What Miami’s coaches learned (and didn’t) from Appalachian State’s upset at Texas A&M

The Appalachian State Mountaineers’ upset of the Texas A&M Aggies on Saturday knocked some of the luster off the Miami Hurricanes’ Week 3 trip to College Station, Texas.

Appalachian State sent Texas A&M tumbling from No. 6 to No. 24 and even stole the next episode of ESPN’s “College GameDay” away from the Aggies by beating them at Kyle Field.

It also provided some lessons about how Mario Cristobal could get his first signature win as coach at Miami, even if some of the biggest reasons for the upset will be hard to replicate.

“We always take things from any games that we watch,” defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said.

The key to the Mountaineers’ 17-14 win over the weekend was the play-count and time-of-possession differential: Appalachian State possessed the ball for 41:29 and ran 80 plays to Texas A&M’s 38. It’s something of an unsustainable recipe for success — the Mountaineers’ postgame win expectancy, according to SP+ projections, was only 22.6 percent — although the result stresses an important metric for the No. 13 Hurricanes on Saturday.

“When you’re able to control the ball like that, that’s a critical factor in games,” offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said, “especially when you’re dealing with any type of explosive team and obviously Texas A&M is a team that’s very explosive.”

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Appalachian State only averaged 3.8 yards per play to the Aggies’ 4.9, but won by going 9 of 20 on third downs — Texas A&M only even faced eight third downs — and 3 of 5 on fourth downs.

The Aggies’ two touchdowns came on a 26-yard run by Devon Achane in the second quarter and a 95-yard kick return by the speedy Texas A&M running back in the third.

Achane was an All-American in track and field last year and emblematic of the challenge Miami’s defense will face later this week. The Aggies’ roster features 56 former blue-chip recruits, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, and it’s a big part of why they began the season in the top 10. Appalachian State played a slow, intentionally low-possession game — Steele noted how late in the play clock they were snapping the ball — because it’s how underdogs have to play against more talented opponents. The gap between Texas A&M and the Hurricanes (2-0) isn’t as wide, but the best way to keep the Aggies’ offense at bay is to keep them off the field.

“They have the most—or at least as—explosive [offense] as anybody else in the country,” Cristobal said.

Through two games of the Cristobal era, Miami is playing the right sort of style to beat more-talented opponents, albeit against two vastly inferior foes. Although they’re not generating as many explosive plays as they did a year ago, the Hurricanes are averaging 5.4 yards per carry and doing it all through consistency — they’ve only had one negative-yardage run outside of garbage time this year and their only rushes longer than 15 yards came against the FCS Bethune-Cookman Wildcats in Week 1.

They’re also 13 of 23 on third downs and 2 of 3 on fourth downs.

“A lot of people don’t get excited about 3- or 4-yard gains, but those 3- or 4-yard gains win games and you have to understand that within the game,” Gattis said. “They’ve got a ton of speed on their team, ton of speed on their defense. You’ve got to make sure that you’re holding onto the ball and not giving it away.”

Miami Hurricanes offensive lineman Zion Nelson (60) looks from the bench during the fourth quarter of a NCAA non conference football game against Bethune-Cookman Wildcats at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, September 3, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Miami Hurricanes offensive lineman Zion Nelson (60) looks from the bench during the fourth quarter of a NCAA non conference football game against Bethune-Cookman Wildcats at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, September 3, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Miami Hurricanes’ offensive line situation

Star tackle Zion Nelson played 20 snaps in a reserve role in his season debut Saturday and a larger role could be in store this weekend.

The 6-5, 316-pound junior split time between left tackle and right tackle against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, which gave Cristobal and Co. a chance to get a look at multiple offensive line alignments.

If Nelson is finally ready to start this week, the coaching staff will finally have to make a decision about what happens with offensive lineman John Campbell Jr., who started the first two games at left tackle. Campbell could move over to right tackle — or, theoretically, Nelson could — and DJ Scaife Jr. could move from right tackle to right guard, sending fellow offensive lineman Justice Oluwaseun to the bench.

“It’s a unique position that we’re in,” Gattis said. “As we’re gaining depth, we’re also creating challenges for everyone to continue to play and perform at a very high level, because we have some depth there and some competition brewing.”

This and that

Akheem Mesidor returned to practice on a limited basis Sunday in Coral Gables, Cristobal said, and Cristobal still expects the starting defensive lineman to “be a full-speed player on Saturday” and perhaps be a full participant in practice as early as Tuesday. The sophomore sat out Saturday with a lower-leg injury and wore a boot on his right foot on the sideline at Hard Rock Stadium.

Wide receiver Jacolby George and safety Jalen Harrell will both return from two-game suspensions this weekend, and Gattis said George, who caught three passes for 80 yards in his last game last season, will have “to create his role” after missing the first two weeks of the season. The 6-foot, 176-pound sophomore is not currently listed on the two-deep depth chart, but could be an option both in the slot and on the outside.

Kicker Andres Borregales was the Atlantic Coast Conference Specialist of the Week for Week 2 after he went 3 of 3 on field goals, 3 of 3 on extra points, and kicked touchbacks on 5 of 7 kickoffs in Miami’s 30-7 win against Southern Miss. The sophomore’s longest make was a 48-yard field goal in garbage time in the fourth quarter. Players of the week are voted on by a media panel.

The Hurricanes’ next home game in Miami Gardens on Sept. 24 against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders will kick off at 3:30 p.m. and air on the ACC Network, the ACC announced.