FSU vs. Miami Matchups

Quarterback Advantage: Florida State

Miami starter Jacory Harris has proven he still has strides to make in his development as a quarterback in FBS play. He’s maintained a steady average of 2 interceptions per game which, if he keeps up, will result in a total of 24 interceptions on the year—that’s 7 more than his total from last year which led the ACC. His flaws as a quarterback lie predominantly in his decision-making in the pocket. Harris continues to find himself locking on to his first option on a play and trying to force it to him when it’s well covered. On certain plays he makes you wonder if he’s decided who he’s throwing to before even receiving the snap. While throwing the two interceptions and completing well under half of his passes against Clemson, Harris did, however, have a field day finding Leonard Hankerson and tossed four touchdowns. A game against Florida State, who he torched on Labor Day a season ago with 386 yards in his second career start and first of the 2009 campaign, may be just what he needs, although FSU’s defense is greatly improved from last year’s squad. Cane fans will also be hoping that his struggles are merely a byproduct of playing in hostile environments on the road. Jacory’s due for some home cooking after spending over a month away from Sun Life Stadium.

The Seminoles of course will display their star senior quarterback Christian Ponder. Ponder on the year is completing 60.5% of his passes for 844 yards, 8 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. The dual-threat quarterback has also pitched in to the Seminole rushing attack with 108 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 45 carries (numbers that are skewed to be relatively low as they also account for quarterback sacks). Some argue that the Florida State coaching staff will like to see him run less this year, his senior season, but he’s on pace to surpass his total for number of carries in his junior year. He has, however, improved much more as a passer than two years ago when he was a much better running option than passing option. Ponder has been known to play well against the Canes, and this may be the biggest regular season game of the year he has his eyes set on as he finalizes his college career at year’s end.

Running Backs Advantage: Florida State

Miami fans had to be pleased with the way offensive coordinator Mark Whipple improved on the balance in his play calling in the Canes’ last game against Clemson. Damien Berry, Lamar Miller, and Mike James combined to carry the ball 37 times while Jacory Harris dropped back to pass on 36 plays. In the games against Ohio State and Pittsburgh those numbers were lopsided in favor of the pass. It’s this kind of offensive balance, however, that will keep opposing defenses honest and maximize on the utilization of all this team’s talent. Berry was critical in pounding the ball up the middle with 24 carries for 101 yards. Miller’s speed was effective in the early-going, especially on the opening drive, and James did an excellent job of finishing the game, picking up a couple of key first downs on the Canes’ game-clinching drive that culminated in a Matt Bosher field goal making the Hurricane lead one of two possessions. It has been speculated that Lamar Miller may have to sit out this weekend’s game, but the Canes might get Graig Cooper back. Coop played a pivotal role in the 38-34 victory in Tallahassee last season scoring his team’s final two touchdowns.

For as good as the Canes running backs played against Clemson and as talented as they are, Miami still only ranks 77th in the FBS in rushing yards. In the meantime, Florida State ranks 26th with 208.6 rushing yards per game. Now these numbers may be inflated a bit with the Seminoles playing a much easier schedule than Miami has, but Florida State is indeed very talented at the running back position and head coach Jimbo Fisher, along with offensive coordinator James Coley, knows how to use them. The three-headed monster that is the Noles running game is led by junior Jermaine Thomas, and he’s complemented by junior Ty Jones and sophomore Chris Thompson. All three running backs are averaging over 6 yards per carry and have scored multiple rushing touchdowns.

Wide Receivers/ Tight Ends Advantage: Miami (FL)

Miami’s wide receivers seem to be struggling a bit at the moment and, aside from Leonard Hankerson, had a rough outing against a stout Clemson secondary. Laron Byrd, who caught 6 passes in the game against Pittsburgh, was held without a catch in Death Valley while Travis Benjamin, who had been targeted heavily in previous games, had one catch for 7 yards. Miami wide receivers have also admittedly taken blame for a number of Jacory Harris’ interceptions. Randy Shannon has gone as far as saying that Benjamin alone is responsible for 4 of Harris’ first 6 interceptions. I feel the number Shannon gave was much too high and was simply a motivational tool to take some pressure off of Harris. The Canes are deep and talented at receiver despite their recent slump. Florida State coaches know they can’t focus in on Hankerson because he blew up last week since that’ll open up too many opportunities for the other guys. FSU coaches are also very familiar with Benjamin’s abilities as he always seems to bring his A-game for the in-state rivals. The Seminoles have some talented athletes in their secondary, but they’re also not very tall and can be exploited by the height of the Miami receivers.

Florida State has some solid options on the outside. Their receiving corps is led in receptions by speedy junior Bert Reed, who runs a 4.4 in the 40. Reed has been used a lot in shorter patterns as they like to get him the ball with room to run. Junior Taiwan Easterling and sophomore Willie Haulstead also have some big play potential. Haulstead leads the team with 3 touchdown catches. They’ll have their hands full trying to get open on a Miami secondary that was lights out against Clemson. Neither Miami nor Florida State has any serious receiving threats at the tight end position. The Canes have a history of using tight ends proficiently, but they have not flourished in that department this season as Richard Gordon and Chase Ford are yet to find their niche. The #1 tight end recruit in the nation coming out of high school this year, Dwyer High School’s Nick O’Leary, who is considering both Miami and FSU, will be looking on come Saturday night.

Offensive Line Advantage: Even

The Miami O-Line definitely had its moments in Clemson, SC, but also had periods, specifically in the second half, where their inability to block the Tigers defensive front led by Da’Quan Bowers made for some stagnant drives that ended quickly. There were penalties, but for the most part, they were effective in cutting down on them in such a hostile environment. Senior Joel Figueroa’s move back to guard proved to be for the better as true freshman Seantrel Henderson was awfully impressive for such a young player making his first start in one of the loudest stadiums in the country. Another freshman who’s getting some reps on this offensive line is Brandon Linder. He was seen countless times in the fourth quarter starting off in an unbalanced line on the right side before motioning over to the left side and setting up some solid Mike James runs.

Florida State’s offensive line has been decent. They open up all those holes for their trio at running back of Thomas, Jones, and Thompson. Their zone blocking scheme, however, has not, and probably will not, face a defensive front with the firepower that the Canes bring. The FSU O-line is receiving good news this week with left tackle and three-year starter Andrew Datko scheduling a possible return from his three-week hiatus for this game after being involved in first team reps in practice on two consecutive days. They’d really need Datko and his ailing shoulder to be healthy and effective if they have any plans of stopping the Miami pass rush. If Datko does indeed come back for Saturday night’s affair, Zebrie Sanders will be able to move back to his original position of right tackle with Henry Orelus going back from tackle to guard.

Defensive Line Advantage: Miami (FL)

Miami’s defensive line is, hands down, one of the best in the nation. They’re led of course by senior Allen Bailey, who is capable of playing both inside at defensive tackle and outside at defensive end. The defensive front’s success starts with him because, when he’s on top of his game, he’ll draw added attention from the opposing offensive line. That then opens things up for other linemen on the outside, such as Olivier Vernon, Adewale Ojomo, Marcus Robinson, and Andrew Smith to penetrate the backfield and make plays. Both Bailey and his coaches, namely defensive coordinator John Lovett and defensive line coach Rick Petri, have noticed that Bailey draws more double teams when he’s lined up at tackle as opposed to end. On the inside, redshirt freshman Luther Robinson has earned some playing time and cracked the team’s four-deep rotation at defensive tackle since the injury to Curtis Porter against Ohio State. Also in the four-deep, when Bailey’s lined up on the edge, are Micanor Regis, Josh Holmes, and Marcus Forston who has made great strides this season in recovering from his lower extremity injury. Forston has been getting a great push on the snap of the ball in the middle and even recorded an interception on a tipped ball against Clemson. Against the Tigers, the Canes slowed down their pass rush a bit as they were well aware that Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker wanted to get the ball out of hands quick; the linemen were able to read passing plays and get their hands up to deflect balls on a number of occasions. Florida State doesn’t throw to their backs nearly as much so look for the Miami D-line to be able to pin their ears back and attack Christian Ponder on passing downs.

As great as Miami’s front four has been, the Florida State defensive line is also a talented group. They actually rank first in sacks and second in tackles for loss while Miami is second in sacks and first in tackles for loss. They’re led by senior defensive end Markus White; White, the former junior college transfer from Lake Worth, FL was a 5-star recruit coming out of Butler CC back in 2008 when he first arrived at FSU. Another former 5-star recruit on this line will be lining up alongside of White in sophomore Jacobbi McDaniel. The Florida State D-line isn’t quite as deep as that of Miami, but they still rotate guys in and out without missing a beat. Against Virginia, freshman backup defensive tackle Demonte McAllister had four tackles, two of them behind the line of scrimmage including one sack and a pass deflection. Also impressive were starters and sophomores Everett Dawkins and Brandon Jenkins, who combined for nine tackles against the Cavaliers.

Secondary Advantage: Miami (FL)

Both teams have some talented athletes in their respective secondaries. The Canes are coming off a six turnover performance against the Clemson Tigers in which they found every possible way to take the ball away from them. If you’re ever looking for junior weakside linebacker Sean Spence on the field, just find the ball, and rest assured, that #31 jersey will be near it. He’s been a real sparkplug for this defense with his outstanding open field tackling, especially behind the line of scrimmage. The great advantage for the Miami linebackers is that they don’t always need to blitz on passing downs for the defense to get pressure on the quarterback because the front four usually does enough of that on their own. The linebackers will blitz occasionally, but they can predominantly focus in on a separate assignment such as dropping into a zone, covering a back or tight end, or providing a spy on mobile quarterback Christian Ponder. Shifting away from the linebackers and into the secondary, the Canes defensive backs were all over the field last Saturday at Clemson. Brandon Harris was rarely thrown at as he shut down his side of the field, and when they ran to his side, he would creep up to the line and make a physical tackle. On two separate sweep plays for Clemson running back Andre Ellington, Harris sent him rotating like a helicopter’s propeller, forcing a fumble on one and preventing the pick-up of a critical 4th & 1 for Clemson on the other. Fifth-year senior Ryan Hill, who got his first start of the season two games ago to match up against Pittsburgh’s tall and talented receiver Jon Baldwin, has continued to impress and will continue to see the field. Hill has recorded an interception in both starts he’s had this season. Also with two interceptions on the year is sophomore strong safety Ray Ray Armstrong. Also worth noting is the improved play of senior Demarcus Van Dyke; I can only remember one play in which he truly got beat by the opposing receiver and he ended up wrapping his man up with great technique, stripping the ball away, and subsequently recovering the fumble. Randy Shannon’s been putting in some extra time in practice with Van Dyke throwing him passes so that he builds up his instinct for  catching interceptions more often as opposed to simply going for the pass break-up.

FSU’s secondary will be a much improved unit over the one Jacory Harris torched for nearly 400 yards passing in last year’s Labor Day game. They’re led by star sophomore Greg Reid who just a week ago against Virginia recorded five tackles and two interceptions. He’s extremely dangerous whenever a quarterback throws to his side of the field, but Miami may be able to exploit a weakness he possesses in his height. Reid only measures out to be 5’8” so he’d be giving up 7 to 8 inches whenever he gets matched up against Leonard Hankerson, Laron Byrd, or Aldarius Johnson. Also standing at 5’8” in the Seminole secondary is five-star true freshman Lamarcus Joyner who really only comes in for nickel and dime packages but may see more playing time as the year progresses. Joyner is a South Florida product who grew up idolizing the Noles. He played his first three years as an Eagle at Southwest Miami High before transferring over to Ft. Lauderdale football powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas for his senior year. Starting strongside linebacker for the Seminoles, Mister Alexander, is expected to play despite missing time in practice, but if he can’t go, we’ll see more of freshman standout Christian Jones. Senior linebacker Kendall Smith has been very impressive thus far this season for the Noles anchoring the defense in the middle.

Special Teams Advantage: Even

Travis Benjamin will most certainly continue to return punts for the Canes despite getting bottled up by the Clemson special teams unit on a few returns. The Canes may be forced, however, to deviate from the norm on kickoffs as it appears as if Lamar Miller may not be able to make it in time for Saturday. Possible options for replacing may include Graig Cooper if he does indeed return, maybe Benjamin to handle both kicks and punts, or possibly one of the Canes talented young freshmen running backs in Storm Johnson or Eduardo Clements. Matt Bosher of course will handle kicking and punting duties come Staurday. I would like to see Bosher punt the ball a bit quicker as a lot of his punts come uncomfortably close to getting blocked. The Canes committed three penalties while covering punts against Clemson (albeit a couple were on some more than questionable calls), but it’s unlikely that will be an issue two games in a row.

Sophomore Dustin Hopkins takes care of the kicking duties for the Noles. Last year when he faced the Canes as a freshman he connected on a 51-yard field goal only to blow a simple extra point later in the game. If it comes down to a late field goal, Hopkins is the man that’ll be forced to follow tradition and blow it for the Noles with either a wide right or a wide left miss. The electric cornerback Greg Reid will take kicks and punts for Florida State with Bert Reed or Lamarcus Joyner possibly working in as well. Shawn Powell controls the punting and holding duties for FSU. On a side note, a reliable inside source has mentioned that Florida State has been working on fake field goals in practice this week. It’s certainly something to look out for come gameday. The Miami special teams unit will have to be prepared.

Coaching Advantage: Even

Since becoming the head coach of Miami football Randy Shannon is 2-1 against Florida State with both of his wins coming at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. Him and defensive coordinator John Lovett really having the players on defense “flying around,” and it also appears that Rick Petri was the perfect man for the opening that was created at defensive line coach in the offseason. The D-line has been nothing more of spectacular. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has had some questionable play calling in some of Miami’s games this year, but I loved his run/pass balance in the Canes’ last outing at Clemson.

Florida State Football is headed by first-year head coach Jimbo Fisher, although it’s difficult to call him a first-year head coach as he’s been deemed the “coach in waiting” to succeed Bobby Bowden since 2007, one year after he was hired as the team’s offensive coordinator. He has his players playing well as they’ve gotten off to a 4-1 start including a 2-0 record in the ACC. With Fisher’s promotion to head coach, the young recruiting guru James Coley takes over as the squad’s offensive coordinator with Mark Stoops now leading the team’s defense since the departure of long-time defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews.

David Furones may be contacted at dfurones@themiamihurricane.com.