It has been more than a decade since Florida State beat Miami three consecutive times, but the Seminoles can make that happen with a win Saturday in South Florida. Miami, meanwhile, is coming off two consecutive losses and could be playing without its starting quarterback.
So, how big of an advantage does FSU have in this game and what is Miami doing to even the playing field? We checked in with Hurricanes beat writer Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald for some answers.
NoleNation: We've gotten some mixed signals on whether QB Stephen Morris will play Saturday. What's the latest on his injury, and what does it do to Miami's offense if Ryan Williams is under center for the Hurricanes?
Susan Miller Degnan: Miami’s official injury report comes out Thursday afternoon, so we’ll find out what the Hurricanes have to say about Stephen’s “lower extremity’’ injury – aka left ankle. However, unless the report says "out," I have a hunch Stephen will get playing time Saturday, if not start.
Coach Al Golden originally said he wouldn’t be able to do anything until at the earliest Thursday, but on Wednesday, Stephen was at practice. He was limited, but I watched him repeatedly practice his dropback steps and then fire away to two alternating receivers. We’re only allowed to watch the first 15 minutes of practice, but I learned that afterward he stayed for the entire practice – relaying plays, getting into the huddle and helping Williams and third-stringer Preston Dewey.
Keep in mind that Stephen sprained the same ankle three days before the 2010 Sun Bowl game, then replaced an errant Jacory Harris early in the game and ended up throwing for 282 yards and two touchdowns (with a pick). He also ran four times on that bad ankle for 22 yards.
Backup Ryan Williams –- a transfer from Memphis who sat out last season -- is very tall at 6-6, which is good. But he’s also the opposite of mobile, which is bad when you have an exceptionally talented FSU defense coming to take you out. Williams has a very nice touch on the ball and good timing. However, his arm isn’t nearly as strong as Morris’, which the Seminoles know, too.
NN: Duke Johnson's season began with a bang, but he has been held in check the past three games. How much will Miami rely on him with Morris potentially out, and what can Golden do to create some space for the dynamic freshman?
Degnan: I do believe that Duke is the real thing. He has been suffering from turf toe, which can be a debilitating injury. Not many people realized that Duke did not practice at all last week, but still played. You’re right, he has definitely been held in check, and because of the toe, hasn’t been on kickoff-return duty lately. Not sure if he’ll be back returning kickoffs , because that’s one avenue that creates lots of opportunities for his offense. Duke has fabulous vision, and even if it takes some short passes, he needs to somehow get the ball this week.
NN: FSU's passing game struggled against NC State as the Wolfpack pressured EJ Manuel often. Against BC, the O-line held up, and the passing game took off. Given that Miami has just seven sacks in seven games this year, what can the Hurricanes do to get some pressure on Manuel to slow down FSU's passing game?
Degnan: Good luck with that one. If you can figure out the answer, give defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio a call.
NN: Regardless of records or rankings, the energy and emotion always seems high in a rivalry game like this. But coming off two tough losses and potentially without their starting QB, what's the mental state of the Miami players right now?
Degnan: They’re excited, I think, although Al Golden’s team is a lot different from the Miami teams of the past. These guys are definitely understated. Not one of them is brash or brazen when being interviewed. But they also seem, at least outwardly, to be buying into Golden’s program or "process." He seems to have them pretty focused. And I must say that these guys do not quit during games, which they did at times in the last few years when getting beat (can you say 45-17 vs. FSU at Miami in 2010?).
NN: So many FSU-Miami games have come down to one or two plays making the difference -- particularly on special teams. What do you think will be the keys for Miami to pull off the upset this time around?
Degnan: Setting up great field position with special teams, a Miami offensive line that gives the quarterback time to deliver the play, creating some opportune turnovers and hoping that someone can pressure EJ Manuel. Sounds like a dream, but in this rivalry, anything can happen.