Before he carried the ball a career-high 30 times and put his team on his back in the fourth quarter in last week’s win over Wake Forest, UM running back Duke Johnson was asked why he wears No. 8.
“Do you play pool?” Johnson asked the student reporter. “In pool, the eight-ball is the last man standing.”
For the seventh-ranked Hurricanes (7-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) to emerge as the last unbeaten standing in their conference after Saturday’s visit to Doak Campbell Stadium, they’re going to need Johnson to elevate his play yet again.
Despite rushing for 1,770 yards in his first 19 college games (6.8 yards a carry), the 5-9, 196-pound sophomore has yet to explode when the level of competition has been amped up. In four games against ranked opponents, Johnson has averaged just 2.9 yards a carry (127 yards on 44 attempts) and 32 yards a game in his career with his best effort — 21 carries for 59 yards and a touchdown — coming against Florida earlier this year.
Third-ranked Florida State (7-0, 5-0), which allows the fewest passing yards in the country (153.7), ranks fourth in scoring defense (13.0) and 29th in run defense (135.7), held Johnson to 27 yards on nine carries a year ago.
Miami’s most dangerous weapon, Johnson — who ranks third nationally in all-purpose yards and 11th in rushing — knows he’s going to have to put up better numbers than that for the Hurricanes, a 22-point underdog, to end FSU’s three-year winning streak in the rivalry.
“I try to approach every game the same even though this game might hold a lot more weight than your normal game,” said Johnson, named the ACC’s Offensive Back of the Week on Monday. “I try to approach every game with the same mind-set — just do what I’m told and rely on my training.
“I believe what their defense did the best [last year] was trust each other. For the D-line it was trusting the linebacker was going to fill the gap to the safeties pulling up and helping out. Everybody did their job to where there really was nowhere for me to go. Their defense is very hard to diagnose because the guys play off each other. Everybody is working to make that defense work.’’
Although UM coach Al Golden said Tuesday he expects quarterback Stephen Morris (ankle) “to have a clean bill of health by Saturday,’’ the Hurricanes have turned to Johnson and backup running back Dallas Crawford in the fourth quarter to rally them to victory in their past two games. Morris has clearly been the second option, throwing less and less.
Florida State’s defensive front lost quite a few starters from last season and has a new defensive coordinator. But the Seminoles have improved week to week and have allowed just 31 points in October, 24 of which came after they pulled their starters. Among those wins: a shutout of then-No. 25 Maryland, a blowout win at then-No. 3 Clemson and a 49-17 rout of North Carolina State.
All three of those teams run spread offenses. Miami’s pro style attack — like that of Boston College — could be more formidable against the Seminoles. FSU gave up a season-high 200 yards on the ground to the Eagles and ACC-leading rusher Andre Williams in their closest game of the season, a 48-34 win at home.
“BC, from what I watched in their film, had a really good offense and offensive line, and they had success running ball a little bit. We think we can do that, too, if our guys are communicating well,” Canes left guard Jonathan Feliciano said. “FSU’s strength is up front on their D-line. We know that. If we don’t do well, our offense won’t do well. We just have to bring it this week.”
Feliciano said FSU’s front is similar to that of the Gators, whom UM struggled against earlier this year, in terms of talent. But the Seminoles run multiple schemes — a mix of three- and four-man fronts — and “FSU has some bigger guys.
“They’re tough up front, and they have good linebackers that can run outside and are quick enough to get to the edge and make the tackle,’’ Feliciano said. “We really got our work cut out for us. I can’t wait to get in there and start doing stuff.’’
When Miami had its most success running the football in the fourth quarter of its wins at North Carolina and at home over Wake Forest, the offensive line rotation didn’t change much offensive coordinator James Coley said.
The unit UM went with: Ereck Flowers at left tackle, Feliciano at left guard, Shane McDermott at center, Jared Wheeler at right guard and Brandon Linder at right tackle.
"I guess we just kind of gelled a little better when we had to," Feliciano said. "Duke and Dallas also made great plays when we didn’t block well. I think it was just more of them doing what they do and making us look better."
With Johnson battling injuries and leaving games early a couple times this season (migraines, concussion) and also battling a few fumbles, his teammates say it was encouraging to see Johnson using his stiff arm and demanding the football in the fourth quarter last Saturday. With Crawford emerging a week before that, there’s confidence building UM could run its way to success against Florida State.
"I feel like for them, they’re just playing must faster than before," fullback Maurice Hagens said of Johnson and Crawford. "I see a different look in everybody’s eyes, really. They know this entire week its crunch time."