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.