deal - they have a better pass defense than run defense. Pitt sort of played into their hands a little as I felt they should have tried to run more in the first half. They got behind big early when drives were halted and that put them into a hole. The Panthers averaged just over six yards per attempt on the ground and the game plan for me would have been to pound the ball continually. They had 31 carries, which I considered to be pretty modest against a team with what was at the time near the bottom of the nation in run defense.
"Another thing the Hurricanes do well is win the turnover battle. They rank in the top ten in the nation in turnover margin and that held true in the Pitt game. They got a key interception early on the Panthers' first possession that gave them the ball deep in Pitt territory where they were able to add a field goal to get a quick 10-0 lead. That interception from quarterback Nate Peterman shows how good they are as that was only his second interception in a nine-game stretch. Conversely, Pitt couldn't force a turnover, and that made it difficult for them to come back from a big deficit. Miami thrives on forcing mistakes and does a nice job taking care of the ball".
Brian (Clemson): "Basically Miami is going to have to hope Brad Kaaya can make magic happen. I'm not at all impressed with their defense and their offense folded quicker than a French defense line against us. If Miami is going to win it is going to be because of Kaaya. He has the arm strength and he can make some of the more difficult throws. With Mark Richt at the helm I expect Kaaya to have some competent coaching and a decent game plan. As much as we joke Richt has always done with with QB talent, and that can make his teams really dangerous. This one will likely be a shootout though, and that has to favor y'all".
What has me confident in the Cougs
Air Raid's ground arsenal. Oddly enough, the most significant advantage WSU holds in this game is in the running game; where WSU excels at what they try to accomplish on the ground and Miami seemingly can't stop anything anybody has tried against them. They rank 118th in rush defense S&P+, 124th against rushing success rate, and 124th against opportunity rate. WSU ranks 57th, 4th, and 11th nationally in each of those categories.
Don't get me wrong, Wazzu isn't going to magically decide to run it some outlandish number of times -- rush attempts will likely be in the 15-22 range -- but it's good to know the ground attack with Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington hold a more than significant advantage whenever they tote the rock.
Do what you do well. WSU holds a big offensive advantage in what they've been good at all season, success rate, which is a measure of keeping good pace to move the sticks. Miami really embodies bending in the bend don't break part of their defense. Wazzu just needs to go out and play its game, the Hurricanes haven't demonstrated they can stop anything like it all season.
100% happy and healthy (for real this time, kinda). We know first team All Pac-12 left tackle Joe Dahl will be back for his last game in Crimson and Gray. Which is great news. And we also know first team All Pac-12 receiver Gabe Marks has been running routes. How much he plays is still a bit of a question, but it's safe to assume a guy that competes as hard as Marks will find a way onto the field this Saturday. Also back, Luke Falk, who's importance to the offense can't really be understated after what happened in the Apple Cup.
With the devastating duo of Falk and Marks reunited, Cougs should feel great about the offense. The two connected 99 times this season for 1125 yards and 14 TDs.
Only one left out is River Cracraft, who is not expected to play, sadly.
So, friends from the ACC...
What does Miami struggle with offensively and defensively?
Anson (Pitt): "I sort of alluded to this in the first answer, but the Hurricanes could be better in run offense and defense, and in both categories, they are near the bottom of the FBS statistically. They did an adequate job against Pitt on the ground offensively, but the Panthers' front seven was able to hold them in check for the most part. And to their run defense, when Pitt did run, as I mentioned, they had some success. Backup and true freshman Darrin Hall easily had his biggest game of the season with 103 yards on only 12 carries.
"It should also be noted that one thing Pitt had some success with were sweeps from wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Boyd has been utilized a lot this season on the ground and he had 47 yards on only three carries against Miami. Not every team has a Boyd to use like that, but again, it comes back to the Hurricanes having a run defense that can be somewhat exploited. If I were Washington State, I wouldn't hesitate to try to throw some innovation into the playbook against Miami here - sweeps, reverses, and a few trick plays on the ground could be very effective if they have the right personnel.
"Finally, on both sides of the ball, Miami struggles with penalties. They are the most penalized team in the nation in terms of total penalties (9.33) and penalty yards (82.4) per game. I told our readers to look for that in our site's preview of the game and, while they were a little below their season averages (and Pitt, typically a pretty disciplined team, was actually penalized more in the game), they still made quite a few mistakes with seven penalties for 64 yards. Expecting Miami to make their fair share of miscues and dumb penalties is a pretty safe bet most of the time".
Brian (Clemson): Well from our game, Miami struggles with pretty much everything. But a 58-0 score would indicate that. The truth is QB Brad Kaaya got knocked out in the first half and any chance Miami had of coming back. He's arguably the second best QB in the ACC when healthy, so I expect him to make a few plays for the Hurricanes against y'all. The problem is Miami doesn't have a great OL, or receiving corps, or RB depth. So Kaaya has to do everything and pray that his teammates will help him out. Sometimes they do, and other times they just look horrendous.
What do fans in the ACC think of Miami this season?
Anson (Pitt): "I can't speak for other fanbases, but I know that ours was not overly impressed with the Hurricanes heading into the game against Pitt. Once it started, however, Pitt fell behind big time and I think that was a surprise to a lot of folks and changed some minds. Both teams had a lot at stake in terms of positioning for a bowl game and Miami definitely came out of the gate much more ready. The two teams looked pretty evenly matched on paper and with the game at home, most fans on our site seemed to be expecting a win. I personally expected the Panthers to win that game, but also gave Miami more credit than a lot of people did, ranking them relatively high in our weekly conference power rankings. Pitt and Miami were right there in that tier behind the top ACC teams, Clemson, North Carolina, and Florida State, and after the head-to-head matchup, definitely earned more respect from Panthers fans.
"Miami is not a great team as evidenced by the losses against those three teams this season, but they are still very good since they get such great play from Kaaya and in the secondary".
Brian (Clemson): "A lot of pointing and laughing and maybe a few souls feel some pity. But given Miami's past and their recent sanctions, you won't find too many sympathetic about their poor play. That said, having Miami as a decent team does help the conference profile, so I suppose a new coach is a good thing. But did it really have to be Mark Richt? That's one hire that could really affect Clemson in recruiting, especially with some of the top 5 star talent the Tigers have been able to pull recently".
What should travelling Cougs expect from Canes fans when they meet in El Paso?
Brian (Clemson): I'll be really interested to see how many fans actually make the trip. Miami isn't known for great home attendance, even when they are winning, so the Cougs may have a nice home field advantage in El Paso. That said, those few Miami fans that make the trip could be a mixed bag. I've had good and bad experiences with Miami fans, it just depends on the individual.
This game has all the makings of a shootout, but also has Vegas seeing things sticking around the four touchdown range with an over/under of 62. Both offenses hold similar advantages over the defenses in the first half, and will probably both be able to put points on the board before the defenses react.
The second half gets a little more interesting. The Hurricanes typically dominate on defense in the third quarter, and the Cougs' offense blows doors off in the fourth quarter. I see that third quarter being what decides this game. The Coug D really needs to limit what Miami accomplishes offensively if their defense makes solid halftime adjustments and comes out stout...setting the stage for one final game-winning touchdown drive in the last minutes for Luke Falk.
Final score: WSU 45 - 40 Miami
Thanks for reading, interacting, and sharing our previews all season. It's been a lot of fun and I appreciate all the kind comments you all leave. Hope you all have a happy holiday and GO COUGS!