After winning seven straight games to open the season and looking like the clear-cut ACC Coastal Division favorite, Miami has stumbled in the past two weeks, losing to No. 2 Florida State and Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes will have to beat a Duke team boasting a five-game winning streak in order to stay in the hunt for the Coastal crown.
The Hurricanes (7-2, 3-2 in the ACC) reached as high as No. 7 in the AP top 25 before their back-to-back losses dropped them to No. 23 and left them in with a must-win against Duke (7-2, 3-2) if they hope to have a chance at revenge against the Seminoles. But don't tell Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe the Hurricanes are in a slump.
“We have a big, big, big challenge in front of us,” Cutcliffe said. “I really believe we’re playing a Miami team that you can’t find a physical weakness. They’re extremely gifted on both lines of scrimmage. Bigger than what we may see all season.
Miami, like N.C. State who was sans Bryan Underwood, will be without its top offensive threat Saturday, as running back Duke Johnson was lost for the season after suffering a broken ankle against Florida State. Johnson finished his season with 920 yards and six touchdowns and was everything to the Hurricanes’ ground attack.
"[Miami's] offensive line is big," Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said. They've got talented backs. They're talented across the board and they're known for that. We just have to come out and know our assignment."
In last week’s 42-24 loss to the Hokies, its first full game without Johnson, Miami rushed for a paltry 28 yards and averaged a season-low 1.2 yards per carry. The Hurricanes will look to turn that around against a Duke defense that ranks 12th in the ACC against the run.
With Johnson gone and the running game a shadow of what it was, the offense will look to quarterback Stephen Morris to lead the team. Morris is a constant threat, as he ranks sixth in the ACC in passing yards per game with 219.9 and fourth with 14 touchdowns through the air.
"Their quarterback, he's got a nice arm," Anunike said. "As long as we stay in lockdown coverage, get to him, wreak havoc in the backfield, we're going to be just fine."
The area Morris will have to improve on will be his decision making, as he is second in the ACC with 12 interceptions. Against an opportunistic Duke defense—which has picked off seven passes in the last two games—he will have to be careful with his pass selection.
“I just think it’s unfair, especially given what he has been playing with and dealing with for eight weeks now,” Miami head coach Al Golden said of criticism directed at Morris. “Boo me. Be frustrated with me. But Stephen Morris? He’s done everything, including staying and fighting here the last two years. He’s our quarterback, he’s our leader, and he has my support.”
On the other side of the ball, the Hurricanes are led by junior linebacker Denzel Perryman, who is tied for fifth in the conference with 8.7 tackles per game. Perryman—a 2011 Freshman All-American—headlines a powerful Miami front seven alongside defensive lineman Shayon Green, who has racked up 10.5 tackles for a loss.
Miami’s pass defense, which ranks 12th in the conference, has struggled in its past two games facing Heisman-hopeful Jameis Winston and a reinvigorated Logan Thomas. But even with Duke’s quarterback situation in the air, the Hurricanes are making sure not to take the Blue Devils’ signal-callers lightly.
“They both can run. Both have mobility, if the pocket breaks down, they can both move and create,” Golden said. “They can both move the pocket, sprint, play action. They’ve had success with both of them. All [Anthony] Boone has done since being a starter is win.”
If Miami is to have the rematch with Florida State in Charlotte, the Hurricanes will need to defeat their remaining three opponents and have Virginia Tech drop one of its remaining games. Miami has already secured a tie-breaker against Georgia Tech, but a loss to Duke would make the path to Charlotte near impossible for the Hurricanes.