TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A week ago, Miami needed two fourth-quarter touchdowns to preserve its undefeated record. It took the Hurricanes 18 plays to score those two touchdowns, and their talented tailback Duke Johnson had the ball in his hands for 13 of them.
In all, Johnson carried a career-high 30 times for 168 yards, but his workhorse fourth quarter underscored what kind of football Miami wants to play.
“Duke’s one of those energetic players, very emotional,” Miami quarterback Stephen Morris said. “We counted on him and the offensive line did a great job of opening up the holes.”
It’s a recipe for a power running game, for old-fashioned smash-mouth football. And that’s exactly what Florida State expects to see when the two teams face off in Tallahassee on Saturday.
“It’s smash-mouth football,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “You have to embrace it because if you don’t, you’re going to get smashed.”
Joyner and the rest of the Florida State defense understand the predicament.
While the Seminoles have dominated their past three games -- allowing just seven points total to Maryland, Clemson and NC State while the first-team defense was on the field -- a tough lesson on smashmouth football came just one month ago.
Boston College was the last power-running offense Florida State faced, and the Eagles manhandled FSU’s defensive front to the tune of 200 rushing yards. Jameis Winston and the offense did more than enough to overcome the setback, but it was still a wake-up call for Joyner’s crew.
“When you have mistakes you learn from them, you own them and you don’t repeat them,” Joyner said. “Just remembering the disaster we had [against Boston College], we just have to own those mistakes and learn from them.“
Indeed, Florida State defenders say they’ve grown in the month since the shaky outing in Chestnut Hill, Mass. They’ve grasped the finer points of new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, and a handful of personnel tweaks should improve the overall performance. Christian Jones has moved full-time from linebacker to defensive end, while Mario Edwards Jr., who missed the BC game with a hand injury, is fully healthy and making an impact now.
That should make for an interesting battle in the trenches. Johnson, who checks in at 196 pounds, is the ACC’s best runner between the tackles, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. His size doesn’t suggest such a punishing approach, but he runs with the fury of a much bigger back.
“He’s patient, and when he hits holes, he hits them full speed,” FSU defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said. “And he doesn’t go down on first contact.”
Still, this should be a big test for Johnson, too. Florida State’s defense allows just 3.3 yards per rush between the tackles, the second-best mark in the conference. Johnson mustered just 27 yards on nine carries in last year’s game, and in four career games against ranked foes, he’s averaged just 2.8 yards per carry with one touchdown.
For Miami, it’s imperative the passing game can take some of the pressure off Johnson, but a nagging ankle injury for Morris could make things tough. His mobility in and out of the pocket has appeared compromised at times, and that could open the door for an aggressive FSU attack.
“We’re going to try to affect the quarterback no matter what, that’s one of our main goals on defense whether he can move, he can’t move,” Jimbo Fisher said. “You’ve got to affect the quarterback.”
Of course, whether it’s pestering Morris or smothering Johnson, the biggest obstacle for Florida State’s defenders might be the big guys in their way.
“A lot of that [success] comes from their offensive line,” Jernigan said. “I think they’re one of the best in the country, and I think it’s going to be a real good test for us up front.”