Russell Athletic Bowl Preview: Miami Defense vs. WVU Running Game

Nov 19, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack running back Matt Dayes (21) fights for yards during the second half against the Miami Hurricanes at Carter Finley Stadium. Miami won 27-13. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 19, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack running back Matt Dayes (21) fights for yards during the second half against the Miami Hurricanes at Carter Finley Stadium. Miami won 27-13. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports /

The Miami Hurricanes run defense will face its greatest test of 2016 when they face West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

The Mountainers have the 18th ranked rushing offense in the country with a 239.5 rushing yards per game average. Five players on West Virgina rushed for at least 200 yards this season.

Four of those five averaged at least 4.8 yards per carry. The fifth is Quarterback Skyler Howard. He was sacked 21 times for a loss of 153 yards. On just his rushing attempts, Howard averaged 5.3 yards per attempt.

Howard was second on the team with 400 net yards rushing. Running Back Justin Crawford led the Mountaineers with 1,168 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Crawford averages 7.4 yards per carry. He was named the Big XII Newcomer of the year. Crawford finished 36th nationally in rushing yards per game.

West Virginia uses a spread offense with concepts similar to the Air Raid Offense of Washington State’s Mike Leach. Mountaineer Head Coach Dana Holgorsen spent eight seasons under Leach as an Offensive Assistant at Texas Texas tech from 2000-07.

He was the Offensive Coordinator in his final three seasons before leaving to be the Offensive Coordinator at Houston under current Texas A&M Head Coach Kevin Sumlin. He spent one season at Oklahoma State before being hired at WVU.

Related Story: Could West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen Have Been Miami Hurricanes Head Coach?

Don’t let the name of the Air Raid offense fool you into believing that the Mountaineers are a pass reliant offense. Fifty-Eight percent of West Virginia’s plays on offense and 47.2 percent of their yardage comes via the ground game.

In addition to Crawford and Howard, backup running backs, Rushel Shell, Kennedy McCoy, and Martell Pettway contribute to Holgorsen’s up-tempo offense.

Their running game can be slowed down. Four times this season, the Mountaineers were held under 200 yards on the ground. They still managed to go 4-0 in those games. In wins over BYU, TCU, Kansas State and Texas, WVU averaged 136.26 yards rushing.

Their defense and passing game were outstanding in those wins. They allowed 19.5 points per game and threw for an average of 282.5 yards per game without running the ball as well as they had in their other eight games this season.

The Hurricanes are 30th nationally against the run. Georgia Tech was the only team to top 200 yards against Miami in 2016. The Yellow Jackets are almost exclusively a running offense in their triple offense.

The Miami defensive line and freshman linebacking core will be key for Miami against a tall WVU offensive line. UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was impressed with the Mountaineer ground game.

"“The No. 1 element that stands out is how well they run the football and how physical they are up front,” Diaz said. “If they can run it, they can do whatever they want…It’s a great challenge to stop their running game.”"

Miami allowed only four teams to top four yards per carry. Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and North Carolina State were the only teams to eclipse that mark. Not surprisingly the Hurricanes lost two of those games. In their other two losses to Florida State and North Carolina, UM gave up an average of 3.8 yards per carry.

In their nine games against teams from the ACC plus Notre Dame, the Hurricanes allowed an average of 4.19 yards per carry.

Related Story: Russell Athletic Bowl Preview: Miami Hurricanes Pass Def vs WVU

Holding down the WVU passing game seems to be the key on the defensive side of the ball. In their losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, West Virginia threw for an average of 201.5 yards per game. Limiting the Mountaineers tempo will also be important.

Miami is going to have to play a cerebal game to be successful on defense according to Diaz:

"They’re going to out execute you with their concepts…[Howard] is going to be aware of where everyone is on the field and he also throws a very good deep ball.”"

The Mountaineers ran only 65 plays against the Sooners. West Virgina averages 76.5 plays per game. Oklahoma was the only team this season to hold the Mountaineers under 70 plays. West Virginia ran 80 plays against Oklahoma State, but threw for just 191 yards.

Diaz also commented about the WVU offensive pace:

"“They’re going to get yards. They’re a good offense, they know what they’re doing,…We have to win the battle of toughness and we gotta do a great job tackling.”"

WVU still had 579 yards in offense against the Sooners, but had four turnovers. Oklahoma also held the ball for over 39 minutes. The time of possession was nearly even against Oklahoma State, but the Moutaineers were minus three in the turnover margin. That was the same margin against OU.

Next: Miami Hurricanes Suspend Seven for Russell Athletic Bowl

On the season, West Virginia was 31st nationally with a plus five in turnover margin overall. That comes out to a plus 11 in wins and negative six in losses.