GC: First off, and I'm sure you've grown tired of answering this question in the last couple of days, but what does Duke Johnson's injury mean for this team for the rest of this year?
SOTU: While it's not a happy subject, it's a fair question. Duke Johnson is the most talented player on our team, and it's not really even that close in my opinion. Losing him for the season to a broken ankle affects the team in multiple ways.
First, he's a dynamic return man on kickoffs. As a freshman, he was 3rd nationally, averaging 33.06 yards per KO return, and had 2 TDs. As a sophomore, that average fell slightly to 28.29 yards per KO return, which was still good for 9th to this point of the season. His homerun ability was an advantage on Special Teams that most teams don't have, and even a merely average return (between 28-33 yards) put the offense in good field position.
Second, he's grown into a valuable and reliable feature back. Duke was averaging 115 yards per game this season, good for 14th nationally. When on the field, the Canes were able to move the ball very effectively on the ground power Power-O and stretch plays being the foundation for that success. As seen against UNC, Duke can take a routine stretch play 60+ yards at any given moment. With that success running, the success/believe-ability of play-action fakes increased exponentially. And, if you look at most of our big passing plays this year, they came on play-action. Which only works as a function of Duke Johnson being so good.
Now, what do I expect the rest of the year? Solid, if unspectacular, performance. Dallas Crawford will be the feature back (more on him in a moment), but Eduardo Clements, Gus Edwards, and Maurice Hagens will all see carries as well. While nobody hopes for injuries, especially to a player who means as much to a team as Duke Johnson means to the Canes, the cadre of players we have to fill in at that position for the rest of the year should be able to produce reasonably well.
GC: How much faith do you have in Johnson's backup, Dallas Crawford? Is he a different kind of runner and/or offer anything that Johnson does not?
SOTU: I believe we have full and complete faith in Dallas Crawford. He's done a fine job in the times he's been called on (see: his game at UNC), and should continue to play well. He is a slightly different kind of runner than Duke, however.
Crawford is a bit more powerful, and will seek out contact. He is a little bigger than Duke, and able to move the pile at times with his leg drive. Crawford is also the best goal-line back we have. His "torpedo" ability to get low and find the smallest of creases to score when close to the endzone was his best trait early in the season, and will continue to be a valued asset to the offense.
The other difference comes when running in space. Duke is a much more dynamic runner, in that he has a variety of jukes, and counter-moves to get by defenders, or, at the least, gain extra yardage. Dallas has one move, albeit a good one: I call it the "HS shimmy shake" where he sticks his right foot in the ground, does a quick shoulder shake, and cuts back to the left. He used that move about 18 different times in the UNC game, and has used it in subsequent games as well. For me, the 1 move vs multitude of moves matters, but only if you're trying to shake defenders often. Crawford will probably use that move on occasion, but more likely that not stick to straight ahead downhill running against VT.
GC: What do you make of the play of Stephen Morris this year? On the whole, has he played better/worse than last year? Are there any concerns you have about him?
SOTU: Stephen Morris' play this year has been maddeningly inconsistent. It has even been so scattershot that some Canes fans have invoked the name of a previous QB who I will not name. It's just been all over the place.
Take the FSU game as a microcosm of his season: he flashed the throwing ability that has some scouts drooling (both TDs to Hurns were GORGEOUS THROWS), then make throws that just have you scratching your head (the WOEFULLY underthrown INT towards Stacy Coley, and the INT to the Safety who had perfect underneath coverage on a TE seam route). You'd think that a player would do either of those things (the good or the bad), but not BOTH. Such is life with Stephen Morris as your QB. I'm sure you can understand that, having watched Logan Thomas for 4 years.
On the whole, his play has definitely been worse than last year. He's a senior, had a strong offseason, and has all the talent in the world. Morris has routinely sailed passes over the heads of wide open receivers, many of which have ended in interceptions. My last point on how Morris has regressed is this: he has 10 interceptions through 8 games. He had 7 interceptions TOTAL last year. Yeah, definitely a step in the wrong direction.
GC: The Miami defense has been pretty good this season, but received a tune up from Florida State, much like every other team. How much stock do you put into this game versus their performance all-season long?
SOTU: Honestly, the FSU game showed that we just don't have the depth to keep up with them. From a performance standpoint, we actually played well...for a half. The problems getting off the field on 3rd down are something we've seen over the last month, so FSU's success there was more a function of that than anything else.
Apart from that, the anecdotal evidence of Miami having the best defense FSU has faced this year is all over the place. Multiple FSU players said Miami played them toughest, and multiple blogs and articles stated the same thing.
I think the rest of the season is more indicative of the level of performance to be expected from this year's defense. Also, some players have been nicked up over the course of this season, and the backups were ok at filling in for a game, but FSU found them and torched them. Repeatedly. With the starting players back on the field now and into the rest of the season, I don't foresee that kind of thing happening with the frequency that we saw last week.
GC: Several weeks ago this one had the billing of a heavyweight bout, but two weeks and three combined losses later, this one has lost its luster, even if the winner still probably goes to the ACC Championship game. Given that last detail, how pumped up do you think the crowd will be? More so than last year (crickets joke, mic drop)?
SOTU: I think the crowd NEEDS to be a full house, loud, rambunctious group. Will that happen? I don't know. Obviously, riding the high of being #7 in the country and undefeated was tempered with last week's loss, but there's still much to play for. VT is a rival, and we've had some epic games in this series.
Obviously, the "it's far from campus" and "there are so many other things to do in South Florida" points are true, but honestly, if this game isn't packed, I'll be disappointed.
GC: With the way the game played out last year, how confident do you feel about this one?
SOTU: Regardless of prior results, I'm always keyed up for the Virginia Tech game. The style you play always makes this team a tough matchup, and our best effort will be needed. Additionally, we're banged up on offense, and our senior QB isn't playing all that well.
Miami is on the way to being a top notch program, but we're not so much better than the Hokies to dismissively say "Oh, we'll beat them. No problem" as though they were the FAU's of the world. Not by a longshot. I believe this will be our toughest test at home of the season. Yes this is including GT and Wake Forest, 2 teams we let hang around much longer than we should have.
GC: Is there anyone who particularly worries you on Virginia Tech's offense (and why the hell would you be worried)? How will Miami likely try to stop it/that player?
SOTU: My one concern is this: WHAT IF Logan Thomas puts it together for a full game? I mean, he's played for 4 years, and never done it...but WHAT IF? He's a gigantic player at the QB position, which helps his ability to break out of would-be sacks, is a good runner, and has a rocket for an arm. Even if he is inconsistent, which he is, he possesses the ability to do everything you want a Quarterback to do.
So, my concern: Logan Thomas not giving a damn, throwing caution to the wind, and playing the best game of his life.
Overall, I don't think we're going to do much different defensively than we've done all season. Bend but don't break, let Denzel Perryman run around from sideline to sideline making plays, have Jimmy Gaines stop the run up the middle, but probably get beat in pass coverage, and hope a couple big defensive plays turn the tide in our favor. I would like to see DC Mark D'Onofrio do SOMETHING other than play soft zone on 3rd downs to try and get the opposing offense off the field. Our last 2 opponents, Wake Forest and FSU, were a combined 19-26 on 3rd down. Hopefully, we can find a way to get off the field in those situations on Saturday.
GC: If you're Bud Foster or Frank Beamer, how are you stopping this Miami offense?
SOTU: My plan to stop the Miami offense would be to pressure the QB early and often. Straight blitz. Cross blitz. Zone blitz. Pressure from the front 4. I'd take my pressure in the way Malcolm X would have wanted it: by any means necessary.
VT's defense is one of the best in the country, and Stephen Morris has already shown a propensity for turning the ball over. Also, his ankle may or may not be 100%. Pressure him and force him to move. That will take away what little rhythm he has, and put him in panic mode. Also, if the pressure hits home, or is close enough to gently urge Morris towards throwing incompletions (something he is willing to do), that will put the offense behind schedule and force Miami to throw even more. Which would be a double win, assuming the pressure is working.
After that, play physical coverage. Beat up the receivers who are, besides Allen Hurns, young and force them to prove they can beat press coverage repeatedly.
With those 2 things affecting the passing game, force the running back-by-committee of Crawford, Clements and Edwards (and maybe Hagens) to beat you. I know Miami has run for plenty of yards, but that was with Duke Johnson playing a major role, as previously discussed. Put the pressure on this group, and see if one-trick-pony Dallas Crawford can carry the Canes to the promised land against one of the toughest defensive units in College Football.
That's what I'd do.
GC: Lastly, who wins, by how much and why? You can include a score if you'd like.
SOTU: I like staying consistent, so I'll stick with what I said in our SOTU roundtable for this game:
I think VT comes out strong. I think they play hard. I think Miami is tested, but, somehow, someway, finds a way to pull it out.
Virginia Tech 28
This is another classic installment of a traditional rivalry.