At first glance, Miami’s non-conference Thursday night matchup with Cincinnati appears to have little significance other than appearing on paper to be an entertaining fireworks display from both offenses. Upon further review, this game is critical in the development of the Hurricanes’ defense heading into ACC play.
For three quarters against Nebraska at Sun Life Stadium, the Hurricanes looked like they had arrived. A three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter against national brand Nebraska brought back memories of the glory days.
But in a span of nine minutes, all that was lost…the lead, the swagger, the euphoric return of The U. Fortunately, kicker Michael Badgley hadn’t lost it. His school-record-tying fifth field won the game in overtime.
So it’s back to the drawing board. The Canes, though undefeated at 3-0, have something to prove Thursday in Cincinnati when they take on the 2-2 Bearcats at 7:30 p.m. ET at Nippert Stadium. The drama unfolds on ESPN.
First, and foremost, the Canes have to prove they can play defense against a decent offense. There are no more Bethune-Cookmans or FAUs left on the schedule. In fact, after Thursday’s game with Cincinnati, Miami goes up against, in succession; Florida State, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Duke. That’s a tall task for any defense, but especially for one working towards becoming as dominant in the fourth quarter as it was for the first three against Nebraska.
Miami must prove it can stop a Cincinnati offense that averages 622.5 yards per game, which is third in the nation. For three quarters against Nebraska, it was emphatic in its statement. But can it do it for four quarters, against one of the top offenses in the country?
And can it do it short-handed for two quarters? The Canes will be without the services of safeties Deon Bush and Jamal Carter for the first half. Both must sit out until the second half Thursday because of target penalties late in the Nebraska game.
That should have Bearcats quarterback Hayden Moore licking his chops. The redshirt freshman threw for 557 yards in a loss at Memphis last Thursday after replacing injured starter Gunner Kiel. Moore gets his first career start on Thursday against the Canes and looks to extend Cincinnati’s 27-game win streak at Nippert Stadium against non-conference opponents.
That puts pressure on Miami’s secondary, led by corner Artie Burns, whose three interceptions is tops in ACC. He’s picked off a pass in each of the first three games this season, the first Canes player to do so since Sean Taylor in 2003.
He will certainly have his opportunities to add to that total, especially in the first half, when it would be inconceivable that Bearcats head coach Tommy Tuberville would not have his freshman QB chucking it all over the yard.
Defense is perhaps the final piece of Miami’s rebuilding puzzle that must be solidified.
The offense has seemingly done its job, averaging 41.7 points per game so far this season. Granted, better execution in the red zone is a must. In eight trips against Nebraska, the Canes – though they did score seven times – had to settle for five field goals.
They must prove they can get the ball in the end zone when the opportunity presents itself, especially against a Cincinnati defense yielding 32 points per game this season.
The return of sophomore wide receiver Braxton Berrios from a knee injury could help in giving sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya yet another viable target. Although Kaaya has had no trouble finding the end zone, since arriving in Coral Gables the California native has thrown a touchdown pass in all 16 games he’s played. Continuing that streak is vital in Miami proving its dominance over Cincinnati (11-1 all-time), a team it hasn’t lost to since 1947.
So don’t let the non-conference mid-week start fool you, this game is key on the schedule for a Canes team looking to gain back the respect it lost in the final nine minutes against Nebraska.