Though the stakes couldn’t be higher this weekend in terms of the ACC Coastal Division race – the loser of Saturday’s game between Miami and Virginia Tech could fall two games behind Georgia Tech – perhaps the most interesting subplot during the game will be the battle between Wilson and Miami running back Lamar Miller.
Both are averaging nearly the identical amount of yards per game and more than six yards per carry this season. Wilson has 639 yards through five games while Miller has 511 yards in four games, totals that make them the top two rushers in the ACC so far.
“It’s kind of like a competition thing, like can I have more yards than him. He’s probably thinking the same thing,” Wilson said. “You go out there and I’m gonna try to play better than him and try to get this victory for our team.”
The Hokies’ defense is very familiar with Miller after last year’s 31-17 win over the Hurricanes. Miller, then just a freshman, had 163 yards on 15 carries, including a third-quarter touchdown drive in which he accounted for all 62 yards the Hurricanes gained.
This will be the biggest test yet for defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit to prove it is drastically different than the group that gave up close to 156 rushing yards per game in 2010. The Hokies took an important step last week, holding Clemson to a season-low 323 yards while running back Andre Ellington averaged just 2.5 yards per carry.
But Virginia Tech, which enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 2 in the country against the run, now must prove it can stop a dynamic running back and an NFL-size offensive line without defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins (knee).
“This kid is probably the best back in the league,” Foster said of Miller. “He’s got great vision, great quickness, outstanding speed; he breaks tackles and he runs behind I think the best line we’ve seen. . . . We’ve got our hands full. We’ve got to stop the run. There’s no doubt about that.”
The good news for Virginia Tech’s offense is that Miami has struggled mightily to slow down opponents’ ground games. The Hurricanes rank 105th in the country against the run right now, giving up more than 200 rushing yards per game.
New Coach Al Golden said part of the problem has been the lack of consistency in the lineup, most of which was created by all those early-season suspensions that came from the NCAA’s investigation into Nevin Shapiro. The Hurricanes will have eight of their nine suspended players back in the lineup Saturday, but that hasn’t stopped the turnover.
In last weekend’s win over Bethune-Cookman, Miami lost starting linebacker Ramon Buchanon to a season-ending knee injury, and the news hasn’t gotten better in practice this week. The Hurricanes announced Thursday that defensive tackle Marcus Forston suffered his own season-ending injury during a non-contact drill in Wednesday’s practice.
Even facing eight- and nine-man fronts this year, Wilson hasn’t been easy to slow down. But after going his first 202 carries at Virginia Tech without losing a fumble, Wilson now has three in the past four games and he’s spent some time this week trying to nail down exactly why it’s happening.
“It’s not like they just come in and muscle it out my arms,” Wilson said this week. “It’s always a helmet right on the ball or I’m running this way and somebody’s fists get in. You do start to take caution now, but I’m just gonna go out and play football like I’ve been.”
Fumbles aside, considering Virginia Tech’s passing attack was so ineffective against Clemson last week, Wilson should get a heavy workload Saturday. And you can be sure he has the full attention of Miami.
“As you go down the roster, no matter what he’s doing, he’s a guy that has to be accounted for,” Golden said.