Clemson tried blitzing and then dropping eight players into coverage.
Nevada went with a ball-control approach, anything to try to keep Jameis Winston and Florida State’s offense off the field.
Through seven games nothing has worked in slowing the third-ranked Seminoles (7-0, 5-0) down. Not even a little.
“It’s hard to find anyone that’s had a lot of success against them,’’ said Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, who has the task Saturday night of trying to solve an FSU offense averaging 52.6 points per game (third in the FBS), has the nation’s second-most efficient passer in Winston (207.0 rating) and ranks fourth in total offense (553.7 yards per game).
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“They’re averaging I don’t know how many yards per play (11.33, second behind only Baylor) and really spreading the ball around, not turning the ball over. You just keep battling, try to make it about our guys executing and doing their job and let the chips fall where they may.’’
Last season, it would have been preposterous to think D’Onofrio and UM’s defense would have any shot of slowing the redshirt freshman Winston (6-4, 228 pounds) and FSU’s offense down. UM (7-0, 3-0 ACC) was torched by its three ranked opponents last season. The Hurricanes gave up an average of 42 points and 510 yards a game in those three lopsided losses.
But this year’s defense, deeper, bigger and more mature, has earned a reputation for being a lot more bend than bust. The Hurricanes rank 10th in team passing-efficiency defense (104.77), 11th in scoring defense (17.7 points per game), 18th in total defense (342.3 yards per game) and 39th against the run (141.7).
A nonexistent pass rush (13 sacks in 2012) has been replaced by a collection of 13 players who have combined for 22 sacks (11th most in the nation). Where the Canes have earned their money, though, has really been third down defense (15th, 0.315 percent), red-zone defense (tied for 23rd, 0.750) and turnovers (19, UM had 22 all of last year).
But the challenge Saturday night at Doak Campbell Stadium is on another level.
For starters, the next best quarterback UM has faced thus far is North Carolina’s Bryn Renner, who completed 78 percent of his passes for 297 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Canes. Renner ranks 45th in the country in passer efficiency.
“I’ve faced a lot of good players, but he’s one of the best,’’ Hurricanes linebacker and leading tackler Denzel Perryman said. “As big as he is, the things he can do, if we keep him in the pocket, he can hit the deep ball and then the check-down routes.
“If we chase him out of the pocket, he has the ability to run and look back up field to wide receivers. It’s really impressive. Even when he’s been under the pressure, he’s been able to make plays."
Of his 444 yards passing against Clemson, Winston threw for 293 on blitzes. A total of 52 percent of his passes go for first downs, 30 percent for 15 yards or more and 12.6 percent of his passes go for touchdowns. So is extra pressure the way to rattle him or is sitting back in coverage the best?
“I don’t think you can go one way or the other,’’ D’Onofrio said. “You have to pick your spots and mix it up and try to get him off of rhythm, but so far nobody has been able to do that.’’
As D’Onofrio pointed out, Winston has weapons all over the field to throw to. FSU receivers Rashad Greene (39 catches, 690 yards, 8 TDs), Kenny Shaw (31-574-3), Kelvin Benjamin (230-430-5) and tight end Nick O’Leary (17-307-6) are all averaging near or above an eye-opening 18 yards per catch.
“They’re fast. They got good hands. We’ve just got to keep everything in front of us and tackle them when they catch it,’’ Canes cornerback Ladarius Gunter said. “Our mentality is do your job. If everybody does their [job], we’ll come out victorious.’’
As much attention as Winston and his receivers get, FSU’s running game can’t be ignored. The Seminoles are averaging 212.3 yards a game on the ground (25th nationally and one spot behind UM). Tailback Devonta Freeman, a Miami Central grad, leads the Seminoles with 561 yards.
“He’s more physical than led to believe by his size,’’ UM linebacker Jimmy Gaines said. “Of course he’s shifty and fast. But at the same time he really fights on contact. We’ve got to make sure we wrap up and get him down.’’
The Hurricanes, 22-point underdogs, have stayed away from providing FSU any bulletin-board material this week, saying their treating this game like another. But using any bit of extra motivation to try to raise their level of play this week might not be a bad idea.
“It’s not too difficult if you don’t say [anything],’’ Gaines said of avoiding trash talk. “We’ll let our pads do the talking when we get on the field.’’