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Tough defenses to be tested when Tech travels to Miami

ATLANTA — One of the biggest thorns in Georgia Tech’s side in recent years has been Miami.

After a decisive win in Paul Johnson’s first season as their head coach in 2008, the Yellow Jackets have found it hard to weather the Hurricanes, who took the next four meetings.

And the going doesn’t figure to get any easier when Tech rides into Sun Life Stadium to take on 14th-ranked Miami this afternoon at 3:30.

“It’s going to be a huge challenge … when we go to play an undefeated Miami team,” Johnson said Tuesday during his weekly press briefing. “I think I saw where it’s the first time since the early- to mid-(19)90s that they’ve been 4-0. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of buzz around their program. And this will be their ACC opener. So, we expect they’ll be fully charged and ready to go. So, we’ll have to play much better than we played last week. But we’re looking forward to that opportunity.”

Opportunities may come at a premium for both offenses, if both teams’ defensive numbers are an accurate indicator.

Both Tech (3-1, 2-1 in the ACC) and Miami (4-0) rank among the top 10 FBS units in the nation in total defense — with the Jackets ninth at 275.5 yards per game and the Hurricanes right behind at 10th at 283.5 — and scoring defense — Miami seventh at 12.5 points per game and Tech tied for eighth at 12.8.

Of course, both can expect to face possibly the toughest challenges to date from the other’s offense.

Last year’s outing in a 42-36 overtime loss notwithstanding, the Jackets’ spread-option offense has had as much trouble with Miami as any other opponent over the last four years.

And the task won’t be any easier against Hurricanes playmakers like linebackers Denzel Perryman (team-high 23 tackles, 2 pass break-ups) and Jimmy Gaines (21 tackles), especially Tech coming off its worst offensive performance of the season by managing just 273 yards and 10 points last week against Virginia Tech.

“Miami always has good players,” Johnson said. “They’re very athletic. They can run. We had a crazy game with them last year, but (Perryman) is a quality player. You can see that he creates big plays for them, creates turnovers. He’s played a lot of football for them.

“They’re playing a whole lot of 3-4 stuff, it looks like. They were pretty much exclusively a 4-3 team the last couple of years. I’d say 70 percent of their snaps, they’re in a hot front. Now, will they do that against us? We’ve played them every since (Miami coach) Al (Golden) was at Temple and I was at Navy. They pretty much lined up the same way. So, we’ll see.”

On the flip side, Miami’s offense has pretty much had its way with Tech throughout the current four-game winning streak, with the Hurricanes averaging 33.5 points in those games.

Quarterback Stephen Morris has been a particular pain for the Jackets, completing 41 of 70 passes for 666 yards and three touchdowns in two meetings against Tech, including a career-high 436 on 31-of-52 passing with two scores a year ago.

Of course, this year’s Tech defense has been considerably tougher this year behind veterans like linebackers Brandon Watts (27 tackles, sack) and Jabari Hunt-Days (18 tackles, 0.5 sacks, INT) and cornerback Jemea Thomas (21 tackles, 3 PBUs).

And while Morris is expected to play today, he has been bothered by a sore ankle the past two weeks.

Still, Johnson is wary of the 6-foot-2, 218-pound senior’s skills.

“He’s a very talented guy,” Johnson said of Morris. “He’s your prototypical … pro-style quarterback. He’s got good wheels. He can run when he wants, even though he doesn’t choose to do that a lot. He’s a pocket guy who tries to stay in there and distribute the ball to their weapons, and they have a lot of weapons.

“They always have a large group of talented wide receivers, usually a couple of tight ends who are good an a huge offensive line. So, I don’t think Miami’s lacked for players.”