Florida Gators: Stephen Morris

ACC enjoys big wins to start season

September, 7, 2013
9/07/13
7:22
PM ET

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The statement was made, and well, Miami simply could not contain its raw emotions, perhaps because this was all so new.

Al Golden sprinted across the field with 4.4 40 speed to shake Will Muschamp’s hand. His players gathered en mass in one corner of the end zone to celebrate with fans then sprinted across the field to the end zone on the other end of the field to celebrate some more.

In between it all, an inflatable alligator float lay deflating on the field, its snout taped shut.

“We’ve been through so much,” Golden said after his team’s 21-16 win over No. 12 Florida on Saturday afternoon. “It was almost cathartic, to be honest with you. It was just 26 months unleashed there.”

Miami, trying to take baby steps back to the top, had not been able to win a big game like this under Golden. The spotlight shined on the Canes last season in games against nationally ranked Kansas State, then unbeaten Notre Dame, then eventual ACC champ Florida State. Each time, Miami wilted or failed to show up, its defense exposed as a major liability, its toughness questioned.

Everybody inside the program knew it needed this win. But the Hurricanes were not the only ones who needed it badly. So did the ACC.

The league made a statement in Week 1 with Clemson beating Georgia, vaulting the Tigers to No. 4 in the rankings. Another win against a marquee team would send ACC officials dancing from press box tables. Especially a win from Miami -- a program that has underwhelmed despite the expectation it would enhance the league’s reputation when it joined in 2004.

The Gators went in favored and seemingly had the edge up front. Miami players heard all the talk and got more motivated, developing the proverbial and cliché chip on their shoulders. They didn’t need coaches preaching all week that they needed to be the more physical team. They knew.

They also knew this game meant more than suiting up against Florida Atlantic.

As linebacker Tyriq McCord said afterward, he came to Miami to play against a team like the Gators, to have the national stage, the national spotlight, a chance to begin Miami on its road back to a championship.

With a fired-up crowd filling Sun Life Stadium, the two rivals battled gamely in the final scheduled regular-season matchup between them.

Miami matched Florida hit for hit. For once, this team could believe in its defense. Florida racked up yards and first downs and owned time of possession but could not put points on the board. Because Miami was there to make the crucial play, time and again.

Florida turned the ball over four times inside Miami territory -- three times inside the red zone. The Canes had a crucial stand on fourth-and-inches from the Miami 16 in the second quarter. Florida kept driving, and Miami kept caving just a little bit. But the Canes refused to be broken.

Meanwhile, the Miami offense struggled for most of the game against the ferocious Florida front, a group quarterback Stephen Morris called “the best defensive line I’ve ever seen.”

[+] EnlargeMiami coach Al Golden and the Hurricanes beat Florida 21-16 on Saturday in their final scheduled regular-season matchup.
Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald via Getty ImagesMiami coach Al Golden and the Hurricanes beat Florida 21-16 on Saturday in their final scheduled regular-season matchup.
Morris and running back Duke Johnson are the two best players on the Miami roster. But improbably, it was the much maligned Miami defense that won the game for the Hurricanes.

“Without trust, you don’t have anything,” Miami cornerback Tracy Howard said. “If you make plays, you can talk. Trust is a big thing. The offense trusts the defense. The defense trusts the offense.”

Perhaps as improbably, the ACC went 2-2 against the SEC to open the season. North Carolina and Virginia Tech, the two teams that lost to SEC competition last week, rebounded with wins Saturday the way everybody expected against far inferior competition. Virginia did not have the same success against No. 2 Oregon on Saturday.

But the focus for the first two weeks was on the big headliners against the SEC, a conference that has owned the ACC on the field and the recruiting trail. Every single ACC team went in as the underdog, including the Tigers and Canes at home.

Many believed Clemson and Miami had the best shot at pulling the upsets. In the end, what stood out in both victories was the way they won -- with an aggressiveness and physicality that most folks associate with the SEC.

The ACC essentially out-SEC’d its conference rival in both wins. Some 755 miles to the north in Clemson, coach Dabo Swinney noticed. He ended his postgame comments after Clemson’s 52-13 win over South Carolina State by saying, “How about that ACC? Spunky little old league."

He flashed "The U" sign and walked out of the room.

Swinney has reason to brag. The ACC won only two games over ranked nonconference teams in each of the past three seasons. In just two weeks, the ACC has matched that win total. Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman put it bluntly when asked what the league’s 2-2 mark over the SEC meant:

“We ain’t no cupcake league,” Perryman said.

Two big wins in two weeks does not completely change perception, but it’s a start. The ACC should have three teams ranked in the Top 25 come Sunday. Miami has a shot to start 4-0 before a tough ACC game against Georgia Tech on Oct. 5. Florida State and Clemson also have a shot at being undefeated when they play each other Oct. 19.

As much as Golden wanted to sound a word of caution, saying this was only one game and only one win, a giddy McCord could not hold back.

“We’re back,” McCord said. "That’s all I can say. We’re back."

It appears the ACC is too.
No. 12 Florida went bare bones against Toledo in the season opener this past weekend, and not just because of its handful of players suspended for the game. The Gators knew they'd win easily, so why show their hand with an important trip to Miami the following week? If the Hurricanes were looking for something to game-plan for, it wasn't going to be found in the tape against Toledo. UF coach Will Muschamp didn't give anything away, going vanilla on offense and a flavor closer to cardboard on defense.

The 24-6 win over the Rockets lacked the panache many fans were hoping for, but that was by design. All in all, the game was a victory for the coaching staff: Jeff Driskel was decisive under center, completing 17 of 22 passes with no interceptions; the running game was effective in spite of Matt Jones' absence; quality depth emerged on both sides of the football; and the defense did its job against a high-paced Toledo offense, limiting the Rockets to 3.8 yards per play and no touchdowns.

Against the Hurricanes, the Gators will have to do more. Playing vanilla worked in Week 1, but it won't in Week 2. Miami might be unranked in the AP poll, but coach Al Golden has his team knocking at the door.

"Certainly they know it's an important game for the University of Florida," Muschamp said on Wednesday, speaking to the rivalry between the two in-state schools. "We talk about it all the time. Our players understand the importance of the game. ... Any time they play against guys they know and are familiar with, it's obviously very important."

Miami will test Florida's ability to stop the run on Saturday with its stout, veteran offensive line and a tailback many consider to be among the best sophomores at his position. Duke Johnson, a first-team All-ACC choice this preseason, was third in the conference in rushing last year with 947 yards on the ground. He'll have a slew of talented linemen blocking ahead of him with Brandon Linder, Malcolm Bunche and Seantrel Henderson clearing the way.

"You have to be disciplined in your gaps," Muschamp explained. "He is a guy that can take the ball anywhere. They do a nice job of showing the stretch look and him cutting the ball back and heading north and south.

"He is an extremely tough and competitive guy. We recruited him. ... He catches the ball well, he protects. He's a complete back."

Florida should feel confident on defense, though, with as talented and deep a group of athletes as any in the SEC. Getting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison back from suspension should help slow Johnson. And cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy will return from his one-game suspension to give the Gators an anchor in the secondary against Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, whose 160 passing yards against FAU in the season opener put him over the 5,000-yard mark for his career.

Rather, what the Gators do on offense could determine the outcome of this game. All offseason we've heard how offensive coordinator Brent Pease would open up the playbook and bring more production to Florida's attack. Against Miami, we'll get to see if those words can be put into action.

Florida has the skill and depth at running back to control the tempo with Jones healthy once again and Mack Brown helping shoulder the load. But Driskel, who is now into his second year starting in the system, must make smart decisions with the football. He fumbled the ball twice against Toledo and has a history of poor pocket awareness. He can a Miami defense that had five sacks in its opener to come at him ready to knock the ball loose on Saturday.

"We're going to miss a block here and there," Driskel told reporters in Gainesville this week, "but I have to take care of the ball."

In a rivalry games like this, turnovers are everything. Limiting takeaways and sustaining momentum will be vital for Florida to walk away with a win. If the Gators try to do too much and give the ball away, the results could be disastrous.
It’s Rankings Week at GatorNation. Every day we’ll rank some aspect of the Florida football program heading into the 2013 season. Today we’re ranking the top 10 offensive players the Gators will face this season. On Wednesday we’ll rank the top 10 defensive players Florida will face in the fall.

Ranking the offensive players

1. QB Aaron Murray (Georgia): Murray led the SEC in passing yards (3,893) and touchdown passes (36) and guided the Bulldogs to a school-record 529 points. He’s got plenty of weapons around him, so similar numbers in 2013 wouldn’t be out of the question. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder hasn’t always played well against Florida, but he has won back-to-back games against the Gators. The last time Georgia beat Florida in consecutive seasons was 1987-89.

[+] EnlargeD. J. Swearinger andJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireCovering Jordan Matthews (left) has been a chore for Gators defensive backs the past two seasons.
2. WR Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt): Matthews led the SEC in receptions (94) and finished second in receiving yards (1,323) last season. He had Jordan Rodgers throwing to him last season -- which won't happen in 2013 -- but he is still one of the league’s most dangerous players. The 6-3, 205-pound Matthews is so high on this list because he has absolutely owned Florida in the past two meetings, catching eight passes for 131 yards and one touchdown last season and nine passes for 170 yards and one touchdown in 2011.

3. RB Todd Gurley (Georgia): Gurley finished second in the SEC in rushing (1,385 yards) and rushing touchdowns (17) last season as a freshman. The 6-1, 218-pound Gurley has the power to run inside and breakaway speed. The combination of him and fellow sophomore back Keith Marshall (759 yards last season) -- Bulldogs fans have nicknamed the combo Gurshall -- gives Georgia perhaps the best backfield tandem in the SEC.

4. QB Stephen Morris (Miami): Morris threw for 3345 yards and 21 touchdowns with only seven interceptions last season. He should be even better in 2013 with the addition of new offensive coordinator James Coley. Morris threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns in the Hurricanes’ spring game and the offense hummed along better than it did much of last season.

5. RB Duke Johnson (Miami): Johnson ran for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and picked up right where he left off by gaining 120 yards on only 10 carries in Miami's spring game. The 5-9, 183-pound Johnson never carried the ball more than 16 times a game last season but he’s going to get more work in 2013.

6. RB Henry Josey (Missouri): He was one of the Big 12’s best players in 2011 before a devastating knee injury forced him to miss the last year-and-a-half. The 5-10, 190-pound Josey ran for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns before his injury and is capable of putting up similar numbers now that he’s completely healthy.

7. WR Rashad Greene (FSU): Greene caught 57 passes for 741 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore. He also flashed some big-play ability, too. Having a dependable target that can turn a short pass into a long gain or get deep and make a big play will be a huge help to new quarterback Jameis Winston.


8. WR Odell Beckham (LSU): Beckham was LSU’s between-the-20s big-play receiver in 2012, averaging 16.6 yards per catch. He caught 43 passes for 713 yards but only two touchdowns (Jarvis Landry led the Tigers with five TD catches). New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron likes to throw the ball down the field, which should mean bigger numbers for the 5-11, 183-pound Beckham.

9. WR Bruce Ellington (South Carolina): Ellington wasn’t the dual-threat that many thought he’d be, but he did lead the Gamecocks with 600 yards receiving last season -- 69 more than Ace Sanders, a fourth-round draft pick. He averaged 15.0 yards per catch and should be the Gamecocks’ top weapon in the passing game.

10. WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Missouri): Green-Beckham was the nation’s top recruit in 2012 and finished his freshman season with 28 catches for 395 yards. He did catch five touchdown passes though, meaning that roughly one out of every six catches went for a TD. He’s got the size (6-6, 220 pounds), speed, and athleticism to be one of the country’s top receivers.
It’s Rankings Week at GatorNation. Every day we’ll rank some aspect of the Florida football program heading into the 2013 season. Today we’re ranking the Football Bowl Subdivision teams on the Gators’ schedule. On Tuesday we’ll rank the top 10 offensive players Florida will face in the fall.

Ranking the schedule

1. Georgia (Nov. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.): Sure, the Bulldogs lost nine starters on defense, but Aaron Murray, Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley are coming back, and that makes them one of the SEC’s best teams. Georgia scored a school-record 529 points last season behind those three, and the offense figures to be explosive again in 2013. It’ll need to be to carry a rebuilt defense.

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SEC SCOREBOARD

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