Can the Miami Hurricanes defense rise to the occasion and be a difference-maker in Saturday's showdown against the Florida Gators?
Both the Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators kicked off the 2013 season with lesser competition in Game 1, but that all changes on Saturday when the longtime, archrivals face off in South Florida for the first time since 2003.
Miami is coming off a 34-6 win over Florida Atlantic. Sophomore running back Duke Johnson ran for a career-high 186 yards, while quarterback Stephen Morris was effective, throwing for 160 yards and a touchdown. The Hurricanes' defense recorded five sacks and held the Owls to 250 total yards and two field goals.
Florida opened its season at home with a 24-6 win over Toledo. Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel completed 17 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown, while Mack Brown ran for 112 yards and two scores.
The Miami-Florida rivalry dates back to 1938, with the Canes and Gators meeting 54 times during that span. UM leads the rivalry, 28-26, and had won six straight between 1987 and 2004, but the Gators won the last meeting, 26-3, in Gainesville in 2008.
A Florida win would be business as usual for a squad that finished 11-2 in 2012, reached the BCS, but fell g to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. On the other hand, a Miami victory would certainly bolster head coach Al Golden's rebuilding project, as well as put the Hurricanes back on the map after half-a-decade of struggles.
Time: Noon ET
Place: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
Radio: WQAM 560—WVUM 90.5—XM 191
Spread: Florida -3 (Danny Sheridan, Hilton, Golden Nugget, Caesars)
When the Hurricanes and Gators last met in South Florida a decade ago, things couldn't have been more different.
Miami was coming off a controversial overtime loss to Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, wrapping the season, 12-1, while Florida was knee-deep in the Ron Zook era, on the heels of an 8-5 campaign and an Outback Bowl loss.
The 2003 version of this rivalry took place in the since-demolished Orange Bowl stadium, where the Hurricanes entered the showdown ranked No. 3 while the Gators were No. 21.
Devin Hester housed a 97-yard opening kickoff, giving the Canes an early lead, but the Gators tied things up, 10-10, by the end of one. The second quarter was all Florida as Keiwan Ratliff returned an errant lateral from UM quarterback Brock Berlin for a 34-yard score, and the Gators closed the quarter with a field goal and 10-point lead.
On the first play from scrimmage in the third, Florida running back DeShawn Wynn scampered down the sideline for a 65-yard touchdown, and a few possessions later, Ran Carthon punched in a four-yard score for the Gators, giving UF a healthy, 33-10 lead.
Berlin, who took the field late in the third to a chorus of boos, began chipping away at Florida's defense with a hurry-up offense and a sense of urgency. Berlin found wide receiver Kevin Beard for a 26-yard touchdown, and Miami made it 33-18 after the two-point conversion.
Miami quickly forced a three-and-out, highlighted by a crucial 3rd-and-1 stop. On the ensuing possession, Berlin again hooked up with Beard. The 62-yard strike stopped at the 1-yard line, where running back Frank Gore promptly punched it in, making it a 33-25 ballgame with a quarter remaining.
Another quick stop by the Hurricanes' defense put the ball back in the hands of a now-hot Berlin, who found Ryan Moore for a six-yard score nine plays later. A celebration penalty cost Miami a shot at a game-tying two-point conversion and forced the Hurricanes to kick. Miami trailed, 33-32, with 11 minutes remaining.
Florida's offense remained out of sync with a three-headed quarterback attack. Ingle Martin and Chris Leak took the majority of the snaps, but looking for a fourth-quarter spark, Gators coaches went with Gavin Dickey, who proved equally as ineffective.
Miami re-assumed possession with 5:43 remaining and relied on a few passes and a healthy dose of Gore, who punched in the 12-yard touchdown with fewer than two minutes remaining.
Florida reinserted Leak, who found Dallas Baker twice on a would-be game-winning drive, but a third attempt at connecting with the tight end was one too many as Miami cornerback Al Marshall picked off the pass and sealed the 38-33 win.
Miami's offense will be as good as Duke Johnson and Stephen Morris play on Saturday against Florida.
Johnson and Morris Need to Bring Their Best
Miami's offense will go as far as running back Duke Johnson and quarterback Stephen Morris take it. Johnson carried the Canes many times last season, providing a necessary spark, picking up some tough yards, keeping the chains moving and snatching back momentum.
That said, Florida's run defense is stout and will stack the box to shut down Johnson's big-play ability. Because of that, an effective game out of Morris is even more important than ever. Getting something going with the pass will force the Gators to give the ground game some breathing room, and if so, that's where No. 8 can rip off a game-changing play.
Johnson and Morris are not just Miami's best offensive players—they're also team leaders. If these two can thrive, others will feed off them. Struggle and it's a question whether anyone else pick up the slack and create a spark.
Play Solid Defense, Especially on Third Down
Miami needs to look no further than last year's second game, a 52-13 loss at Kansas State. Wildcats quarterback Collin Klein converted three third downs on the opening drive with his legs, as well as a 17-yard completion on 2nd-and-9.
Miami moved the ball 42 yards on the ensuing possession, but fumbled late in the drive. Kansas State took over, and on a 3rd-and-4, Klein completed a 30-yard pass, setting up another touchdown.
It was a similar story weeks later against Notre Dame. A few first-half mistakes had Miami in a 13-3 halftime hole, but the Irish broke things open with a 21-point third quarter, continuing to convert and leaving a young, depleted and tired Canes defense on the field.
Miami's best defense is a potent offense, so get the crucial stops—especially early—and get the offense back on the field to help build a lead and take some of the pressure off the defense.
Step Up in Big Game Atmosphere, Not Down
Kansas State, 52-13. Notre Dame, 41-3. Florida State, 33-20. Miami had a handful of big games last season, but wasn't ready for prime time.
The Canes lost upward of eight quality defenders between 2011 and 2012, and UM simply didn't have the depth to replace the mass exodus—including five defensive lineman, which proved to be the weakest link last season. The defense will be improved (as it couldn't play any worse), and the offense is a bit more seasoned and mature.
Florida is coming off an 11-2 season, but isn't loaded offensively. The Gators have some holes, and if the Hurricanes can step up to exploit them, while relishing the big-game atmosphere in front of the home crowd, a U-sized upset could be in the cards.
Mack Brown carried the load at running back for Florida last week, but welcomes Matt Jones back from illness this week.
Establish Run to Take Pressure Off Passing Game
Mack Brown carried 25 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns against Toledo in the opener and will be rejoined by Matt Jones, out last week (and most of the fall) with a viral infection. Jones has gotten the nod as starter, with Brown moved to No. 2.
Jeff Driskel was effective under center against the Rockets, but has struggled in the past. Driskel was 16-of-29 for 175 with one touchdown and two interceptions against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, but he had four outings last season when he didn't break the 100-yard mark passing (LSU, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette).
Driskel does rely on his legs, though, rushing 118 times for 408 yards and four touchdowns last season. So between a mobile quarterback and a few capable running backs, the Gators certainly have the ability to grind out yards.
Florida wants to keep this game on the ground and doesn't want to ride Driskel's arm to victory. Look for the running to start early and be the go-to throughout the afternoon.
Contain Miami's Ground Attack and No. 8
Florida knows what Duke Johnson means to Miami's offense, so shutting down the electrifying Hurricanes running back is job No. 1. The Canes have a few different options with Dallas Crawford, short-yardage specialist Eduardo Clements and freshman Gus Edwards, who made his debut last weekend, but Johnson is, by far, the head of the class.
If the Gators can slow down "The Duke," it puts more pressure on quarterback Stephen Morris and his wide receivers to deliver. Herb Waters, Allen Hurns and Clive Walford were all effective in the opener, but Phillip Dorsett was out of sorts, and true freshman Stacy Coley had two would-be touchdown drops. Miami also lost Rashawn Scott on a late-game reception, thinning out depth at the position.
The Canes want to run first and pass second within this offense. If the Gators can limit Johnson, it puts that much more pressure on Morris and crew.
Learn from Sugar Bowl Mistakes and Beatdown
Florida was big-game ready for LSU, Georgia and Florida State last year, but laid an egg against Louisville in the postseason. The biggest reason the Cardinals took out the Gators was a lack of respect for the opponent. Florida was ranked No. 3 and feeling snubbed after being denied a shot at a national title, so the Gators weren't motivated to play a team ranked No. 21.
Florida coaches will do all they can to remind their squad that the Hurricanes are a formidable opponent, but Miami's recent lack of success will bring an air of overconfidence on some level. To prevail, Florida must treat Miami as it would Florida State, Alabama, Georgia, etc.
Denzel Perryman needs to come up big for Miami on Saturday if the Canes are going to upset the Gators.
The junior outside linebacker let a surefire touchdown sail through his hands last week against Florida Atlantic, but in last year's opener at Boston College, Perryman had a 41-yard pick-six which put Miami back in the game after an early deficit.
Whether it's Florida's running backs getting past the line or quarterback Jeff Driskel dumping it off short and underneath, Perryman has to step up and make plays.
There's improvement on Miami's defensive line as the 2013 season gets underway, but inexperience and youth at linebacker. Perryman is seasoned, and after last week's whiff, he should come in focused and looking to atone for his mistake.
Stacy Coley/Gus Edwards
Everyone will have their eyes on the notable first-stringers, so it will be interesting to see what these true freshmen do.
Coley dropped two potential touchdowns last week, while Edwards couldn't punch it in from a few yards out on four straight tries late in the game. Both have wowed in practice this fall and have now dispensed with the first-game jitters, so it's time to grow up fast this weekend.
Can Edwards break off a big run when Johnson gets a breather? Can Coley be a viable option, shaking off last week's mishaps and stepping in for the injured Rashawn Scott?
Miami's first-stringers are obviously the key to the game, but in moments when the big names are on the bench, Coley and Edwards need to provide a necessary spark, keep a drive alive or, at best, get an important score when points will be a premium.
Two weeks in a row, the Cincinnati transfer is getting some love here, but in a game when field position is going to be key, having an all-world punter and someone who can boot kickoffs out of the end zone is at a premium.
O'Donnell punted four times against Florida Atlantic last week, averaging 44.8 yards.
Miami gave up too many points last season as a result of poor field position. Pinning Florida deep will put extra pressure on Driskel, while allowing the Canes to stack the box for the run. O'Donnell could wind up being one of the most important players on the field this Saturday.
Matt Jones returns to Florida after sitting out the season opener with a viral infection.
Jones will get his first carries of the season, getting the nod over Mack Brown, but how much does he have in the tank? Sidelined with a viral infection since early August, Jones has been working to get back in playing shape, but even before the illness, Jones hasn't seen many carries per game.
Last season, Jones got three touches against Louisville and eight apiece against Florida State and Jacksonville State. Since last year's 10 attempts against Kentucky, Jones only touched the ball 29 times over a nine-game span.
With a lack of touches combined with recent illness, all eyes will be on Jones' stamina—especially late in the game. Brown will obviously get his touches, but coaches went with Jones for a reason.
What will he be able to deliver?
Easley skipped the NFL draft to return to Florida for a run at a title and moved from end to tackle, as well. The Gators boast a dominant defensive line, and how it matches up against the Canes' veteran offensive line is a big key to the contest.
If Easley can get penetration, rattling quarterback Stephen Morris or stopping running back Duke Johnson behind the line of scrimmage, he will have accomplished what his coaching staff needs him to do and can put Florida on the road to victory.
Dunbar only had two receptions for 22 yards in the opener, but it will be a different ballgame this weekend. A favorite target of Driskel, the Miami native and Booker T. Washington grad will be juiced up in front of the hometown crowd.
Driskell doesn't throw all that often, but when he does, he'll be looking for Dunbar. Is Miami's young secondary up for the challenge?
Third-year head coach Al Golden knows what a win over Florida means to his Miami program.
The biggest thing that jumps out to me is we had too many guys freelance, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. You can’t abandon your technique and you have to bring your skills to the game, not just your talent. We had good effort. Guys were flying around. We were unselfish in terms of finishing plays and blocking and doing all the little things you need to do to make explosive runs.
[But] we’ve got to get back to the techniques that we’re teaching—hitting our landmarks as running backs, using our techniques as corners, blocking the proper angles as offensive linemen.
That’s something we work on all the time. We’ll work it this week, we’ll work it every week and we’ll work it in the off week. That’s just something that we do. I think as far as going on the road, you’ve just got to really rely on your older players to help your younger players understand when there’s time to focus and when there’s time to have fun. The good teams I’ve been around, they know when to have fun and when to focus.
Former Hurricanes head coach Howard Schnellenberger, an honorary captain for both Miami and Florida Atlantic last week, had some choice words this week regarding the end of the regular-season rivalry between UM and UF, as told to Gary Ferman at CaneSport.com (subscription required).
Those chicken $*@# sons of %@*=S. That's terrible. They did that my first year there at Miami trying to get out of that game (1979). We had to bend over backwards to keep the game my last two years. We had to play an extra road game and at a neutral site (Tampa).
Schnellenberger's Miami squad lost the 1983 season opener at Florida, 28-3, but went on to rattle off 10 straight wins, earning an Orange Bowl berth against No. 1 Nebraska. The fourth-ranked Hurricanes went on to upset the top-ranked Cornhuskers, 31-30, and coupled with some New Year's Day upsets, won the school's first national championship.
Miami Hurricanes quarterback Stephen Morris enters Saturday in search of a signature win for the Hurricanes program.
On paper, how can anyone not like Florida? An 11-2 run last season, a BCS berth and a program that has only had a few bumps over almost a decade. It's been talent in/talent out for the most part in Gainesville, despite coaching changes, and the Gators have rolled on.
On the other side, there's a Miami squad in rebuild mode under Al Golden. NCAA sanctions hover, but the third-year coach has been preaching his "process," while weeding out bad seeds and replacing them with guys who buy in. Proper conditioning is again a priority, and competition is the driving force, as it was under past Hurricane greats like Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Butch Davis.
Miami fell flat at Kansas State and against Notre Dame at Soldier Field last year, but in a prime-time home game against Florida State, the Canes were in it until late in the fourth, when the Noles finally pulled away.
Year 3 is generally when new coaches start to make their mark, and their identity starts to show within the program.
Golden and the Canes are seeking that elusive signature win, and the Gators are ripe for the taking. Florida generally has an elitist mentality, which cost it against Louisville, and with UM a non-factor the past several years, it's in UF's DNA to take "The U" lightly.
Miami has a great offense and an in-progress defense, while Florida has the stellar defense and rather one-dimensional offense. Something has to give.
A spirited, hard-fought game will take place at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and the belief here is that Miami makes a few more plays and finds a way to top its hated rival from up north.
Prediction: Miami 24, Florida 20