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Jackets Could Be Miami’s Biggest Test

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Miami has looked like a contender but can prove it against Georgia Tech.

As B.J. Bennett pointed out earlier this week, Georgia Tech, in some form or fashion, will influence the College Football Playoff race, with games at Miami and Clemson, and then home against Virginia Tech and Georgia on the docket.

That run of competition starts on Saturday, as the Yellow Jackets travel to unbeaten Miami -- the Hurricanes fresh off of a thrilling victory at Florida State, and likely to be favored in every remaining regular season game. In fact, if Mark Richt’s group is going to lose at all, prior to the ACC Championship, Georgia Tech may have the best shot to take them down.

This is due, in large part, to the fact that Miami will be without its top rusher, Mark Walton, and possibly its top pass catcher, Ahmmon Richards, who, at the very least, will not be at full strength. Plus, while Walton is out for the year, and as such will not be available for Virginia Tech nor Notre Dame, both challenging matchups in their own right, the fact that this will be the first game without Walton gives it a greater chance for volatility, whereas, after some time to jell, the unit could be back producing close to what it was.

The vitality of Miami’s rushing attack, which has been the most efficient in college football, is the fulcrum from which the outcome of this contest swings.

The ‘Canes will welcome Georgia Tech, on saturday, as the nation’s leader in success rate (gaining at least 50% of the necessary yardage to move the chains on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth down) on the ground, staying on schedule 58.2% of the time. They have gained at least five yards on 51.8% of their carries, as well, which also leads college football.

They don’t just grind out the hard yards, though. On top of their unparalleled efficiency, they have been one of the most explosive running teams, averaging 6.4 yards per carry (6th in FBS), with 1.13 IsoPPP (short for isolated points per play, SBNation writer Bill Connelly’s measure of equivalent points per successful play to determine explosiveness), which is 13th in the country.

Of that rushing production, Walton accounted for over 51%, on just under 49% of the team's carries. In a backup role, Travis Homer has been effective, averaging 8.6 yards per carry and gaining at least five yards on 56% of his touches, but there’s no telling how he will fare with an increased burden.

As far as guys who will have to step up alongside Homer, bruising junior Trayone Gray has only carried the ball four times and has a struggled with injuries, as has true freshman Robert Burns. Another true freshman, Deejay Dallas, one of the most dynamic athletes from Miami’s most recent recruiting class, is moving into the backfield, but, still, losing Walton is devastating.

Perhaps Dallas or Burns, when healthy, can be the sort of open field playmaker that Walton was -- averaging 8.8 extra yards per carry, when he reached the second level -- but Homer, while solid in that respect, is not there yet and Gray is nowhere close, although, in fairness, that’s not the kind of runner he is.

With all of that in mind, this is about the best time a Georgia Tech defense that has been decidedly poor against the run could hope to catch ‘The U’.

Georgia Tech’s run defense has allowed a 46.1% success rate (103rd), and given up carries of at least five yards 40.6% of the time (100th). They have a done a better job, relatively, of limiting big runs, with an allowed rushing IsoPPP of .81 (35th), and a 3.84 yards per carry against average (56th).

The efficiency numbers are worrisome. More traditional statistics might lead one to think that their run defense is amongst the nation’s best, with 101.75 rushing yards per game allowed (14th), but factoring in pace of play, time of possession, the fact that they’ve faced the least attempts in the country, and the advanced metrics, it’s much closer to the bottom than the top.

Linebacker Victor Alexander and defensive linemen Keshun Freeman, Anree Saint-Amour, and Desmond Branch are all tied for the lead on the team with two run stuffs (stops at or behind the line of scrimmage), each. For a point of reference, Miami, who like Georgia Tech has only played four games, has 12 players on defense with at least two run stuffs, seven of whom have more than two.

Brant Mitchell, from his linebacker spot, has an impressive allowed success rate of 31.6%, and his 10 stops (prior to the ball carrier reaching what would make it a successful play) on 83 run snaps is the fourth highest percentage in the ACC, but outside of Mitchell, who’s still missing more tackles than he should, it’s pretty bleak.

Even so, what predictably would have been the most significant advantage in the game, for either team, is now a totally unknown commodity. While this could easily be a confidence boost for the team from Atlanta that has struggled mightily in this facet of the game, it could just as easily be a monster coming out party for Homer, Gray, Dallas, and/or Burns.

Not to mention quarterback Malik Rosier, who will enter the game as the Hurricanes active leader in carries, in light of the Walton news.

Rosier, a redshirt junior, has done a serviceable job in his first year as the starter, leading Miami to a 42.9% success rate (53rd), with a 148.15 passer rating (36th), 1.62 IsoPPP (25th), and 8 yards per attempt (35th).

So, while staying on schedule at a rate above the national average, they have been able to rip off big plays through the air and get yards in chunks. In fact, their 43 receptions of 10+ yards and 18 of 20+ yards are both the exact same amount as Clemson has had, despite playing two fewer games.

Rosier is really excelling considering that he was without his, ostensibly, best pass catcher in weeks one and two, and even when he’s been active, Ahmmon Richards has not looked quite himself. Granted, 174 yards and touchdown through two games is nothing to scoff at, and a banged up Richards is still better than most. However, he is averaging 1.6 less yards per target with a 21.5% drop in catch rate and a 17.5% drop in success rate, as compared to his averages last year.

The volume of his production through two games is misleading, but nonetheless remarkable and really speaks to how special he is when he’s full-go.

Fellow sophomore Lawrence Cager has had consistency issues, with a 42.1% catch rate, 31.6% success rate, and just 5.1 yards per target.

The two guys who have picked up the slack are receiver Braxton Berrios and tight end Christopher Herndon IV.

Both boast catch rates at or above 72%, heading into this game. Berrios has been more of a playmaker, Herndon more a safety valve. The former has five touchdowns already, with a 68% success rate, no drops, and 11.3 yards per target, while the latter boasts a very solid 50% success rate with 7.4 yards per target, and one drop on catchable balls.

However, aside from his obvious contributions as a ball carrier, Mark Walton added another element to the passing game that Mark Richt and company will want to preserve.

Homer, in limited opportunities, has shown the ability to be that guy. He’s caught five of the six balls thrown to him for 11.8 yards per target with a 50% success rate. Dallas, moving over from receiver, ought to be particularly dangerous in this respect, possibly even adding an extra dimension to the passing game, entirely.

For all the preseason hype around Florida State’s secondary, and as efficient as Duke’s has been, Georgia Tech has the statistically best pass defense that Miami will have seen.

The Yellow Jackets are allowing just 5.4 yards per pass attempt (7th), with a 107.1 opposing passer rating (17th), and a 35.4% success rate (28th). And they are doing so without sacrificing big plays having given up an incredible 20 completions of 10+ yards (1st), eight of 20+ yards (2nd), and three of 30+ yards (2nd), with 1.17 allowed passing IsoPPP (7th).

Step Durham, especially, has emerged as one of the best coverage players in the ACC, with an allowed passer rating of 47.9, which is fourth in the conference.

Lance Austin has been more of a weak link, on the other side, with an allowed passer rating of 112.3, on eleven targets into his coverage for five receptions, 111 yards and a touchdown. His brother, Lawrence hasn’t been much better in the slot, though, with 17 receptions on 24 targets into his coverage, when lining up as a nickel.

Safeties A.J. Gray and Corey Griffin deserve a lot of credit for Georgia Tech’s brilliant pass defense, to date.

Given that Georgia Tech runs the ball 88.7% of the time, and 92.6% on standard downs, it’s probably superfluous to go into the matchup between its pass offense and Miami’s pass defense, although the former is exactly what one would expect, average efficiency, a 42.9% success rate (53rd), but very explosive, 1.88 IsoPPP (9th).

It’s also worth mentioning that Malek Young has been revelatory for the ‘Canes, with an allowed passer rating 43.2, good for third in the ACC. Opposite Young, Dee Delaney, after finding his footing in the early going, as he transferred from FCS to FBS, had been great in Miami’s last two games. Delaney will, however, be out with a lower extremity injury, this weekend.

Georgia Tech’s rushing attack has been firing on all cylinders this season. Perhaps, even, to the greatest extent during Paul Johnson’s tenure, ranked in the top ten with a 5.9 yards per carry average and at least five yards on 45.7% of runs, and the top five, nationally, with a 53.9% success rate. It’s been reasonably explosive, also, for .92 IsoPPP (56th).

Paul Johnson played his decision at quarterback close to the vest during the preseason (or close to the chest for any Christopher Nolan-heads), but clearly he made the right one.

Taquon Marshall is the team’s leading rusher, garnering 37.6% of the total carries for 5.5 yards per run and nine touchdown. He’s picking up at least five yards on 41.4% of his rushes and on those rushes of at least five yards, he’s averaging another 5.6 yards on top.

There were plenty of concerns about replacing Dedrick Mills at B-back, but Kirvonte Benson has stepped in admirably, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, a bruising 3.69 after contact, according to Pro Football Focus, which is 16th in FBS, and gaining at least five yards 44% of the time.

Jerry Howard has added some fire power, spelling Benson, averaging 12.3 extra yards per carry when he gets to the second level.

At A-back, Qua Searcy, Nathan Cottrell, Clinton Lynch, and J.J. Green are all averaging, at least, 6.6 yards per carry and are gaining at least five yards on 50% of their carries.

As good as Johnson’s offense has been, in 2017, Miami should have its hands full, defensively.

The Hurricanes are allowing 3.84 yards per carry (57th), a 39.1% rushing success rate (52nd), at least five yards on 40.1% of opposing carries (92nd), and .9 IsoPPP (68th).

To their credit, it’s not the defensive line’s fault that their run defense is so average. They have been elite, with a 9.7% havoc rate (3rd).

In the interior, Kendrick Norton has five stops at or before the line of scrimmage (also referred to as run stuffs), with an allowed success rate of 25%, while RJ McIntosh has three, with 0% allowed success rate.

On the right edge, Trent Harris has a pair of run stuffs with an 18.2% allowed success rate. His eight stops (stops constitute a tackle prior to the offensive player reaching whatever line of demarcation would equal a ‘successful play’) on 56 snaps against the run is the fourth highest run stop percentage in college football.

At left end, Chad Thomas is more well known for his pass-rushing prowess, but he has three run stuffs this season and a 20% allowed success rate, although his run stop percentage is just over half of Harris’. Joe Jackson has also become a solid contributor.

It’s the linebacking corps, with the exception of Shaq Quarterman, that has been the problem, as far as run stopping.

Michael Pinckney, for example, has registered a solid four run stuffs, but has not been consistent, allowing a 50% success rate. Some version of that has been the story for the unit, at large.

Against Georgia Tech’s option attack, if the linebackers don’t improve, it’s going to be a long day.

Of course, that’s only if Georgia Tech’s offensive line can hold it’s own.

Going into the game, the Yellow Jackets’ offensive front is creating 3.63 line yards (another one of Bill Connelly’s metrics that attempts to separate what the line does from what the backs do, inasmuch as that’s possible) on standard downs (9th), and 3.73 on passing downs (36th), while allowing stuffs only 12% of the time (4th), and moving the chains on 3rd and 4th down, with two or fewer yards to go, on 78.8% of conversion attempts (29th).

Comparatively, Miami is allowing 2.78 standard down line yards (68th), 2.52 passing down line yards (25th), stuffing the run 26.6% of the time (13th), and preventing short yardage conversions on 43.8% of attempts (24th).

On the flipside, Miami, when run blocking is creating 3.62 line yards on standard downs (13th), 4.5 on passing downs (4th), and allowing stuffs 19.8% of the time (69th). It has struggled in short yardage situations though, with a power success rate of 42.9% (128th).

Georgia Tech’s defensive front, meanwhile, is allowing 3.35 line yards on standard downs (117th), 3.19 line yards on passing downs (57th), stuffing runs 13.5% of the time (125th), and allowing 71.4% of short yardage conversions (77th).

With that mind, perhaps, rather than Georgia Tech having a chance to bolster its confidence against the run, while Miami tries to overcome the loss of its star back, the opposite could happen, where Miami’s new featured ball carriers thrive behind a more powerful offensive line.

Should that not be the case, and Miami is forced to look to the air, its offensive line has been less than stellar, in pass protection, aside from tackle KC McDermott, who leads the ACC in pass block efficiency, having allowed no sacks and two pressures on 155 pass pro snaps.

As a unit, though, the Hurricanes 9.2% allowed standard down sack rate (118th) is not ideal, despite a strong 1.6% passing down sack rate (12th). All the disparity really proves is that teams don’t feel compelled to blitz Malik Rosier in obvious throwing situations.

Georgia Tech isn’t setting the world on fire, either, with a 3.3% standard down sack rate (85th), but is bringing down the quarterback on 10.5% of passing down. Again, though, that just indicates a more aggressive approach when they knock their opponents off schedule.

Overall, Miami’s offense has been both explosive and efficient all season -- one of the best in the country -- but that was before it lost Mark Walton for the year. If Georgia Tech’s defensive line keeps playing like it has been, and Miami’s offensive line does too, then it won’t matter, but the Yellow Jackets have been presented with a big opportunity.

Their offense, with its 52.5% success rate (3rd), should be able to move the ball with some consistency against Miami run defense that has been average at best, unless the Hurricanes’ linebackers have undergone some sort of awakening in the past week.

Miami enters the game with a slight advantage in average starting field position, but not enough to be considered much of an edge. However, it is worth noting that whoever wins the field position battle, wins the game, 72% of the time.

Georgia Tech’s offense, averaging 5.32 points per trip inside the 40-yard line (13th), and Miami’s defense allowing only 3.45 points per trip (19th), are both amongst the best when it comes to finishing drives (or not letting the other team finish them). However, Miami holds a solid edge in the reverse, scoring 5.28 points per trip (17th), whereas Georgia Tech is giving up 4.93 (102nd). The team that finishes drives better wins 75% of games.

Miami is also +1 turnover per game, to Georgia Tech’s -.5, and, 73% of contests, the team who wins that battle, walks away victorious.

Georgia Tech has a lot to overcome, on paper, but here’s the catch: Bethune-Cookman does not meet the talent threshold to compete with Miami. Toledo is not very good. Neither is Duke. Florida State may or may not be, and, statistically speaking, if that game was played four times, and everything shook out the same way, Florida State wins three of them.

Georgia Tech is good, not great, but good. On Saturday, we find out if Miami is for real.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP