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November 20, 2008

ACC: Young Miami team growing up fast

MORE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

One of the most freshman-dominated teams in the country has grown up in a hurry.

Miami has surged to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division with a starting lineup that features four true freshmen (WR Aldarius Johnson, LB Marcus Robinson, LB Sean Spence and CB Brandon Harris) and one redshirt freshman (QB Robert Marve).

Eight Miami freshmen have scored touchdowns this season. No other school has a touchdown from more than six freshmen.

"Oh yeah, they are back," Virginia Tech cornerback Victor Harris said last week after the Hokies' 16-14 loss to Miami. "I told Coach [Randy] Shannon that I like how he runs his program. They are definitely on the rise."

Miami (7-3, 4-2 ACC) got its growing pains out of the way early. The Hurricanes dropped three of their first five games, including back-to-back home losses to Florida State and North Carolina.

Since then, Miami has won five in a row.

"I think every team needs some time," Marve said. "Once you learn how to win, things just keep on rolling. Now we're trying to fight as a group and fight together."

Miami hasn't needed too much time. Statistics provided by Miami's sports information department show that the Hurricanes' underclassmen haven't had any trouble making an instant impact.

Freshmen have accounted for more than half of Miami's total yards this season.

Three of the top four Hurricanes in all-purpose yardage WR/KR Travis Benjamin, Johnson and WR Thearon Collier are freshmen.

Underclassmen have accounted for all of Miami's passing yards, 79 percent of its rushing yards, 82 percent of its points, 85 percent of its return yards and 65 percent of its receptions.

Miami still has plenty of room for improvement. The Hurricanes rank 100th in the nation in total offense. Miami's two quarterbacks Marve and true freshman Jacory Harris have combined for nearly as many interceptions (13) as touchdown passes (14).

But their defense gets better and better each week. Miami has given up 17 points or less in four of its last five games.

"Miami is playing as well as anybody right now," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, whose team plays host to the Hurricanes on Thursday night. "It's fun to watch them play defense. They play hard, run to the ball well and fly around."

That defense has given Miami an excellent chance to advance to the ACC Championship Game in Tampa, Fla.

Miami can clinch the Coastal Division title if it beats Georgia Tech on Thursday and North Carolina falls to North Carolina State on Saturday. Miami also would wrap up the division if it wins Thursday while North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech all win their games Saturday.

"It would mean a lot to this program and this football team and these football players because of [all the] adversity we've been through and how far we've come as a football team," Shannon said. "It would help the morale of this football team and also this program. We've still got a lot of things we have to accomplish and a long way to go as a football team. We're still very young."

The Hurricanes are definitely very young. They're also very good.

Miami has proved the last month that those two qualities don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Miami at Georgia Tech, 7:30 p.m.
Clemson at Virginia, noon
N.C. State at North Carolina, noon
Boston College at Wake Forest, 3:30 p.m.
Duke at Virginia Tech, 5:30 p.m.
Florida State at Maryland, 7:45 p.m.

  • Best matchup
  • Georgia Tech RB Jonathan Dwyer vs. Miami run defense: In each of its past two games, Miami has done a good job of containing the hottest running back in the ACC. Virginia's Cedric Peerman had run for at least 110 yards in three of the four games leading up to the Cavaliers' matchup with Miami, but he gained 78 yards and had a critical overtime fumble against the Hurricanes. Virginia Tech's Darren Evans gained just 43 yards on 17 carries against Miami after burning Maryland for 253 yards a week earlier. Now the Hurricanes get their shot at Dwyer, who leads the ACC in rushing and has gained at least 145 yards in back-to-back games. Georgia Tech's diversified option attack makes it difficult to key on just one player, but the uncertain status of starting quarterback Josh Nesbitt could put even more pressure on Dwyer to carry the load. Nesbitt has a sprained ankle, but Tech coach Paul Johnson is hopeful Nesbitt will be able to start Thursday night's game. Georgia Tech ought to win this game if Dwyer gains 100 yards. If the Hurricanes hold Dwyer in check, they probably will remain atop the Coastal Division for at least one more week.

  • Player to watch
  • Wake Forest RBs Brandon Pendergrass and Josh Adams: Wake Forest's inability to run the ball has hampered the Demon Deacons all season. Wake Forest ranks 101st in the nation in rushing offense and has gained just 2.8 yards per carry. But there are signs of encouragement. The Deacons have received a boost recently from Pendergrass, who has rushed for a total of 182 yards in his last two games. Adams also returned to action last week after missing two games with an ankle injury, though he has reached the end zone just twice this season after rushing for 953 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall. Wake Forest's rushing attack faces perhaps its toughest test of the season Saturday against Boston College, which ranks ninth in the nation in run defense. Boston College DTs B.J. Raji and Ron Brace already have helped shut down much tougher rushing attacks. Wake Forest won't have much of a chance Saturday unless the Deacons can establish at least some semblance of a running game.

  • Who's hot
  • Boston College RB Montel Harris has rushed for at least 120 yards in back-to-back games. Clemson RB C.J. Spiller has a touchdown run and a touchdown catch in each of his last two games. Duke LB Michael Tauiliili has a total of 30 tackles in his last two games. Florida State DE Everette Brown has compiled six sacks and a fumble recovery over his last four games. Florida State CB Michael Ray Garvin leads the nation in kickoff returns with an average of 32.2 yards per attempt. North Carolina LB Mark Paschal has collected 10 tackles in three consecutive games. North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson has thrown 12 touchdown passes without an interception in his last six games. Wilson has thrown 175 consecutive passes without an interception. Virginia LB Clint Sintim has recorded 10 sacks in his last seven games. Virginia Tech DE Orion Martin has produced at least one sack in six of his last seven games. Virginia Tech DE Jason Worilds has recorded a sack in three consecutive games. Wake Forest WR D.J. Boldin has caught eight passes in three consecutive games. Wake Forest LB Aaron Curry has produced 8 tackles for loss in his last four games.

  • Who's not
  • After rushing for at least 100 yards in three consecutive games earlier this season, injuries and defenses have slowed down Florida State RB Antone Smith. The senior hasn't rushed for more than 57 yards in any of his last four games, and he mustered just 19 yards on 10 carries last week against Boston College. Florida State QB Christian Ponder has thrown four interceptions and one touchdown pass in his last two games. Georgia Tech kicker Scott Blair has gone 2-for-5 on field-goal attempts in his last four games. Georgia Tech DE Derrick Morgan collected 6 sacks in the Yellow Jackets' first six games, but he doesn't have a sack in the four games since.

  • What they're saying
  • "One, double zero. If Coach Swinney comes back, No. 28 comes back."
    - Clemson RB C.J. Spiller to TigerIllustrated.com in response to a question about the percent chance that he'd return for his senior year if Clemson removed the "interim" from interim coach Dabo Swinney's title.

    "I tell you that guy, he needs the Coach of the Year award. He lost everybody last year. I think he lost eight fifth-year seniors last year."
    - Florida State coach Bobby Bowden discussing Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski, whose Eagles defeated the Seminoles 27-17 last week.

    "Everyone here plays a recreational sport, whether it be golf, tennis or pickup basketball and all those kinds of things. You take six weeks off or you don't pick up a golf club for four, five or six months, the first time you come back, you're probably not as good as the last time you went out and actually played golf. That's one of the things that we've been trying to evaluate [with] T.J. when he came back. Was he in a position to compete and get back to playing? We are going to take this week and watch them both practice."
    - North Carolina coach Butch Davis discussing his plans to hold off on deciding whether to start T.J. Yates or Cam Sexton at quarterback for Saturday's game with North Carolina State. Yates, the season-opening starter, hasn't played since breaking his left ankle Sept. 20 against Virginia Tech.

    "This process has really helped me grow as a person and a student and to see where my life's going to lead me. Obviously I'd love to win, but if I don't, I've certainly gotten the most out of this experience, and I think that will benefit me in the future."
    - Florida State SS Myron Rolle to Warchant.com about his quest to become a Rhodes Scholar. Rolle will interview with a Rhodes selection committee Saturday and hopes to make it to College Park, Md., in time for the start of the Seminoles' game with Maryland.

    "It's very hard. If you cover all his receivers, he can take off and automatically gets 10 yards because just knowing if you beat the O-line on the pass rush, nine times out of 10 he's going to outrun your linemen. If you put a spy on him, he'll find a way to get the ball to the receiver. He played a great game today, mistake-free. He played like a senior."
    -Wake Forest LB Aaron Curry to TheWolfpacker.com about North Carolina State redshirt freshman QB Russell Wilson after the Wolfpack's 21-17 victory over the Demon Deacons.

    "A lot of times, a coach will lose it and come out and scream at you. He has been very positive. Even after a loss, he's been positive. It's evident the team feeds off the way he is."
    - Maryland DE Jeremy Navarre to The Baltimore Sun about how the team has responded to Terrapins coach Ralph Friedgen's approach.

  • Etc.
  • Maryland can clinch the Atlantic Division title if it beats Florida State and Wake Forest beats Boston College this week. Maryland also is seeking its 600th win in school history this week. Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest all still have a mathematical chance of winning the conference title. The ACC is the only conference in the league that has all of its teams still in contention for bowl eligibility. The average margin of victory in ACC games this season is 10.05 points, lower than the league record of 10.16 in 1965. Twenty-one of the 38 conference games this year have been decided by seven or fewer points. Duke QB Thaddeus Lewis suffered a foot injury last week against Clemson, which leaves his status uncertain for the Blue Devils' game Saturday at Virginia Tech. Zack Asack would start in place of Lewis. North Carolina State DE Shea McKeen will miss the rest of the season after breaking an ankle last week against Wake Forest. Markus Kuhn will replace him in the starting lineup. The Wolfpack have now lost five players including three starters to season-ending injuries. Wake Forest kicker Sam Swank could return to action Saturday against Boston College after missing six games with a pulled quadriceps muscle. Florida State FS Darius McClure will miss the rest of the season after sustaining a knee injury while celebrating an interception against Boston College last week. Florida State kicker Graham Gano (9.6 points per game) and TB Antone Smith (8.4) are the top two scorers in the ACC. Gano and Smith are trying to become the first teammates to lead the ACC in scoring since Florida State teammates Warrick Dunn, Scott Bentley and Andre Cooper were the league's top three scorers in 1995.

    MORE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

    Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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