1. Keep Miami off of James Graham
Tech’s offensive line will have another test in trying to give quarterback James Graham time to throw. The Jackets are hit and miss in holding up against blitzes and also in preventing edge rushers from getting at the quarterback. Hurricanes defensive end Gregory Rousseau ranks tied for fourth in the ACC with five sacks. While he only has one sack, defensive end Jonathan Garvin looks like he could be trouble, too.
“They’re big and they’re strong and they’re fast,” left guard Jack DeFoor said of Miami’s defensive front.
This will be Tech’s third consecutive game with the same offensive line and confidence and familiarity appears to be developing. Responsibility falls upon offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude to add protection help when needed and to dial up pass plays where Graham can throw quickly. It falls to Graham, too, to hang in the pocket for as long as he can.
“If we just sit in a seven-man protection and the defense knows it’s a seven-man protection, they’ll run a seven-man protection beater,” Patenaude said. “So you have to be multiple. You have to move the pocket and you have to give them different looks.”
2. Win on second down
Against Duke, Tech actually was decent on third downs at 8-for-18. However, the Blue Devils won the game in the first half by stopping the Jackets on five consecutive drives as they ran out to a 38-7 lead. Tech’s third-down distances over those five possessions – 11, 8, 11, 4 and 10. None were converted.
Graham and the offense hit a few third-and-long plays against Duke, but consistently converting them is a tall order for any offense, let alone one with a redshirt freshman at quarterback and pass-protection challenges.
Patenaude places a priority on second down as it’s either a chance to gain some ground after a failed first-down play or to set up a third-and-short (or pick up a first down) after a successful gain on first down. It’d be a good place for running back Jordan Mason (seventh in the ACC in rushing yards per game at 70.8 yards per game) to assert himself against a Miami defense that’s tough against the run.
3. Hope to catch Miami on a down day
Miami nearly upset No. 9 Florida in the season opener (a 24-20 loss) and Friday took down then-No. 20 Virginia by keeping the Cavaliers out of the end zone in a 17-9 win.
On the other hand, the Hurricanes had to work to beat Central Michigan at home and lost 42-35 to an average Virginia Tech team, permitting the Hokies to hit their season scoring high.
The Jackets might hope that Hurricanes players take one look at Tech’s 1-5 record, make note of their five-game winning streak over Tech at Hard Rock Stadium, fail to be energized by a light crowd and then bring their “C” game Saturday.
Miami coach Manny Diaz’s comment on his radio show that losing to Tech last year “has to put a bad taste in our mouths” was an interesting phrasing and perhaps an indication that he recognized that motivation may be a challenge.
4. Get the ball from Miami
The offense likely will need help, either from the defense or special teams or both, such as the blocked punt by Jerry Howard on Saturday against Duke. The Jackets did not force any turnovers against Duke and had one each against the Citadel, Temple and North Carolina, which isn’t enough. They have not forced a fumble in the past three games, even as defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker has prioritized it in practice.
“Coach Thacker has been stressing the emphasis on trying to take the ball away even more this week,” linebacker Quez Jackson said. “We always have. That’s kind of like a base layer for our defense. But we’re trying to get back to what we do the best, and that’s take the ball away.”
Going back to last year, ACC teams are 9-29 in league games when they don’t force at least one turnover, according to sports-reference.com.
Miami has fumbled nine times in six games.
5. Start better
Against Temple, Tech was down 14-0 at the half and 21-0 five minutes into the third quarter. North Carolina’s halftime lead was 17-0. Duke zapped Tech with a 28-point second quarter en route to a 38-7 lead after the Jackets had scored a touchdown on the game’s opening drive.
Tech had a small victory against Duke in registering first-quarter points for the first time this season. But there’s more to do, as the Jackets are still getting outscored 37-7 in the first quarter and 114-34 in the first half.
Against Duke and North Carolina, Tech did well to forget about the score after falling behind and continue to play with effort and composure. However, the Jackets probably wouldn’t mind actually playing a game where they do have to mind the score.
Miami isn’t much of a first-quarter team itself. The Hurricanes have been outscored 45-27 in the first 15 minutes of their six games. Chances aren’t with Tech, but the longer that the Jackets can stay in the game, the more pressure they’ll put on Miami.