Miami senior quarterback Stephen Morris has one last chance to dazzle before hanging it up at "The U".
The Miami Hurricanes (9-3) and No. 18 Louisville Cardinals (11-1) will square off in the Orlando-based Russell Athletic Bowl on Saturday December 28. Miami wrapped the regular season with a road win at Pittsburgh, while Louisville survived an overtime thriller at Cincinnati.
There are many subplots regarding the Hurricanes and Cardinals—starting with a budding rivalry as Louisville moves from the American Athletic Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014.
There are also a handful of Magic City-themed ties, as some South Florida talent made its way to the Bluegrass State over the past few seasons—most notably, Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was originally a Hurricanes commit.
A product of Miami Northwestern High, Bridgewater opted to hit the road, as did two Bulls teammates, wide receiver Eli Rogers and linebacker Keith Brown. Homestead High linebacker James Burgess Jr. also chose Louisville over Miami, despite his father playing for the Hurricanes two decades back.
There's also the coaching factor with Louisville head coach Charlie Strong and defensive line coach Clint Hurtt. Strong was the former defensive coordinator at rival Florida, while Hurtt is a former Miami player and assistant who was eventually implicated in the long-running NCAA investigation.
Due to their Sunshine State ties, Strong and Hurtt helped create a 305-to-502 pipeline which Hurricanes head coach Al Golden ands staff are working to shut down.
While Bridgewater looks to shine in what will most likely be his final collegiate game, Miami will unleash years of bowl-themed frustration. The Hurricanes self-imposed back-to-back postseason bans and hasn't seen a bowl game since 2010, or won one since 2006.
This game also marks the final outing for a handful of prolific Hurricanes, including quarterback Stephen Morris, wide receiver Allen Hurns and veteran offensive linemen Brandon Linder, Jared Wheeler and Seantrel Henderson.
Two high-powered offenses and two quality teams that had higher aspirations but had their trajectories rocked with midseason setbacks. Who will bring their A-game on Saturday when Miami and Louisville face off, each looking to end 2013 on a high note?
Time: 6:45 p.m. ET
Place: Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, FL
Radio: WQAM 560 (Miami), WHAS 840 (Louisville)
Spread: Louisville -3.5 (Hilton, Golden Nugget, Caesars, Mirage)
It was a tale of two halves for the Miami Hurricanes this season.
Thrilling comebacks helped fuel a 7-0 start, while a three-game losing streak in November was a harsh reality check. Still, the Hurricanes closed strong with wins over Virginia and Pittsburgh and wrapped the regular season 9-3—their best finish since 2009.
Of the 12 games played in 2013, Miami's signature moment came in a much-needed upset of No. 12 Florida on September 7 at Sun Life Stadium.
The Gators were coming off an 11-2 finish and BCS appearance and looked to take another step forward under third-year head coach Will Muschamp. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes were still seeking their first signature win under their own third-year head coach, Al Golden.
Miami's defense came out firing early, forcing turnovers that the Hurricanes' offense capitalized on. Stephen Morris made an NFL-type throw to wide receiver Herb Waters for the game's first score. Late first quarter, leading 7-6, Morris went up top to deep threat Phillip Dorsett, who hauled in a 52-yard touchdown.
The Hurricanes forced six turnovers—including a crucial 4th-and-2 stop—the sixth being a late fourth-quarter sack and fumble, which led to a two-yard punch-in from Duke Johnson.
Miami's defensive front also held the Gators to 2.8 yards per carry on the ground.
Injuries plagued Florida down the stretch, as the state power limped to 4-8 and lost seven straight.
Florida's stumble to the finish took some luster off Miami's win, but at the time the Canes' victory was big-time.
A Sugar Bowl upset of No. 3 Florida in January helped make quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and his Cardinals a household name. Louisville opened the season ranked No. 9, rolled to a 6-0 start and looked like it had an outside shot at a title-game berth, despite playing no ranked teams.
On October 18, the Cardinals unraveled late when Central Florida visited on a Friday night. The 4-1 Knights trailed 14-7 at the half and were in a 28-7 hole early in the third quarter before storming back. Central Florida scored three touchdowns in four minutes and tied the game entering the fourth.
The Knights took a 31-28 lead after a 34-yard Shawn Moffitt field goal midway through the fourth, but the Cardinals fought back. Bridgewater led a nine-play, 88-yard drive, capped off by a 15-yard touchdown run by Dominique Brown.
With three minutes on the clock, Knights quarterback Blake Bortles worked his magic and answered with an 11-play, 75-yard drive, completing a two-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Godfrey on third down.
The shocking 38-35 upset wound up defining Louisville's season. The Cardinals have been in a bit of stupor since. Wins over South Florida and Connecticut came with relative ease, but the final three games of the season proved a bit challenging.
Houston blew a second-half lead in a 20-13 loss, while a Memphis rally fell short, 24-17. Louisville then needed a mini-miracle and some Bridgewater magic to force overtime at Cincinnati before pulling out the 31-24 win.
After a BCS berth last season, national championship aspirations in 2013, a tough October loss and slow flnish to the season, can Louisville rebound for the bowl game?
If not, it'll confirm the "overrated" label and prove that Fiesta Bowl-bound Central Florida took the heart out of the Cardinals for good a few months back.
The Hurricanes offense will have to come out firing if Miami is going to knock off Louisville.
Reach Maximum Potential Offensively
When Miami's offense has clicked on all cylinders, it's looked as good as anybody. When the Hurricanes have been off, three-and-outs and inconsistency have been the name of the game.
Miami can hope its defense gets some key stops or turnovers but cannot rely on it to do so. The Hurricanes will have to execute on big plays, move the chains and capitalize on red-zone opportunities.
In a November loss at Duke, Miami amassed 565 total yards but only netted 23 offensive points, settling for field goals of 32, 32 and 31 yards.
Stephen Morris needs to be crisp, Allen Hurns and Stacy Coley need to be used properly, and a trio of running backs need to play their parts in keeping drives alive. This will be a ballgame where the Hurricanes most likely need 35 to 40 points to get a win.
Can the offense stay hot enough to deliver?
(Attempt to) Pressure Teddy Bridgewater
Miami's defense made average ACC quarterbacks like North Carolina's Bryn Renner and Wake Forest's Tanner Price look all-world this season, which is scary with Bridgewater looming.
That said, Hurricanes coaches had 19 days and 18 bowl practices to prepare for this season finale.
Louisville's strength is its passing game, and its superstar is Bridgewater. The Hurricanes can't afford to sit back and let the junior quarterback pick them apart. Disguised blitzes or pressure to get Bridgewater out of his comfort zone are a must if Miami will emerge victorious.
The Hurricanes also need to win the turnover battle, which wasn't the case in earlier losses to Virginia Tech and Duke.
Protect the Football
Turnovers are never optimum, but against a high-octane offense like Louisville's, they'll prove even more detrimental. Miami gave away a season-defining game against Virginia Tech with two special teams fumbles and a punting gaffe.
The opposite took place early September when six forced turnovers were the key in Miami upsetting Florida.
Morris got interception-happy midseason, throwing eight picks over a four-game span. Since then, two interceptions for the senior over the past four games.
The Canes need another clean game turnover-wise in order to go blow-for-blow with the Cardinals.
Louisville's Damian Copeland has 52 receptions for 690 yards with five touchdowns this season.
Shake off Disappointment of a Lesser Bowl
A year ago, Louisville reached the Sugar Bowl and pulled off the upset of the season by knocking off No. 3 Florida. Entering 2013, there was talk of Teddy Bridgewater as a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the Cardinals were penciled in as a title-game dark horse.
A late-October upset courtesy of Central Florida derailed Louisville's dream season. The Knights are instead Fiesta Bowl-bound, while the Cardinals need to muster up excitement for a mid-tier showdown. Bridgewater's Heisman campaign quickly ended and the Cardinals limped through the final five games of the regular season.
Which Louisville shows up—the one that rolled early in the season or the squad that looked disinterested and mortal in wins over Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati?
Exploit Miami's Defensive Holes
The Hurricanes haven't been able to stop anyone on defense all season, which has to excite Bridgewater and his offensive counterparts. Miami's front seven can't force any pressure, while the secondary generally gives too big a cushion.
Give the effective and accurate Bridgewater time, and the Cardinals will pick apart the Canes.
Louisville can also benefit from a hurry-up or fast-paced offense because Miami always seems to be adjusting on defense and taking a while to settle in each play.
Get off to a Fast Start
Putting Miami in an early hole is optimum for whoever is facing the Hurricanes—especially since running back Duke Johnson went down with a broken ankle at Florida State. Miami's defensive struggles are well-known, but the Hurricanes are also prone to sleepwalk early on offense and rally late.
If Louisville can put up a few quick touchdowns—like Virginia Tech's early 21-7 lead weeks back—Miami's offensive game plan shifts, the run is taken away and panic inevitably sets in.
Getting the ball to Stacy Coley with some space has been Miami's go-to offense late in the season.
Morris has spent the past few weeks hearing about Teddy Bridgewater as the quarterback to watch in the Russell Athletic Bowl. How will he respond?
Morris had a stellar junior campaign, but he had some setbacks this season.
A new offensive coordinator, an ankle injury that's nagged him since late September and some key injuries to top receivers and home run-threat running backs all stifled production.
But the senior quarterback has been especially efficient the past four games since a loss at Florida State. Morris threw for 324 yards against Virginia Tech, 379 at Duke and had a 296-yard, three touchdown performance in the finale at Pittsburgh.
Everyone is talking Bridgewater, but if Morris is "on" in the Russell Athletic Bowl, the veteran could easily steal the show.
Hurns has quietly become Miami's biggest receiving threat this year, especially after Phillip Dorsett was lost for the regular season at North Carolina. Over the past four games, Hurns has put together four straight 100-plus-yard performance, including a career-high nine-reception, 173-yard outing at Pittsburgh.
The emergence of Hurns has allowed true freshman Stacy Coley to become a big-time threat, as well as opening up the running game.
Hurns is Morris' favorite target, and if these two can keep the chains moving, the Miami offense stays on the field, taking some serious pressure off the Hurricanes defense.
Crawford has been effective since taking over first-string running back duties, but no one can replace the explosive Duke Johnson. Crawford stepped in for Johnson in a comeback win at North Carolina, rushing for 137 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries. A few weeks later, he had a 115-yard outing at Duke on 19 carries.
Outside of that, Crawford has been relatively silent. Over the past two games the sophomore carried 30 times for a mere 77 yards.
Backups Gus Edwards and Eduardo Clements will get their carries, but this is the type of game where Crawford needs to go to the next level.
Johnson returns next year and Miami is on the brink of signing two or three highly touted running backs for 2014. Shine in the bowl game, and Crawford helps build his case for an increased role next year. Stumble and it'll be Johnson, Edwards and a handful of newbies climbing the depth chart.
Teddy Bridgewater could be playing his final collegiate game when facing off against his hometown Miami Hurricanes.
Bridgewater made his mark on the college football world last season with a 266-yard, two-touchdown performance in an upset of No. 3 Florida.
Since then, there's been Heisman talk as well as the idea that the junior could be the top pick in next year's NFL draft should he forgo his senior season.
Bridgewater has been mum on a potential return to Louisville, choosing instead to focus on a bowl game showdown against his hometown Hurricanes. Bridgewater was a Miami commit before deciding last-minute that he wanted to hit the road.
The product of Miami Northwestern High often flashes a "305" hand gesture on game day—an homage to his city—and a chance to take on "The U" in the postseason is something he will relish.
Bridgewater will bring his absolute best to the table. The Miami defense better come to play.
Parker leads the Cardinals with 743 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on the year. The junior got a little quiet the latter half of the season, but he made some noise in the overtime win over Cincinnati in the finale, hauling in nine receptions for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
Bridgewater has options in Damian Copeland, Eli Rogers and tight end Ryan Hubbell, but the 6'3", 209-pound Parker could give Miami's secondary the most trouble.
Roy Philon and Brandon Dunn
The senior defensive tackles could go a long way in rattling Stephen Morris and stuffing the Hurricanes' rushing attack.
Philon had six tackles against Cincinnati, while Dunn notched nine. Both want to go out with a bang and are looking to increase their NFL draft stock. Adding some big plays against Miami to their highlight reels wouldn't hurt either, as Louisville has been knocked for a soft schedule over the years.
Miami's Al Golden knows that 10-3 and a three-game win streak can send the Hurricanes into next season on a good note.
Miami head coach Al Golden has been relatively quiet since the Hurricanes accepted a bid to the Russell Athletic Bowl on December 8.
Golden and his team have been off-limits to the media, but he did share some thoughts the day after the matchup was announced, as reported by Manny Navarro at the Miami Herald:
Golden's thoughts about the matchup and opportunity:
I missed an opportunity to visit since the bowl announcement, but clearly we’re grateful for the opportunity to go to the Russell Athletic Bowl, to play in Orlando, and let our kids experience the sites [sic] and attractions and the community in Orlando, and get a great opponent in Louisville. Our kids are excited, I think they’re grateful. They’ve been through a lot the past two years, and they have not been able to have this opportunity. I thought after we talked last weekend, that [the conversation] resonated in the way they practiced. Hopefully we’ll see that again here tonight and tomorrow. They’re practicing with a purpose, they’re excited, and clearly they have a really tough opponent coming up.
When asked about the challenges the Hurricanes secondary will face in regards to Bridgewater, Golden went into great detail:
We have to play really well. This is a very talented young man. He has great command on the offense. I don’t want to intimate you at all, that I’ve studied everything I can about them, we’re going to do that about 11 a.m. Sunday. We’re going to take two whole days to do that. Clearly we see enough Thursday night games or Friday nights to see the young man is talented. He has speed, good corps of receivers, knows how to distribute the football, doesn’t make many mistakes with the football, can move in the pocket. It’s going to be a great challenge for our corners and safeties. Those guys are going to be challenged again tonight to improve, compete and get better. Certainly we’re not where we want to be yet, in every facet of the game—not just corners and safeties.
Days early, with bowl practices underway, Golden declared all positions wide-open going into the postseason, as reported by Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post. Golden stated that his team was finally getting over "that mediocre mind-set" and shared his thoughts on entitlement.
"Guys have 'spots' on mediocre teams,” Golden said. "'That’s my spot. Hey, this is my position.' It’s really not your position. The position is the University of Miami’s position."
Louisville head coach Charlie Strong spoke with the media soon after the bowl pairings were announced and touched on the ACC connection as well as his ties to the Sunshine State, as reported by The Cardinal Connect:
Regarding the game plan against Miami:
I really haven’t had much of a chance to watch Miami. When we found out who our opponent was I had some recruiting to do so I really haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch them. When I get back into the office this weekend we will be able to start our preparation and break them down. I know this; there is a lot of speed. We recruit similar guys so I know a lot of their athletes. They are really a good team.
Strong also discussed his players' excitement when hearing Miami would be the opponent:
The excitement is a lot of the guys have played against each other in the Optimist League and the youth league and a lot of them have grown up together. There will be a lot of talking going on. We are going to have to manage that talking and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. Our players are really excited to be here.
After two straight postseason bans, Miami will be prepared for the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The storyline for the Russell Athletic Bowl has been twofold—the skills of Teddy Bridgewater as well as the issues with Miami's defense and how they will match up.
What's gone a bit under the radar is the fact that Miami self-imposed bowl bans two consecutive years and is hungry to play. The Hurricanes will get 18 extra practices they're yet to benefit from in the Al Golden era, as well as upwards of three weeks to game-plan for an opponent.
Miami's defense won't solve all its woes overnight, but bowl games allow coaches the luxury of forming strategies for one particular opponent in a manner that they cannot during the regular-season grind.
When looking back at early September, the Hurricanes certainly had a game plan for the 12th-ranked Gators. Miami's offense came out firing, while the defense gave up yards but was aggressive and forced turnovers. The Hurricanes were in a second-half chess match and played a game of keepaway, but they kept grinding en route to the upset.
Miami sits at 9-3 while Louisville is 11-1, but those records hardly tell the entire story.
The Cardinals have played a weak schedule, while the Hurricanes faced some big-time challenges in No. 12 Florida and No. 1 Florida State.
Even the ACC's Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, all of which are down this year, are arguably better than just about everyone Louisville faced. The Cards didn't face one ranked team in 2013 and hardly dominated the majority of lesser teams on their schedule.
Miami has seen some Louisville-caliber teams this year, but the Cards haven't faced many squads with the offensive firepower of the Hurricanes.
The college football universe knows what Bridgewater will bring to the table, but it seems most are forgetting how backed-up Miami is regarding playing in the postseason. The Hurricanes haven't reached a bowl game since 2010 and haven't won one since 2006.
Conversely, Louisville rode a BCS high last year, expected another berth this postseason and has been lethargic since falling to Central Florida. As much the Cardinals are feigning hype for this matchup, it's a letdown when they were one stop away from an undefeated season and most likely a Fiesta Bowl showdown against Baylor.
The Cardinals will get theirs on offense Saturday night, but so will Miami. Stephen Morris, Allen Hurns, Stacy Coley, Dallas Crawford and a veteran offensive line will see to that.
The Hurricanes emerge in what should be one of the better bowl games this postseason.
Prediction: Miami 38, Louisville 34