The line between respect and hate for the University of Miami and Florida State University has been crossed many a time since the rivalry got underway. There’s no fancy moniker given to the series such as “The Game”, “Bedlam”, or the “Red River Rivalry”. Miami versus FSU has been defined by moments, players and coaches. Wide rights and wide lefts in the context of this rivalry have significant meaning.
Saturday will be the 63rd meeting of two of the biggest programs in the Sunshine State. The Hurricanes halted the Seminoles’ six-game win streak with a 24-20 victory in 2017, with Darrell Langham playing the hero on a 23-yard touchdown reception to lift the curse of the Noles from the Hurricanes. With UM having home field advantage this time around, even the fans can feel the pressure. How will the Hurricanes respond in a game where they are favored to win? Will the Noles be able to elevate themselves from their early season woes?
It’s more than just a statement game, it’s Miami against Florida State. Chief Oscecola against Sebastian the Ibis. This one means a bit more.
Iron Sharpens Iron (one vs. one)
WR Jeff Thomas vs. CB Levonta Taylor
As we tend to do for the big games, we’re going to give you a double dose of our Iron Sharpens Iron segment. If you have not been following all season, this is the section where we highlight the matchup on the field that is likely to determine the outcome of the game for either side.
In the absence of WR Ahmmon Richards, the Hurricanes’ passing game has revolved around the play of sophomore receiver Jeff Thomas. The East St. Louis, Illinois, talent has shown tremendous growth so far this season. With enough speed to get 10 yards behind a DB in the blink of an eye, Miami looks to get Thomas the ball on swing passes, intermediate routes and, of course, the aforementioned deep shot to take the top off the defense. With a knack for hauling catches regardless of ball placement, Thomas’ 320 receiving yards, 24.6 yards-per-catch and two touchdowns are a testament to his caliber of being one of the best receivers in the nation.
Across from Thomas will be the next big thing at DB for FSU, Levonta Taylor. After the departures of S Derwin James, CB Trey Marshall and CB Tarvarus McFadden, Taylor was pegged as the next in line for Noles’ defensive stalwarts. After a rough start, Taylor has found his footing in recent weeks. The 5’10”, 181 pound DB possess good intuition, breaking off coverage to go for the interception, an achievement he has one of to date. Thriving in man-to-man coverage, Taylor can trail a receiver down field and be in position to stick his arm between the hands of the intended target to create an incompletion. In this series, Taylor has just one tackle and two pass breakups against the Canes, but it’s his ability to run stride-for-stride with pass catchers that should make this battle between WR and CB entertaining.
DE Brian Burns vs. LT Tyree St. Louis
As exciting as the passing game has been with Miami QB N’Kosi Perry injected into the mix over the past couple of weeks, Saturday will be a battle in the trenches to define the game within the game like none other has before. 6’5”, 235 pound defensive end Brian Burns is the most touted prospect on the Noles’ defense. A twitchy defender off the line, Burns has a good getoff on snaps, leading to him swimming by offensive tackles on his way to making a play in the backfield. Playing pattycake with No. 99 just leads to Burns chopping down the hands of the blocker as he rounds the corner towards the QB. On run plays, Burns does a good job of replacing and pursuing plays down the line of scrimmage. If Miami has any plans for success, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native must be accounted for on every snap. Expect Mr. Burns to line up across from both left and right tackle over the course of the afternoon.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride with left tackle Tyree St. Louis all season. The senior’s play can fluctuate on a down-by-down basis. Not the fleetest of foot, St. Louis gets into problems against speed rushers who are able to beat him off the snap to the ball. An off-balance Tyree is the worst kind of Tyree, as he has no power to anchor down to reset the edge. If Tyree struggles in the matchup, this could be a case where the youth of DJ Scaife may be a better option against the speed of Mr. Burns.
Positional Matchup of the Week
Miami’s Defensive Secondary vs. Florida State’s Wide Receivers
With the exception of the season opener and some lapses against Toledo, the UM secondary has performed admirably. It’s a trait that they need to live up to with the Noles will trying to stretch the field on Saturday. We know that Michael Jackson, beside his name, is the headliner at the position. Sophomore CB Trajan Bandy has come into his own, working towards the boundary. After the two stalwarts, the rotation at CB has been fluid, alternating between Al Blades Jr., Jhavonte Dean and DJ Ivey. While Miami may lack in experience towards the middle and bottom of the depth chart, they make up for it in potential and sheer will. For the young group, this will be the biggest game of their careers. It is important to not let their nerves grab hold, causing them to forget technique and systems during the conference clash.
The best version of FSU’s offense is working off of play-actions, throwing deep verticals and spreading the love to a plethora of targets in the passing game. The leading receiver of the Noles is senior WR Nyquan Murray who leads with 25 receptions, 345 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Junior WR Keith Gavin serves as a solid running mate at the position and freshman Tamorrion Terry has begun to establish himself among the group. TE Tre McKitty assumes the starting TE role after former starter Ryan Izzo finally exhausted his eligibility.
Caneseye Players to Watch
We’ve discussed one player who wears the number 99. How about we even it out and discuss the other? Jackson has been the best defender on the defensive line in years past for UM. With the emergence of Gerald Willis III, the junior defensive end has taken a backseat. With 16 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and three sacks, the numbers at this point in the season are approaching the production we expect to see from Joe Jackson in a given year. Unaffected by a hulking brace over his left arm, Jackson’s ability to win coming off the line with hand moves and a bull rush could be just the thing to make defensive line coach Jess Simpson giddy and the Canes deliver another loss to a beleaguered Seminoles’ fanbase.
It’s an odd occurrence that we’re five weeks into the season and have not profiled all three of Miami’s stellar linebackers. Part of that has to do with other members of the defense stepping up, but Pinckney and the rest of the linebacker corp should be ready to stick it to a rival like FSU. In a game where the hits have a little extra, the trash talk flows more elegantly and fans live and die with each play like a heart rate monitor, consider Pinckney as the tone-setter in the box for a UM defense that wants to take the soul out of the FSU offense earlier than later.
The Seminoles will head to South Florida Saturday with a different type of offense than what Miami dealt with a season ago. Aside from the obvious schematic and philosophical differences, the biggest contrast between the 2017 version of the FSU and its current iteration is the return of QB Deondre Francois. The junior QB suffered a devastating patella tendon injury in his left knee in Seminoles season opening loss to Alabama in 2017. After plenty of rehab and work in the off-season, Francois wrestled the reins from sophomore QB James Blackman in camp. It has not been pretty for Francois, who — a season after the injury — does not appear to be as mobile as he was preceding the injury.
In 2017, Akers was a freshman that came to FSU with plenty of acclaim, yet could not find his footing. Against the Hurricanes, the running back would proceed to rush for 121 yards on 20 carries, illustrating the potential that many knew he possessed. With a touch of déjà vu, Akers enters Saturday with a modest 4.1 yards-per-carry average, but has only found the endzone once after five games. There’s a reason why Akers was named a first-team preseason ACC RB, and the Canes will have to contend with the sophomore as runner and receiver out of the backfield. Gap assignment and securing the tackle — two major emphasis of a Manny Diaz defense — will be key to limiting FSU’s most potent weapon.
There’s no Derwin James. Tavarus McFadden somehow graduated after Darrell Langham posterized him for the go-ahead score in last year’s bout. However, Miami is set to contend yet again with a defensive back unit that is touted as being one of the most skilled in the ACC. While that claim is debatable at best, Florida State CB Kyle Meyers is still one of the bright spots on defense. A six foot, 175 pound prospect, Meyers has performed better than the aforementioned Taylor to start the year and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, has broken up two passes and has forced a fumble through four games. Meyers is likely to see a combination of Jeff Thomas, Lawrence Cager and perhaps a dollop of Ahmmon Richards this week. FSU has a tendency to send CB blitzes with Meyer serving as the blitzer in most occasions. While teammate Levonta Taylor may get acclaim, Meyer is the player who should give the Canes the most problems on Saturday.
The most underrated weapon on the Canes’ defense award has to go to striker Romey Finley. Traveling from sideline to sideline, rushing off the edge or just dropping back into coverage, the converted safety has managed to make a difference for the Hurricanes in crucial moments of the game. With the Seminoles opting for an uptempo attack, the other brain child of Manny Diaz not named the Turnover Chain should see plenty of snaps this weekend as the Hurricanes look to combat FSU’s passing game.
One Last Thing
According to ESPN Stats & Info, in the last 16 meetings, this game has been decided by a touchdown or less 14 times — including last year’s thrilling 24-20 Miami win. The Hurricanes enter the game as 12 point favorites, according to betting services. The betting odds leader has won six of the last seven contests.
The last time the Hurricanes faced Willie Taggart, he was the head coach at the University of South Florida. That was in 2013. Miami went on to win decisively by a score of 49-21 in front of the Bulls’ home crowd in Orlando.
IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE U!