University of Miami

Hurricanes defense ready for ‘tremendous challenge’ against FSU

UM defenders take down FSU quarterback Jameis Winston at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida, Nov. 2, 2013.
UM defenders take down FSU quarterback Jameis Winston at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida, Nov. 2, 2013. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

They’ve had two weeks to prepare.

They’ve broken down game film from last year’s 41-14 loss in Tallahassee, combed over each of Florida State’s nine wins, and studied when they themselves have been at their worst and their best.

Ready or not, the Miami Hurricanes (6-3, 3-2 ACC) are heading toward their toughest defensive test of the season Saturday night against Jameis Winston and company with an elevated state of confidence. To UM, the next step on defense will be forward, not backward.

“We don’t feel we can be stopped,” said linebacker Raphael Kirby, one of a handful of players defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio and coach Al Golden have credited with helping Miami’s defense improve from 66th in scoring (26.8), 78th against the run (176.54 yards per game) and 90th in total defense (426.4) last year to 26th in scoring (21.9), 31st in rushing (131.89) and 11th in total defense (312.4) through nine games.

“They’re a high-powered offense, but I feel like we’re a great defense,” Kirby continued. “In a game like this everybody has to do their job from start to finish, come out swinging and end swinging. There’s no in-between. If everybody comes out and does their job, plays together and executes the calls coach D makes – it’s going to be a tremendous challenge – but at the same time we’re going to play well.”

Defensive end Tyriq McCord said the Canes felt like they did that last year in Tallahassee for a half. Then, he said, they came unglued in the third quarter when players went out and tried to make too many plays on their own instead of sticking with the scheme. That’s been a common theme, players said, in losses at Nebraska, Georgia Tech and Louisville. D’Onofrio, though, said he thinks “that’s something we’re beyond now.”

“We just have to stick to the script and keep doing what we’ve been doing over the last three games,” said junior Michael Wyche, who has has played more and provided some much needed depth at defensive tackle for UM as his conditioning has improved over the past month. “We’re a heck of a lot better when we do that.”

D’Onofrio said his players “deserve some credit” for what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past three games (eight turnovers, 18 points per game), and the overall improvement. But it’s likely nobody on UM’s defense will receive much love from the fan base unless they show up Saturday against a proven winner in Winston.

D’Onofrio said FSU’s offense “doesn’t really have a weakness” as far as he can see. Although Winston’s numbers (2,540 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs) aren’t early as good as when he led the country in quarterback efficiency last year (4,056 yards, 40 TDs, 10 INTs), D’Onofrio said FSU’s QB has improved, evidenced by how he’s been able to rally FSU late in games (69.8 completion pct., 1,357 yards, 9 TDs, 3 INTs in second half this season).

“They play until there’s nothing but zeroes left up there and we’re going to have to be able to do the same,” he said.

Truth is, though, this Seminoles offense isn’t as finely tuned a machine as it was a year ago.

FSU is averaging more than a yard and a half less a carry (5.63 in 2013 compared to 4.03 in 2014) than they did last year and rank 104th in rushing.

FSU’s offensive line, which has 148 combined starts between them, including three players (left tackle Cameron Irving, left guard Josue Matias, right guard Tre’ Jackson) expected to be high draft picks, has allowed 19 sacks and 20 quarterback hurries (they allowed 10 all of last year). FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said Winston was hit eight times in last week’s win against Virginia.

UM had a season-high six sacks in their win two weeks ago against North Carolina. Last year, UM had no quarterback hurries on Winston and just one sack on a safety blitz. Winston beat UM with his legs (6 carries, 33 yards) as much as his arm (he finished 21 of 29, 325 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT). A 19-yard scramble by Winston on third-and-12 kept FSU’s opening drive alive. It ended with a touchdown. Winston also completed seven passes for 20 yards or more in the game.

D’Onofrio says what he is most proud of is how the Canes have cut down on giving up big plays this season. The Canes have given up the second-fewest plays of 20 yards or more in the country (23). Last year, UM’s defense gave up 141 pass plays of 10 yards or more (119th-fewest) and 46 pass plays of 20 yards or more (92nd-fewest). This year, UM has surrendered just 69 pass plays of 10 yards or more (23rd-fewest) and 19 pass plays of 20 yards or more (ninth-fewest).

Still, Winston – and a talented group of FSU receivers led by former St. Thomas Aquinas standout Rashad Greene – will be the best passing offense UM has faced to this point.

“I just feel we have to take it one play at a time,” said Nantambu Fentress, a former walk-on turned starting safety who has made five consecutive starts for UM. “Let’s make a memory.”

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