On Tuesday, head coach Larry Coker began his press conference by stating: “Now we can talk about this game.”
The game Coker referred to in that statement would be top ranked Miami’s battle with No. 6 Florida. And after a 15-year hiatus, the Hurricanes and Gators finally renew their regular season rivalry tomorrow evening in front of a sold out crowd at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Miami and Florida clashed in the 2000 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, a game that saw the Hurricanes come out on top 37-20. However, Miami’s players know that up in Gainesville, 80,000 noisy Gator fans provide an additional challenge to the defending national champions.
“It’s a hostile environment, that’s for sure,” said offensive lineman Sherko Haji-Rasouli. “But if you come in with the right mindset, and the right preparation, then you can always turn the hostile environment into something positive.”
The Hurricanes began their season on a high note last Saturday, trouncing Florida A&M 63-17. The win boosted Miami’s winning streak to 23, currently the second longest in school history. Coker, however, isn’t concerned with helping set records.
“We would obviously like to keep any streak going,” Coker said. “The only winning streak from a player/coach standpoint that we want is to have is a 1-0 record on Saturday.”
On offense, the Hurricanes look to the arm of senior Ken Dorsey against a talented, but questionable Gator secondary. Dorsey, who threw for 118 yards and three touchdowns in limited playing time against FAMU, finished third in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting, and the national media has blown up Dorsey’s matchup with Florida quarterback Rex Grossman, last year’s runner-up. The team, though, doesn’t consider itself caught up in the hype.
“It’s a long season and there is a lot of football left to play,” Coker said. “Kenny Dorsey doesn’t have anything to prove. We know what he means to this program.”
Grossman, meanwhile, posted impressive numbers in the Gators’ season opener against Alabama-Birmingham. The junior quarterback threw for 337 yards and a pair of touchdowns, helping lead Florida to a 51-3 blowout.
Senior Taylor Jacobs was on the receiving end of both Grossman touchdown strikes. With the departure of Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, Jacobs looks to become one of the nation’s most prolific receivers. His 246 yards against UAB further implies the challenge Miami’s secondary has on their plate.
“This is a tremendous test for the secondary, and I would be concerned even if we still had Ed, Phillip, and the rest of those guys,” Coker said. “If we don’t get pressure on Grossman, I don’t care who is back there, it will be a long day.”
As Coker mentioned, Miami’s front seven will have to get pressure on Grossman in order to help avoid a serious air attack. Last week, the Hurricanes recorded seven sacks on Casey Printers and the FAMU offense. In addition, senior Jerome McDougle, one of the nation’s most talented defensive ends, returns from a muscle strain.
However, putting pressure on Grossman isn’t the defense’s sole concern. The Hurricanes must contain underrated Florida running back Earnest Graham, who piled up 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the season opener. Graham amassed at least 600 yards in each of his first three seasons, and with new head coach Ron Zook’s philosophy of a better rushing attack, the senior back looks to become even more of a threat this year.
“He[Earnest] is a real sleeper running back who doesn’t get a lot of hype so we are not taking their passing game for granted,” said linebacker Jonathan Vilma. “We know we have to stop the run, first and foremost.”
Miami is beginning to produce a new rushing attack of their own. Sophomore Willis McGahee turned his first carry of 2002 into a 19-yard touchdown run. His backup, recently converted running back Jason Geathers, rushed for 199 yards in extensive action against the Rattlers.
With both teams sporting an equal balance of run and pass, tomorrow’s contest could turn out to be a battle of special teams. The Hurricanes special teams force is at full power this week, with the return of punter Freddie Capshaw from a cracked bone in his right foot. Capshaw says there is no question to who has the advantage in this category.
They[special teams] are better than they have been, but it’s still not Big East caliber,” Capshaw said. “Florida comes after you, but not as much as teams like Syracuse and West Virginia.”
As if Miami didn’t need further motivation for defeating Florida, odds makers have made the Hurricanes two-and a half point underdogs for Saturday’s matchup. Many observers across the nation have made a big deal about the line, but Larry Coker’s squad isn’t concerned one bit.
“We are No.1 in the country but we still have to prove that every week by winning. That’s why winning is our main objective.”
Tomorrow’s game is the first in a long line of tough challenges for Miami. The ‘Canes have dates against Florida State, Tennessee, and Virginia Tech still to come. If the team still wants to have a chance to participate in the Fiesta Bowl when those games roll around, then the ‘Canes must take care of business up in Gainesville. There is no question what the goal of Miami’s players is right now.
“Stopping Florida,” Vilma said. It doesn’t matter how we get the W, just as long as we get it.”
Jeremy Marks-Peltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org