Florida State Seminoles @ Miami Hurricanes Preview

It's finally here.  The Florida State Seminoles and Miami Hurricanes square off Saturday night on ABC at 8pm!  Let's get right to it.

Motivation Edge: None. This is a rivalry game. All players will be motivated to the fullest extent.  The game does mean more for Miami's program, however, as it is really struggling in recruiting and Cane fans are doubting Randy Shannon after four years of rebuilding, while FSU is in year-one of rebuilding.  

Let's take a look at Miami so far:

Miami_at_ohst_non-garbage_drives_medium

Out-gained by 14% and -4 in turnovers to one of the best teams in the country. Two touchdowns scored on kick and punt returns.

Miami-pitt_non-garbage_medium

Miami out-gained Pitt by 80% on the road on a Thursday night. That's some serious domination of an admittedly very average Pitt team.

Miami-clemson_medium

This was a very, very impressive win. To out-gain a good Clemson team by 15% per play, on the road, and be +3 in turnovers is quite good. FSU's defense is a clear step below Clemson's excellent unit, but its offense is better and unlikely to give up 6 turnovers.

Note:  A large portion of today's preview comes from ShakinTheSouthland (Clemson) and AlongTheOlentangy (Ohio State).  I signed both blogs to the network and have a tremendous amount of respect for their work.  Please make sure to click all the links today!

FSU Defense v. Miami Offense

Miami will run a simplified West Coast style attack that has been coined by some as Whipple-ball. Dr. B put together a nice piece on Whipple and his philosophy that I highly recommend each of you reading if you want to know how Miami's attack really works: Miami: Mark Whipple and the West Coast Offense.

Whipple attended Brown University and was their QB in the late-70's. Obviously, he is an Ivy League grad so he is pretty sharp. Whipple was the head man at New Haven in the late '80's/early '90's then at Brown from '94-'97. He then moved on to UMass where he was able to lead the Minutemen to a 1-AA National Championship in 1998. Whipple stayed there for a half dozen seasons before accepting a job in the professional ranks as the Pittsburgh Steelers QBs coach then as an offensive assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles. Whipple was named the 'Canes offensive coordinator in January of 2009.

Here's another excellent article on the Canes' offense, showing formation, tendency, etc.  Here's a detailed look at Miami's play-action game.  

Last year Miami had unbelievable success against FSU.

People often preach about establishing the run on first down, but the simple fact of the matter is that yards are yards. If a defense is putting all of its resources into stopping the run on first down, why not throw the ball? That is exactly what Miami did. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris torched the FSU defense on first downs, going an incredible 14-18 for 285 yards and two touchdowns, good for an unheard of 247 quarterback rating (yes, a few points from perfect). Florida State allowed almost 16 yards per passing play and over 20 yards per completion! Miami passed far more often than they ran on 1st down and yet FSU made very few adjustments.

And it wasn't just one or two long completions. Harris connected on passes of 40, 39, 31, 29, 27, 24, 20, 19, 18, 11, 8, 7, 6, and 5 yards. It continued throughout the game as FSU made no adjustments.

Because of how FSU was aligned, it made sense to throw the ball a lot. But Miami also had success running.

Personnel

There is no doubt that Miami has a lot of talent on the offensive side of the football. This talent is extremely apparent at the quarterback position. Jacory Harris has made quite a few mistakes over the past year and a half, forcing footballs and giving the opposition gift interceptions just when it looked like the Miami offense is getting things going. When Harris is "on" and in a rhythm, he's stout. FSU's defense is still quite raw and inexperienced and will give up some big plays BUT it is important that the Noles capitalize when Harris does falter. This is one guy who will give a defense opportunities to make plays against him but will also make your defense pay if they cannot make the most of his mistakes. You really don't want to give him extra opportunities because this offense has the ability to be explosive.

The Canes also have a tremendous stable of backs.  There are ten scholarship backs for the Canes.  That's pretty astounding.  The main guys in this game will be #20 Damien Berry (6-0, 215, Sr.) and #5 Mike James (6-0, 217, Soph.) Berry is the faster of the two, with James providing more power, though both are very good backs and would start for FSU. FB 30 Patrick Hill (5-9, 255, Sr.) is a good blocker and a throwback to the days of yesteryear when teams used 250-lb fullbacks.   None of these guys catch the ball all that well, however, so there is that.

Miami has an excellent receiving corps. It is arguably the finest in the country. The Canes rotate four guys typically, consisting of 85 Leonard Hankerson (6-3, 205, Sr.) 3 Travis Benjamin (5-11, 176, Jr.), 47 LaRon Byrd (6-4, 215, Jr.), and 4 Aldarius Johnson (6-3, 200, Jr.). Hankerson is Mel Kiper's top-rated receiving prospect in the country and is an absolute beast. Benjamin is the track guy. Johnson and Byrd are big-bodies who win jump balls.

One of the things that has hurt Harris' productivity is the lack of underneath receiving threats. If you read the article linked above on the West Coast attack Miami uses, you'll see it is based on hitting underneath throws to set you up for longer ones. Miami has no solid TE this year, and the backs, while talented, are young and not the receiving threat they were (at least not yet). With Miami having no solid guy underneath, the defense is able to blanket deep routes and Harris makes the stupid move to force it into coverage, later than he should.

The one question for this Cane offense is the offensive line.  This group was thought to be a liability coming into this season, but has played above expectations.  At LT is 74 Orlando Franklin (6-7, 312, Sr.). Franklin has successfully made the transition from guard to tackle. The middle trio of LG 66 Harland Gunn (6-2, 315, Jr.), C 63 Tyler Horn (6-4, 295, Jr.), and RG 72 Brandon Washington (6-4, 330, Soph.) is pretty average. RT 77 Seantrel Henderson (6-8, 355, Fr.) is the freshman phenom and a monster of a man. This group is good at run blocking but can sometimes struggle in protection. Starting Henderson over the now-benched Figueroa should help to alleviate some of the issues. Henderson was beaten last week by Bowers of Clemson, but FSU doesn't have a monster like Bowers.

The Canes are running some no-huddle this year, which FSU must be aware of since OU crushed FSU running no-huddle.  The Canes are also running much more three and four wide sets this year. Expect Mark Whipple to stick to his guns, though. Play-action is the big play force of the Miami offense, and it will be very important for the 'Noles to not overreact to slight success on Miami's part. Whipple wants a defense to overcompensate for 5 yard gains so that he can take advantage for 50 yard gains. Patience on the part of the coaches and players will prevent those 50 yard gains from happening, and patience on the part of the fans will lead to more enjoyment of the game for yourself.

Unbalanced sets are something they had success with against us in the red zone last year, and its pretty common for an NFL guy like Whipple to throw that at a college defense. Remember that defenders line up based on where the offensive linemen line up, and when they go unbalanced, then there may be only a Guard to the left or right of the Center, and no Tackle. Then your guys have to know how to play it. "They do a good bit. They're a big unbalanced team. Even though they're an NFL offense, it's not something you see a lot in the NFL. Some games there are 15, 16 snaps of unbalance."

Defenses had success against the Canes when they took away the deep ball and forced Miami to move the ball through a shorter, timing-based attack. That is obviously predicated on being able to stop the run game with 7 men and getting pressure without blitzing. But defenses also succeeded by taking away what Miami does best. Virginia Tech, as Chris Brown noted, played an extensive amount of cover-2 , forcing Harris to make throws into tight coverage, with which he struggled. Virginia Tech was then able to take advantage of Harris wanting to force throws that he would be able to make against a single deep safety. Tech mixed in some zone and man blitzes, and the combination kept Harris and his line uncomfortable throughout the game. Harris is somewhat like a boxer who wants to throw knockout blows and nothing but. He doesn't often have the patience or the discipline to do the short stuff that will set up the big plays.  I recently profiled how the FSU defense is made to do just that.

With this in mind, do not expect expect the FSU defense to get baited into crowding the line of scrimmage, but instead entrust stopping the Miami run game to its front seven. It is admittedly a gamble FSU is unlikely to pay off, but it is much better than the alternative. If FSU is able to do so it will be able to play zone coverage behind it, protecting a relatively inexperienced secondary and frustrating Harris and Miami by taking away what they do best. FSU will likely give Miami not only cover-2 looks, but also quarters-quarters-half coverage (cover 4 to one side, cover 2 to the other), to preclude Miami's preferred deep routes and instead make Harris & Co. hit timing routes underneath and on the sidelines. In this way FSU can take away Miami's deep play-action passing game.  Blitzing is not the right call here because Harris is excellent against the blitz.

Here's a note from Tyler:

I don't think Miami has run the bubble screen this year. Whipple is stuck in NFL mode; he thinks he needs to stay ahead of opposing DCs and pass the ball all over the place. This isn't working because 1.) Jacory Harris isn't that type of quarterback, and 2.) the offensive line is getting abused every time it becomes obvious they're passing a predominant amount.

I watched five Miami games from last season when making our preview, and two and parts of the third this season, and I have to say that Whipple has done an abysmal job in adjusting the offense to the current talent level. He lacks the tight ends, he lacks the pass protection, and he has a stable of talented backs that barely get the ball. Remember when Bud pointed out how crazy it was that Miami had 10 backs on scholarship? It would at least be understandable if they used them. Right now, Damien Berry gets 75% of the carries, with Lamar Miller and Mike James receiving token touches.

If I'm Mark Stoops, even if my defensive line can't apply pressure, I'm playing Quarters/Cover Two until Mark Whipple proves to me that he can restrain himself and run the ball consistently. After any mildly successful run, he gets this urge to run a play-action immediately after, and it's not working.

What will happen?

The above gameplan I laid out is great in theory, and it is undoubtedly the appropriate gameplan given the available info on Miami.  But the key to the whole thing is the ability for FSU's extremely young defensive line to hold up against Miami's run game.  The run game?  Yes.  If Miami is one-dimensional, FSU can handle this offense.  If Miami can run the ball and FSU is forced out of its two-deep look, Miami can put up serious points on this defense.  I expect Harris to lose his patience once or twice and give FSU a turnover or two, but I also expect FSU to blow some coverages given how new this zone defense is to the team and how good Miami's wideouts are.  I see the Canes running 65 plays and gaining 375 yards on those (5.75 per play).  

Inside, I'll take a look at the flip side and make a prediction.

FSU Offense v. Miami Defense

Miami's defensive efforts are strongly influenced by head man Randy Shannon. Shannon is a Miami native and was a starting linebacker on the Hurricanes' 1987 National Championship squad. Shannon has a deep defensive history at the college and pro level exclusively with the Hurricanes (grad assistant, defensive assistant, defensive coordinator, and head coach) and with the town's pro squad, the Miami Dolphins (assistant and LB coach).

The other significant influence is the 'Canes defensive coordinator, John Lovett. Lovett is known for an aggressive man/man defense and he likes to play a 4-4 front quite often, but make no mistake, the scheme he runs now is Randy Shannon's, not his own. It was the same situation with Roof and Chizik.

The Canes feature a 4-3 front that is aggressive and flexible. This defensive look has been a staple at the U for decades now, dating back to Jimmy Johnson's arrival in South Florida. Dr. B put together another excellent piece earlier this week that explains the basics as derived and adapted by many of Johnson's former coaches and players. I am anticipating a good bit of zone out of the Canes this week, which means that FSU will have to find some soft spots in these zones and come down with the football.  That'll fall on Taiwan Easterling since FSU does not have a dependable tight end.  Miami also blitzes more now than in the past, though it is not that much overall, and they stunt very often.  Here's a nice article on coverages.  The Canes definitely play more zone than in the past.

Personnel

This is a tremendous defensive line.  At LE is the freak, 57 Allen Bailey (6-4, 285, Sr.)  Bailey is arguably the best athlete in college football.  He's often unblockable.  Everyone has him as a top-15 pick and some even have him in the top-five.   56 Marcus Robinson (6-1, 240, Jr.) backs him up and offers a nice speed-rushing changeup when Bailey shifts down to the three-tech.  He won't be in against the run too often.  At right end is 35 Olivier Vernon (6-4, 250, Soph.).  FSU wanted Vernon badly but Chuck Amato was his recruiter and that meant FSU wasn't landing him with the awful job Amato was doing.  Adewale Ojomo (6-4, 260, Jr.) is also in the mix.  Both of these guys are good defensive ends who will likely play in the league.

Miami also has a talented group of tackles.  The Canes use a rotation of 92 Josh Holmes (6-0, 280, Sr.), 54 Micanor Regis (6-3, 305, Jr.), and 99 Marcus Forston (6-3, 305, R-Soph.).  A former 5-star recruit, Forston has really come on this season after taking a redshirt last year due to injury.  93 Luther Robinson (6-3, 295, R-Fr.) also sees playing time.  As I said above, Bailey slides inside on passing downs.  

This will be the best defensive line FSU faces all season.  It is loaded with experienced, mature men who will play in the league.  This is not FSU's baby-defensive line.  It is better than Clemson's group which also features multiple NFL guys, better than UF's, and better than Oklahoma's.  

Miami's linebackers are not as good as its defensive line.  WLB 31 Sean Spence (6-0, 220, Jr.) is a special talent. MLB 44 Colin McCarthy (6-2, 240, Sr.) is an experienced player, starting 27 games in his career, and he generally produces well enough (95 tackles last year.) In the game film I viewed, he was not the greatest in pass coverage, and has a tendency to get caught up in the wash a bit. SLB 45 Ramon Buchanan (6-1, 220, Jr.) is a decent linebacker with good quickness.

Miami has an excellent crop of defensive backs.  RCB 1 Brandon Harris (5-11, 195, Jr.) is one of the best in the country and FSU fans hope he goes pro after this season. LCB 13 Ryan Hill (6-0, 205, Sr.) has really come on strong after moving to corner last season. Hill's improvement has allowed 8 DeMarcus Van Dyke (6-1, 185, Sr.) to move to the Nickel corner role.

There's no dearth of talent at safety either. At SS is 29 JoJo Nicolas (6-1, 205, R-Jr.). He's solid but not special. Then there's the supremely talented 26 Ray-Ray Armstrong (6-4, 230, Soph.). He's a bit inconsistent but should probably starter over Nicolas. At FS is 7 Vaughn Telemaque (6-2, 207, Soph.). Miami said he was the next Sean Taylor, and while that's ridiculous, he is a good college safety.

Strategy

One thing that I noticed Ohio State doing well was creating mismatches and opportune situations through their formations. A popular formation that the Buckeyes used against Miami incorporated three eligible receivers--one of them was almost always the tight end--to one side of the formation and a lone receiver on the other. This forced Miami into some combination coverages. OSU took advantage of this by running off the lone receiver (and subsequently the man covering him), getting the inside eligible receiver (the TE) outside and running the slot man across the formation. This simple concept resulted in quite a few easy yards for the Buckeyes off the crossing route.

Also (as always) FSU will need to be able to line up and run the football against what is likely the best defensive line it will face all year (including Oklahoma, Clemson, and UF). Ohio State had success running the ball with its quarterback. If FSU can establish itself on the ground and be smart in its playcalling, the Noles can be successful on offense. That's much easier said than done, however.

This is the type of game where FSU needs to line up and run the heck out of Christian Ponder.  He is a tremendous runner and scrambler.  Fisher should run him into the ground unless Miami is clearly over-committing resources to account for his legs (in that case hit Miami in the vacated areas by doing something other than running Ponder).  I am not at all confident that FSU can block Miami's defensive front after the last few weeks, but I am confident that FSU won't get shut out because it has Ponder and Fisher has had to scheme around offensive line troubles before (see 2008).  

The 'Noles need to shorten the game by running clock.  A game that features 75 plays a side favors Miami.  One featuring 60 plays a side would help FSU.  I don't think FSU's offensive line will be decimated by Miami's defensive front, but I don't expect tremendous success given the group's health issues.  I see FSU running 65 plays for 325 yards, which is 5 per play.  Thats seems low, but this is an elite defense that held Terrell Pryor to 5.8 per play and Clemson to 4.6 per play, both on the road!  

The bottom line is that Miami has been building to this point for four years, while FSU is in year one of rebuilding. Miami has more talent in its starters than FSU. Its defense is better than Florida State's offense. The Cane's offense is better than the 'Nole's defense.  The advantages aren't enormous, but they add up.  FSU can win this game, but it just isn't likely to and doesn't look to be the better team thus far.  I give FSU slightly better than a 1-in-3 shot to win this game (37.5%) and see a 28-20 Canes win.   

Historical Note:  I have now published Tomahawk for 31 games.  In that time I have predicted FSU to lose 5 times (2010 Oklahoma, 2009 UF, 2009 Clemson, 2009 Wake - Manuel's first start, and 2008 UF).  FSU has lost 4 of those 5 times.  This will only be the 6th time in Tomahawk history that I am predicting an FSU loss, and I am still giving FSU a 1-in-3 chance to win.  

 

I wrote this for EyeOfTheHurricane.  I hope it rings true now:

Florida State had a 16-16 conference record over the last 4 years. It lost 20 games over the last 4 years. Last year FSU had the 7th worst major-conference defense! After not even winning its own division in the ACC in the last 4 years, it was time for a change. Fisher's offense has been very good for two years (last year was the best since Phillip Rivers' NCST team or Chris Weinke's 2000 team), not to mention all the mental and physical changes Fisher has made, or of the huge boost in recruiting Fisher and the new staff have brought. FSU had a coach who couldn't name his players and had no idea what was going on. It was one of the worst coaching staffs in the country. Three of the fired coaches aren't even working now, another took a huge demotion to work at West Georgia, and one landed at Colorado State. Those new destinations should tell you a lot about the quality of coaching Florida State had.

Basically, the Noles had a long way to go.

I think this team is an 8-4 or 9-3 team, and the difference between those two probably hinges on this game. My goals for the season were for FSU to win the games this team should win (don't lose to teams who have significantly less talent) and to be in a position to win or tie for the Atlantic Division. Miami is in year four of rebuilding while Fisher and Co. just got the keys to Tallahassee. Miami out-recruited FSU badly in 2007 and 2008, and while it is true that FSU & UF are relegating the Canes to the clear #3 in terms of recruiting in state, it is also true that those 2007 and 2008 Miami recruits are quite talented and have been developed over a few years. Simply put, Miami's talent is found in its upperclassmen, while FSU's talent (aside from a few guys) is found in its young guys. For 2011 and beyond I think even Miami fans would swap rosters with Florida State, but this year the Canes have the better players. Knowing that, this isn't a game I expected FSU to win going into the season, it isn't a game I expect to win now, and while the rivalry is always important, this particular meeting is not really all that important to FSU's 2010 year.

FSU's goals of changing the attitude inside the program, fielding a competent defense after the abomination that was 2009, beating the teams it should definitely beat, having back to back excellent recruiting classes, and winning the division are still very much within reach. FSU's schedule finishes like this at UM, BC, at NC St, UNC, Clem, at MD, and UF. I see the 'Noles going 4-3 or 5-2 through that stretch. In the past, FSU would have lost to a team like BYU, Wake Forest, Virginia, or Maryland. As coach Fisher says, if you get the process right, the results will come. Given the very impressive changes to the program that have already taken place and the newfound foothold in South Florida recruiting, I am confident those results will come.

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