The Gators are three-point favorites heading into Saturday’s showdown with the Hurricanes. It’s going to be a crazy and emotional atmosphere for the fans, who know this is probably the last time the teams will meet in the regular season. A look at who has the edge coming into the game.
WHEN THE HURRICANES RUN THE BALL
As dazzling and explosive as sophomore Duke Johnson has been since he arrived (he put up a career-high 186 yards last week against FAU), he has yet to have to shoulder a load bigger than 19 carries in a game, and he has yet to deliver against top-end opponents. Last season against Miami’s three ranked opponents (Notre Dame, Kansas State and Florida State) Johnson combined for 68 yards on 23 attempts (2.96 yards per carry) without a touchdown. Johnson said he trained all offseason, got bigger and stronger for a game like Saturday’s. Florida returns only three starters from last season’s top five scoring and run defense, but still has
15 players back from its two-deep roster at the end of the 2012 season. The Gators, whose longest run allowed in 2012 was
25 yards, held Toledo to only 50 yards total on the ground in their opener. Florida held seven teams to less than 100 yards rushing last season and are 17-2 under coach Will Muschamp when they outgain their opponents on the ground, but 2-6 when they lose the rushing battle. This is a huge test for Johnson and Miami’s formidable offensive line.
WHEN THE HURRICANES PASS THE BALL
As hot as Canes quarterback Stephen Morris finished last season, he really didn’t put up great performances against Miami’s toughest foes, throwing for only 639 combined yards, one touchdown and one interception against UM’s ranked opponents in 2012. He was also sacked nine times combined in those three games compared with seven the rest of the season. Florida’s pass defense ranked second nationally in efficiency in 2012, allowing a mere 5.63 yards per passing attempt (fourth best). Creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks is a big key to Florida’s defensive success. They racked up 30 sacks last year and forced 13 fumbles. They also picked off 20 passes (seventh nationally). Junior cornerback Marcus Roberson (Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas) finished third in the Southeastern Conference with 14 pass breakups a year ago. He will be blanketing Miami’s 2012 leading receiver Phillip Dorsett, his former high school teammate at St. Thomas, a lot in one-on-one coverage. Whoever wins the battle probably leads their team to victory.
WHEN THE GATORS RUN THE BALL
Florida improved to 13-0 under Muschamp last week when rushing for 150 yards or more. When the Gators don’t run for 150 yards, they are 6-8 under Muschamp. Key to the game, anyone? Good starts (the Gators are 4-7 when they are tied or trail at the half under Muschamp) and time of possession are also important for Florida’s success. Playmaking sophomore tailback Matt Jones (6-2, 226 pounds) likely returns from a viral infection this week to start, but his backups did a fine job against Toledo last week as Mack Brown (5-11, 215), Valdez Showers (5-11, 190), Mark Herndon (5-9, 198) and freshman Kelvin Taylor (5-10, 214) combined for 218 of Florida’s 262 rushing yards. Although UF’s offensive line returns 89 career starts, right guard Jon Halapio (6-3, 320, 33 career starts) won’t play against the Hurricanes as he is still recovering from an injury. That’s good news considering UM had one of the worst run defenses in the country last year (217.92 yards per game). The Canes are supposed to be bigger, stronger, deeper and better up front. They held FAU to only
3.1 yards a carry last week. But this is the measuring stick to see if this defense is physically ready for a heavyweight fight.
WHEN THE GATORS PASS THE BALL
Florida ranked 114th in passing last season, producing a mere 27 pass plays of 20 yards or more. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, UF’s second-leading rusher in 2012, completed a career-high 77.3 percent of his passes in the opening win against Toledo. But he only threw for 153 yards. That’s efficient, not dangerous. That means the Hurricanes, led by Denzel Perryman, Anthony Chickillo and Jimmy Gaines, can zero in on stopping the run and the short passing game. UM’s five sacks last week were also an encouraging sign, though defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofro said only one of those sacks came as the result of a pressure from fewer than five pass rushers. He would like to be able to do it with four-man fronts so he doesn’t put extra strain on his secondary.
Florida punter Kyle Chirsty, a finalist for the Ray Guy Award in 2012, averaged 45.8 yards per kick last season. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin went 1 for 2 on field-goal attempts in his debut last week against Toledo (he missed from 39 yards) as he attempts to replace Caleb Sturgis, the Dolphins’ new kicker. Roberson had four punt returns for 72 yards against Toledo, tied for the eighth-best average in the nation. Florida has blocked 12 kicks during Muschamp’s 27-game tenure as coach, including four field goals last year. Duke Johnson, one of the nation’s premier kick and punt returners last season, didn’t handle any special teams work in the opener against FAU. Will he this week? We’ll see. Dorsett, Dallas Crawford and Stacy Coley handled all returns against FAU. UM probably has the advantage in the kicking game. Punter Pat O’Donnell, a transfer from Cincinnati, has a strong track record (44.8 average against FAU), and new kicker Matt Goudis drilled both of his field-goal attempts last week.
UM coach Al Golden and his counterpart Muschamp took over two entirely different programs at the same time in December 2010. Golden has had to deal with an NCAA investigation and rebuilding a program that was on a downward trend; Muschamp inherited an 8-4 program that simply needed a little retooling and still had momentum from 2006 and 2008 national championships. That being said, Florida has a track record that it shows up more often in big games and in crunch time. The Gators beat seven bowl-eligible teams against the nation’s toughest schedule in 2012, according to the NCAA, and was 7-2 against bowl teams last season. UM went 0-3 in games against ranked opponents a year ago and 4-3 overall against schools that were bowl-eligible (not including a loss to North Carolina). When it comes to the fourth quarter, the Gators have the better track record. UM was outscored 113-102 in the fourth quarter last year. The Gators won the fourth quarter 128-32 in 2012. If the Canes win Saturday, they need to hold up four fingers and then prove they mean it.