CORAL GABLES – For about five minutes, near silence circled Sun Life Stadium late in the third quarter of Miami’s game at Florida Atlantic.
Tailback Duke Johnson, while taking out two FAU players on wide receiver Herb Waters’ 63-yard touchdown off a reverse, stayed on the ground. Helped to the sidelines, he didn’t return.
“We’re holding our breath,” Hurricanes’ play-by-play man Joe Zagacki said.
In this age of concussions where sideline testing, baseline testing and needed precautions to sit players out for games are becoming more common, fans fretted about the potential of not having their Heisman Trophy candidate playing Saturday against Florida.
After the game, Johnson admitted he had concussion testing and “and everything came back good.”
Now he can focus on giving the Gators a headache.
For the first time since 2008, Miami and Florida will meet. Hurricanes offensive line coach Art Kehoe has followed this rivalry going back to the days of coach Walt Kichefski who called his foe “The Gator.” Kehoe labeled this “a titanic rivalry,” even though these teams will have faced each other just five times since 1988.
“We could play on Key Biscayne and get 100,000 fans,” Kehoe said.
The Hurricanes know this will be no day at the beach. But they also know they’ve got a shot. About 80,000 fans will pack Sun Life Stadium for the high noon game. Miami will put its high-powered attack against Florida’s tenacious and suffocating defense. An improved Hurricanes’ D will face a Gators’ offense that can control the ball – shown by their 39:48-20:12 advantage on Toledo – but isn’t that explosive.
“We can’t barricade our team from all the excitement in South Florida,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “It’ll be a great challenge. (Florida) played a good team in Toledo and shut them down cold.
“We’ve watched them on tape and there’s enough to get our attention. They’re deep and have speed. They get after the quarterback. On offense, they’ll pound you.”
Golden said he and his assistants “bunkered down” Saturday and Sunday after beating FAU on a Friday night. There’s nothing he likes better than extra prep time for a big-name team, even if it’s 12 to 24 hours.
What he and his assistant and players ought to do is watch how a Miami native, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, handled Florida’s physicality in the 2013 Sugar Bowl.
On the Cardinals first offensive possession, Florida linebacker Jon Bostic drew a personal foul penalty for a high hit on Bridgewater that knocked his helmet off. He got sacked again two plays later. Then, Bridgewater hit Eli Rogers for 25 yards on third-and-14. He also overcame a dropped pass to take Louisville into the end zone for a 14-0 lead on its way to a 33-23 upset.
In other words, take a punch, spit out the blood, then take a few shots.
Johnson has prepared for a beating. In games last season against Kansas State, Notre Dame and Florida State, he wasn’t at his best physically, and he had just six, eight and nine carries for 19, 22 and 27 yards. In none of those games did he have more than 13 touches.
He gained eight pounds in the offseason and is at 196 on his 5-9 frame. He took some pops in the offseason so he’d be ready for punishment when games counted. He has a goal to get at least 20 carries per game. That doesn’t include catches and returns.
“As nice as he is and great a smile as he has, he’s way tougher than anybody thinks he is,” Kehoe said. “He’s a tough guy. He’s as tough as it gets. Watch him finish runs.”
Stronger Effort Needed
Golden said Kehoe’s linemen will have to stop freelancing and remember their coaching so they can make blocks to free up Johnson.
“We abandoned technique,” he said. “We have to fall back on our training.”
The coach also wants to see a better start and better timing between Stephen Morris and his receivers. Morris’ 15-for-27 effort for 160 yards against FAU needs to improve.
On defense, Golden needs his added depth, particularly the defensive line, to challenge Florida. That helped against FAU, where Miami had five sacks and limited the Owls to 250 total yards, no 20-yard plays and no touchdowns.
“We’re trying to keep guys fresh so guys go fast every play,” defensive end Anthony Chickillo said. “Everyone got to the quarterback. We just gotta continue that.”
Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said he liked his team’s red zone play but wants more pressure when his team rushes four. Four of the five sacks came from five or more rushers.
He also wants more turnovers. Linebacker Denzel Perryman dropped an interception early in the game that would’ve been a touchdown.
The offense also had a few drops, mainly freshman Stacy Coley who admitted he had a huge case of nerves.
“There are more fans,” he said. “It is moving fast. I have to put this behind me. Now, I’m ready and I know the tempo of the college game and what to expect.”
Coley will need to be a quick learner. Saturday, the crowd will be bigger, the game faster.
This is a team game but there will be a lot of one-on-one matchups. D-linemen vs. O-line. Receivers vs. DBs. Miami has to win most of those to take the contest.
“We need to get them out of a comfort zone so they can go in another defense,” Coley said.
This is a great chance for Miami and the ACC to change the landscape of college football and take some territory from the SEC. With Clemson edging Georgia and Florida State recording an impressive win over Pittsburgh with freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, this conference could have a 1-2-3 as strong as anybody in the country.
But the Canes have to battle to the end. As Kehoe said, “When it’s 3:30 in the afternoon and it’s 120 degrees, somebody is gonna have to man up and find a way to win.”
Golden calls him by his birth name of Randy but Johnson will have to play the role of John Wayne and be The Duke. Last season, he had 11 plays of 50 yards or more and he opened with a 53-yard TD run against FAU.
With a career-high 186 yards rushing on 19 carries against FAU, Johnson leads the country. When asked about being FBS’ leading rusher, he shrugged and said, “We have bigger fish to fry.”
The Gators. The fish don’t get much bigger – or nastier – than that.