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Russell Athletic Bowl Preview-Miami vs. Louisville

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The Miami Hurricanes finished the regular with a 9-3 record after defeating Pittsburgh 41-31 in their season finale. It was Miami’s first nine-win season since 2009 and its reward is a trip to the Russell Athletic Bowl against Louisville this Saturday. It’s Miami’s first bowl appearance since 2010 after two straight self-imposed bowl bans due to the Nevin Shapiro investigation. The Hurricanes haven’t won a bowl game since 2006 when they defeated Nevada 21-20 in the MPC Computers Bowl.

The Louisville Cardinals entered this season hot off a 33-23 win over the Florida Gators in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. They were considered odds on favorites to win the American Athletic Conference and make their second straight BCS bowl game while some experts even considered the Cardinals to be a dark horse for the BCS National Championship Game. That all changed though when Louisville lost to BCS bound UCF 38-35 in October. The Cardinals rebounded though, winning their final five games to finish the regular season 11-1.

Much of the credit for Louisville’s success this season goes to junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater entered this season as a Heisman trophy candidate as well as a top NFL prospect, and though his Heisman candidacy took a major hit in the loss to UCF, he still had a fantastic this season. He threw 28 touchdown passes to just four interceptions while completing over 70 percent of his passes for 3,523 yards and finished as the nation's fifth highest rated passer. Bridgewater is also a Miami native. He played high school ball at Miami Northwestern and originally committed to UM before signing with Louisville. He’s had an exceptional career at Louisville, and though he has hinted at possibly returning for his senior season, this could very well be his final collegiate game. He’ll be Miami’s number one priority on defense.

Miami will have to find a way to pressure Bridgewater if it hopes to contain him. The defense can’t just sit back in zone coverage and let Bridgewater pick it apart up and down the field. Miami’s defense has been torn apart by average quarterbacks in the ACC this season, surrendering over 300 yards passing in four straight games at one stretch that included two losses. If Bridgewater has all day to throw then it’s going to be a long night for the defense. It’s crucial for Miami to come up with some blitz packages and find ways to create pressure with its front four if it hopes to win this game. Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio has been under heavy fire during the second half of the season and another poor performance from his defense Saturday could spell the end for him in Coral Gables.

Miami’s offense on the other hand was clicking on all cylinders near the end of the season. After battling through an injury for most of the season quarterback Stephen Morris looked a lot more comfortable in his final four games. He threw nine touchdown passes and just two interceptions after throwing eight interceptions in his previous four games. Morris will have to make big plays to his receivers in this game to score points, perhaps even match scores, if his defense can’t stop Bridgewater and Louisville’s offense. It could very well be one of those games where Miami has to score at least 35 points to win.

Senior receiver Allen Hurns has been Morris’s favorite target all season long and had 100-plus receiving yards in each of Miami’s final four regular season games, including 173-yards in the finale against Pittsburgh where he had a career-high nine receptions. Freshman Stacy Coley also really started to break out in Miami’s final four games, catching 11 passes for 245 yards and five touchdowns while also take a handoff 73 yards to the end zone for a score against Pittsburgh. Coley has blazing speed and could be the difference maker against Louisville. He’ll have to step up even more on Saturday after The Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post each reported Thursday that receiver Herb Waters will likely miss the game with an undisclosed injury.

Miami’s offense line might have the biggest test Saturday trying to protect Morris in order to allow him to make those big plays down the field. The line has only allowed 13 sacks all season but Louisville’s defensive line has brought down the quarterback 39 times this year, which is the fourth most in the country. Defensive end Marcus Smith leads Louisville with 12.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss in addition to three forced fumbles while Lorenzo Maudin is right behind him with 9.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and also three forced fumbles. Senior defensive tackle Roy Philon also has NFL talent with four sacks and 11 tackles for loss this year. Louisville’s entire defensive line will be a force to be reckoned with. The key to the game for Miami will be whether or not it can protect Morris. Something will have to give in this matchup of mammoths.

This should be a high scoring game. Bridgewater shouldn’t have many problems scoring points against a Miami defense that hasn’t stopped anyone since September, but Morris and company won’t have a problem scoring either. I don’t think Louisville matches up well with Miami’s speed in this game and you have to think the Hurricanes are extra motivated to win this after serving a two year bowl ban. Plus Al Golden and his coaching staff have had nearly a month to prepare for this game instead of a normal week and that will make a big difference. Miami also played a tougher schedule than Louisville this season by virtue of a stronger conference, which I believe will benefit the Hurricanes in this game. Louisville is a very talented squad but I think Miami is a more battle tested team and will outscore the Cardinals in a shootout to grab its first ten win season since 2003.

PREDICTION: Miami 34, Louisville 31

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