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Laying a Foundation for the Future

by David Villavicencio

ORLANDO, Fla. – The end of the year 2020 is quickly approaching and everyone around the world has their sights set on a better 2021.

But the No. 18/18 Miami Hurricanes have one final piece of business to tend to this year and that is a date with No. 21/RV Oklahoma State in the Cheez-It Bowl on Tuesday evening. The Canes (8-2, 7-2 ACC) know a victory inside Camping World Stadium will put the finishing touches on a strong season and give the program momentum to build off next season.

“I think it could certainly serve as that effect,” head coach Manny Diaz said. “I think the last time we came to Orlando [for a bowl], and I think our big win against West Virginia really set us up for a great offseason. Where we started 10-0 the following here, so I do think there is a kick-on year. But every year still exists in its own universe as we’ve seen. Obviously, we’re nothing like the team that played in Shreveport a year ago. We would like this to sort of be a bridge to next year, but we know there will be some key additions coming to our team next year.

“There’s a way we want to do things and a way we want to establish the program and we’re trying to sort of knock down these things that have sort of gotten us in the past and a bowl win is staring us right in the face,” Diaz added.

"I think this program is going in the right direction. This year was a good year, but we have a lot to improve on.”

Quarterback D'Eriq King

“It’s a big deal for us. [Orlando] was the site of our last bowl victory back in 2016,” Diaz said. “And that was the only bowl victory for a decade prior to that. We’ve been trying to build the program step by step and part of doing that is you kind of try to accomplish things that have been hard to accomplish here over the past few years. Winning a bowl game is right in that category and then to beat a team with the quality that Oklahoma State has will mean a lot as well.”

“It's a big deal for us. [Orlando] was the site of our last bowl victory back in 2016,” Diaz said. “And that was the only bowl victory for a decade prior to that. We've been trying to build the program step by step and part of doing that is you kind of try to accomplish things that have been hard to accomplish here over the past few years. Winning a bowl game is right in that category and then to beat a team with the quality that Oklahoma State has will mean a lot as well.”

Miami head coach Manny Diaz

Miami received some great news a couple of days ago, as redshirt senior quarterback D’Eriq King announced his intentions to return for the 2021 season. The unquestioned leader of the offense and one of the Canes’ four team captains, King believes his team is eager to earn a victory on Tuesday to finish the season on a high note.

“Bowl games are kind of weird in that the team that wants to be there and wants to win will most likely win the game,” King said. “It is very important for us. We have a nasty taste in our mouth from the North Carolina game and I feel like the last two weeks of practice have been good. I hate losing more than anything, so we are trying to go out there and prove a point.”

Redshirt junior safety Bubba Bolden, who is Miami’s leading tackler with 65 stops on the season, believes the Hurricanes defense is looking forward to the opportunity to bounce back from the regular-season finale against North Carolina. While the Canes had a tough showing against the Tar Heels, they have turned that loss into motivation ahead of their game against the Cowboys.

WATCH: Cheez-It Bowl Trailer

“We take this very personally and [especially so] after the last game’s performance; that was not the Miami way,” Bolden said. “That was not how we play football, especially on the defensive side. So, we are coming into this game with a lot of fire, I’ll tell you that right now, and we’re going to come out and that’s what’s going to happen.”

One of Miami's top defenders, Bubba Bolden believes the defense is eager to show it can be a stout unit against t he Cowboys.

Led by quarterback Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State’s offense is averaging 29 points per game. Miami defensive coordinator Blake Baker believes the redshirt sophomore has all the tools to be a successful quarterback.

“You see a guy that’s got some swagger about him,” Baker said. “Great toughness. I think he’s a natural leader, at least that’s what the tape shows from the outside looking in. Smart football player. A lot of times knows where to go with the ball before the ball is snapped, and you can tell that he is very well-coached. He’s done a nice job in that offense. But he’s got all the tangible and intangible things I think you look for in a quarterback.”

Sanders has a bevy of weapons to throw the ball to, but senior wideout Tylan Wallace is the biggest threat to watch in the passing game. In his career, Wallace has caught 199 passes for 3,379 yards and 26 touchdowns. Over the last three seasons, Wallace has averaged 112 yards and one touchdown per game.

While Wallace is the big name through the air, Chuba Hubbard is a superstar Oklahoma State will be without as the standout running back opted out of the bowl and elected to prepare for the NFL. But LD Brown, Dezmon Jackson and Dominic Richardson form a trio of running backs that will test Miami’s run defense.

“Even despite Hubbard being out, I’ve very been impressed with the other backs and, at times, have not seen a dramatic difference. And that’s no offense against Hubbard; I think he’s an excellent player,” Diaz said. “They have other guys that can make big plays happen, as well, and so they want to control the game with their running game and they have an outstanding game and they want to pound the football and run it and control the game.

“So, for us, yeah, it is an immense challenge for our run defense and I think they have prepared well,” Diaz added. “I think they understand what type of runs they are going to get, and they just have to trust their teammate and play – their responsibility to do their job and do it physically.”

Miami’s defensive front will be without starters Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche, as the two ends declared for the NFL Draft, but a familiar name could join Jahfari Harvey and Cameron Williams in the defensive end rotation and Diaz believes he can make an impact.

“Believe it or not, I think Zach McCloud has a future at defensive end just watching what he has done this week in practice,” Diaz said. “He can just go and come off the edge and have low pads.”

King and Miami’s offense are set to face one of the toughest defenses they’ve seen all season. Oklahoma State has allowed only 22.2 points per game this season, which ranks third in the Big 12. The Cowboys are allowing 367 yards per game, which ranks fifth in the conference. OSU has allowed only three opponents to score more than 30 points this season.

“They’ve been impressive this year defensively,” Diaz said. “Most defenses struggle with dual-threat quarterbacks, so there’s a reason why those guys are a problem D’Eriq has given a lot of people problems, but again, it comes back to balance. You’ve got to be able to run the football and you got to be able to complete the passes that are there because Oklahoma State does like to challenge and get in your face on their pass defense. I think our offense will really have to play well to be able to move the ball on Oklahoma State.”

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee expects the Cowboys to continue their aggressive brand of defense when the two teams meet on Tuesday.

“You don’t become a really good defense like they have been this year and then just all of the sudden change who you are,” Lashlee said. “You don’t play 10 games and hold five teams under 20 points and be top-10 in the country in negative plays and sacks and number three in third-down defense, which is a staggering number of 26 percent, and then all of the sudden do something different. I’m sure, like anybody else, they have a game plan for us and have wrinkles and things they try to do to stop us, but that’s the same thing as every week. But who they are is they do play a lot of tight coverage. They are really aggressive. They try to make you earn everything and I think that’s why they have been really successful all year defensively.”

Like what Miami does on the defensive side of the ball, Oklahoma State’s defense is predicated on creating negative plays to get opposing offenses into third-and-long situations. While the Hurricanes have faced that kind of defense in practice all year, they will need to execute at a high level if they want to have success in the Cheez-It Bowl.

“We have a lot of respect for what they do on defense,” Diaz said. “I think stylistically in a lot of ways, it’s how we want to play defense here and we’ve had success playing defense here and they make you earn everything. Play a lot of man coverage. There’s not a lot of easy throws.

“So, like I said you have to execute,” Diaz added. “They are going to force you to execute the ball down the field which is — that’s why I think they have had such a successful year because that’s hard to do against the talent and skill level that they have.”

With two defenses looking to take the ball away, Diaz knows Miami’s offense will need to continue to be smart with the football as it looks to march down the field toward the end zone.

“Of course, turnovers are massive in bowl games,” Diaz said. “Our offense has done a great job of protecting the football all year. You always do worry, when you have a little bit of a layoff, of ball security being an issue. We dealt with that. We had a three-week layoff between games. Our schedule is kind of weird, you know? We’re playing into mid-December, so this doesn’t quite have the normal break that you’d have with a normal bowl game. Still, conditioning level is going to matter. Tackling is going to matter. Turnovers and special teams, I mentioned that before, but I think those things really are telling in bowl games.”

“We have to be the most excited team to play. I think that's important in bowl games, probably more important this year than ever before."

Head coach Manny Diaz

With the final game of the 2020 season set, the Hurricanes are proud of what they’ve accomplished this year. But they are excited for the opportunity to end the season with a bowl victory.

“Overall, I think the season was good. On the whole, we definitely got better over time,” Bolden said. “This was a very weird year for us. Just to be able to be out here and be in this position, we are all grateful for it. So I think overall, the season has been good and I’m looking forward to this game.”

A win on Tuesday will likely give the Hurricanes a chance to finish the season ranked in the top 15, putting Miami in position for even bigger things in 2021.

“I think the sky is the limit,” King said. “We can be really good next year. There are plenty of things to improve on and we just have to put the work in every day. I think this program is going in the right direction. This year was a good year, but we have a lot to improve on.”

“While you can be excited for what it means for ’21,” Diaz added. “I think there’s an excitement for now as well and our expectation with the way we have practiced and prepare for this game and hopefully the way we play is in line of what our intentions are for next year.”