We're very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team-specific blogs to work with during game weeks. This week, Jerry Steinberg of Miami's SB Nation blog, State Of The U, joins us to talk Brad Kaaya, Duke Johnson, and what the 'Canes must do to defeat the slight-favorite Seminoles on Saturday night.
TN: The Canes sit at 6-3 (3-2) and are playing much improved football of late. What were your expectations for the 2014 season coming into the year, and what are they for the rest of it?
SOTU: Coming in to 2014 I expected the 'Canes to finally get over the hump and win the ACC Coastal Division. Going forward, that remains my hope if not my expectation, as UM will need some help and at least one more loss from Duke/Georgia Tech. But even if the division title is unattainable I expect Miami to continue their improved play, starting this weekend Vs FSU. The bottom line (winning) is important, but making strides toward being Nationally relevant again starts with better play in big games. The program can not afford another stinker against the Noles. If they can not beat, or at minimum push, what appears to be a somewhat vulnerable Seminoles squad it will seriously damage the confidence of the program and potentially hamper recruiting as well.
TN: Freshman Brad Kaaya certainly has all the physical tools needed to be an elite QB, and has continued to improve during his freshman campaign. What are his strengths and weaknesses, and what will he need to do to have success against FSU?
SOTU: Kaaya just keeps getting better and better. Among his many strengths are his poise, accuracy, foot work within the pocket, and arm strength. His is not too nimble as a scrambler, and earlier in the year threw a couple of picks when under duress. But as a whole his strengths far outweigh his weaknesses, and any 'Cane fan will tell you he has surpassed any and all expectations as a true freshman starting QB. Against FSU, he needs to avoid turning the ball over and trying to do too much when the look isn't there. If he continues to get the ball to his playmakers out in space, and his O line protects him consistently, he should be in for a big game.
TN: Duke Johnson is arguably the best back in the country. How successful do you think he and the Miami offensive line can be against FSU if the 'Noles decide to load the box and try to make Kaaya beat them? Is this how you would try to defend the Hurricanes?
SOTU: That is the key question of the game. Can FSU stop or slow down Johnson? Well, Miami has faced a few loaded boxes of late, (albeit not ones with as much talent up front as the Seminoles) and they have still run the ball successfully. There are two reasons for that. First of all Duke is going to make the first man miss and/or run through his tackle via stiff arm or brute strength more often than not. But second, and even more importantly, he is getting outstanding blocking from more than just the "big uglies." Sure Shane McDermott, Nick Linder, Ereck Flowers (when healthy) and the big O line are performing extremely well. But TEs Clive Walford and Stan Dobard are also blocking better than they ever have. Walter Tucker has emerged as an outstanding blocking FB. And WRs like Phillip Dorsett and even Stacy Coley are throwing key blocks down field. Because everyone on Miami's offense is playing unselfishly and effectively, the run game is really tough to stop right now. But if I were go against them I would absolutely load the box. Given the choice of putting my emphasis on the All-Time UM leader in yards from scrimmage and soon to be All-Time rushing leader, or a freshman QB (even one who is playing well), my focus would be on slowing Johnson.
TN: The Miami defense is much improved from a year ago, checking in at 21st by F/+ as of last week. What have been the causes of this improvement?
SOTU: In words of the immortal Vince Lombardi, "Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist but football is only two things - blocking and tackling." The Hurricanes are doing those two things better than at any point in the Al Golden era. I think the coaching staff is doing a better job of being aggressive as well, especially on defense. But to me it boils down to protecting Brad Kaaya, opening holes for Duke Johnson, and getting off the field on third downs by wrapping up the ball carrier. Simple as that.
TN: Which match-ups are you particularly confident in when Miami is on defense against FSU? Which worry you?
SOTU: Honestly I can't say I am overwhelmingly confident in any match-up Vs FSU's offense. I know they have struggled and Jameis Winston already has more INTs this season than all of last. I hope UM can force a few more. I like Denzel Perryman in any one on one situation he faces in any game. But I am fully aware of how explosive the Noles can be. I hate Miami's S's or LB's in coverage against Nick O'Leary. I like how Corn Elder and Artie Burns are playing from the CB spot, but I fear neither can match-up well with Rashad Greene (who can?). More than anything I fear facing Winston and the Noles if Miami gets the lead. Because the defending Heisman winner really seems to ratchet up his play when things get hottest.
TN: How have Miami's special teams fared to date?
SOTU: Mediocre thus far. Outside of a crucial kick return TD surrendered Vs Louisville, they coverage units haven't been terrible. But Miami's return game has yet to break one of their own. PK Michael Badgley has a strong leg, but has missed 3 XPs (a couple blocked to be fair). And P Justin Vogel has been effective. Overall this unit hasn't been terrible, but hasn't been fantastic either.
TN: We and the rest of the Internet give Miami a lot of grief for its game day atmosphere. In all seriousness, what time of environment are you expecting at Sun Life stadium on Saturday night?
SOTU: Raucous. It's going to be a sell out. And yes there will be a nice turn out from Seminoles fans. But this is the one game of the year, even with out that factored in, that seats are guaranteed to be hard to come by. To my understanding the gates open for tailgating at Noon and this is an 8PM game. That should make things especially "colorful."
TN: Finally, give us a prediction. Do the Canes stop the streak and upset the 2.5-point opening line favorite Seminoles?
SOTU: I am trying to look at the game as objectively as possible. Yes FSU is a little off this year. And yes Miami has elevated their play the past few weeks. It's funny, if you asked me the same after Nebraska or Georgia Tech there is no way I would have picked the 'Canes to win. Rivalry aside I have the utmost respect for what Florida State is doing on the field. 25 game winning streaks don't happen with out intestinal fortitude as well as talent. But I have to say, they have gotten a few breaks along the way. Something tells me that their "luck" runs out. The Hurricanes get all the bounces and pull off the "minor" upset in a 34-31 win. It should fun come Saturday Night.
Big thanks to Jerry for his insight! Be sure to head over to State Of The U for all things Miami.