The University of Miami football team relied so disproportionately on quarterback Brad Kaaya last year that it often seemed the weight of the entire season was wrapped up in the sinew of his right arm.
Under coach Mark Richt, the Hurricanes are relying on what was an underutilized part of the team’s anatomy — the running backs’ legs. Opponents are now faced with the triple threat of Mark Walton and Joe Yearby on the ground, plus Kaaya and his receiving corps through the air.
In Saturday’s 8 p.m. showdown between rivals UM and Florida State at Hard Rock Stadium, expect the teams’ prolific running backs to try to establish a rhythm with the rushing game, allowing quarterbacks Kaaya and Deondre Francois to throw with more discretion and precision, the same way a boxer weakens his foe with body blows before delivering the knockout punch to the head.
Florida State’s man with the moves is Miami’s own Dalvin Cook, who ranks fifth in the nation in rushing yards with 635 in the Seminoles’ 20th-ranked rushing offense. Recall that Cook scored a total of five touchdowns against UM in the teams’ last two meetings, including the game-winning 26-yard run in FSU’s 30-26 victory in 2014 and the game-winning 24-yard run in FSU’s 29-24 victory in 2015.
“Don’t let him get started,” Yearby said of Cook; they are fast friends from childhood. “Stop him before he picks up speed.”
Said Walton when asked what he would advise his teammates on defense to do against Cook: “He is so explosive you’ve got to tackle him all the way down so he can’t get up. Make sure you get him to the floor.”
Florida State’s defense, which has allowed an alarming average of 35.4 points per game (ranked 105 of 128 teams) and 191.2 rushing yards per game (ranked 92nd), would do well to apply the same strategy to Walton and Yearby, the second-most productive tandem in the ACC, behind Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Brandon Radcliff. Walton and Yearby have combined for 766 yards and 78 points, and have each scored at least one touchdown in every game this season.
In this series that usually comes down to the last few scintillating minutes — Miami leads it, 31-29, but FSU has won the last six in a row and hasn’t lost in Miami since 2004 — the running game will reveal the true identity of two defenses still trying to establish themselves. UM is starting three freshmen at linebacker and Richt has issued a gag order on them because “they don’t get it; they chirp too much; they’ve not been through the types of games they’re about to go through.”
UM leads the nation in tackles for loss and is ranked 27th in rushing defense. FSU looks to defensive end DeMarcus Walker to help compensate for the temporary loss of preseason All-American defensive back Derwin James (knee injury).
No. 10 Miami (4-0, 1-0) is favored to beat No. 23 FSU (3-2, 0-2) after the Seminoles got flattened 63-20 at Louisville and nipped 37-35 by North Carolina on a last-second 54-yard field goal.
“The game is a big deal but being ranked ahead of them is not a big deal,” Richt said.
Hurricane Matthew is expected to have left the area by Saturday night but rain and wind could affect UM’s practice plans, Richt said.
“The last time I dealt with a hurricane I was a player here and we were driving all over the state [to avoid it],” Richt said. “We came back and Coach [Howard] Schnellenberger held a four-hour practice.”
Richt and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher both learned under Bobby Bowden, who considered a strong running game to be the bedrock of any successful team.
“Every program I’ve been in ran the ball. A lot of it has to do with what I was brought up on,” Richt said. “Even during Charlie Ward’s career there were times we wanted to grind it out. When I went to Georgia I wanted to keep it physical because you don’t always have a quarterback like Charlie who can create and run like a deer.”
Richt’s run first, pass second philosophy has been a boon to Walton, who has supplanted Yearby as the No. 1 back. He is ranked in the top 20 nationally in rushing yards per game (111.3) and yards per carry (7.06) and is third in rushing touchdowns with eight. UM’s rushing offense is ranked 24th.
“Last year it was pass first but the transition to run first has opened up our passing game,” said Walton, a Booker T. Washington High graduate. “I like to get our offense going, wear them down and let Joe come in. I get a breather and he keeps the defense on its heels.”
The 5-9, 205-pound Walton describes himself as a power runner. Junior Yearby, 5-9, 200, is more elusive in the open field and is praised by offensive coordinator Thomas Brown for his vision on the field. Brown also said he’s trying to work junior Gus Edwards into the rotation more often.
“I like the new system a lot,” said Yearby, a Miami Central High grad who almost went to FSU with pal Cook. “When Mark goes in, I look and see what the defense is doing.”
Both Miami natives want to end FSU’s winning streak.
“I expect the field to be moving,” Walton said of the crowd noise. “This game means a lot to this program. We’re all smiles in the locker room right now but Saturday night it won’t be the same if we lose.”