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September 5, 2008
Sunshine State rivalry gets added heat
For the second week in a row, it will be turn-back-the-clock night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
When the teams meet Saturday night in the Rivals.com Game of the Week, it will be only the third time since 1987 they've met during the regular season. The Gators are scheduled to visit the Hurricanes in 2013, and there are no plans to resume the series annually.
While players from both schools have jawed back and forth through the media this week, "I don't think it's a rivalry right now," Miami coach Randy Shannon said. "It's a rivalry within the kids in the football team. A lot of guys from this team played against a lot of guys from that team (in high school)."
Scheduling and money have played an equal role in the demise of the Florida-Miami series. Florida ended the series when the SEC expanded from six to eight league games. Now, the Hurricanes have the same conference pressures, with eight league games plus a potential conference title game. Then there's the money grab that is non-conference scheduling.
"It's kind of tough to do that for both sides," Shannon said. "It is what is."
Still, the rivalry is fresh for some players and fans.
"We're the 'U,' " Florida wide receiver Louis Murphy told reporters early this week before he was banned from speaking to the media. "I don't refer to them as the 'U.' I refer to them as Miami. If the 'U' is for university and winning championships, we're the 'U.' They are Miami, and that's what I call them."
Miami offensive tackle Jason Fox responded in kind: "They can talk whatever they want, say whatever they want, try to fuel the media. I don't know what they're trying to do. ... They're going to look pretty dumb when they come out and we stick it to them."
Relish the back-and-forth while you can. There won't be many more chances to watch these rivals – oops, teams – settle things on the field.
Wide receiver Percy Harvin, Florida's second-leading rusher last season, is expected to play after missing the opener while recovering from heel surgery. Even if he is on the sideline, Florida looks as if it is going in the right direction for finding running options. Freshman speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey had long touchdown runs against Hawaii. Then there's Tim Tebow to pick up plenty of tough yards. Florida's offensive line looks to be the best the school has had this decade. Defense is Miami's strength, especially in the front seven. End Eric Moncur should return after missing the opener with a leg injury. Miami's front seven must stymie the run for the Hurricanes to win.
This is another spot where Harvin's productivity will be closely watched, though Florida has plenty of options beyond its top receiver. Louis Murphy doesn't get the praise Harvin receives, but he's a burner who's dependable. Expect a few passes to go to tight end Aaron Hernandez, who sat out the opener. Miami lacks some of its recent star power in the secondary, and the Hurricanes could be vulnerable if they have to play a lot of nickel and dime packages. A consistent pass rush will be vital. Can Miami get pressure without having to blitz?
This is where Miami must be effective. If the Hurricanes can't run, they can't win. Javarris James and Graig Cooper form an excellent tailback tandem, and UM wants to pound the ball – and control the clock – behind its big offensive line (the starters average 320 pounds). Florida's run defense expects a major boost from the return of MLB Brandon Spikes, who missed the opener with a foot injury. Spikes may not be at full strength, though. In the Gators' four losses last season, the opponents averaged 173.3 rushing yards per game. For the season, the Gators allowed 103.3 rushing yards per game. The Gators' young defensive tackles will be in the spotlight.
Miami's long wait for quarterback Robert Marve is over. He missed all of his true freshman season after sustaining injuries in a car accident. He then was suspended for last week's opener against Charleston Southern opener. Marve broke Tebow's state of Florida high school records for passing yards and touchdowns. Backup Jacory Harris, a true freshman who started last week, also should see time. Florida had four interceptions against Hawaii last week, including two by sophomore strong safety Ahmad Black, who was making his first start. Black and sophomore free safety Major Wright each scored on an interception return. A young Florida secondary was torched often last season, but coaches don't seem to be nearly as worried this season.
Each had a punt return for a touchdown last week, with Cooper returning a punt 66 yards for a touchdown for Miami and Brandon James taking one back 74 yards for Florida. James also returns kicks, and he is one of the two or three best return men in the nation. Both have new kickers, and neither coach will feel comfortable about a pressure kick. Florida punter Chas Henry is better than UM counterpart Matt Bosher, and Florida's coverage teams – especially its punt-coverage unit – are better than Miami's.
Since the 1980s, every meeting between the programs has featured at least one past or eventual national championship coach: Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Steve Spurrier and Larry Coker. This season, the title coach is Urban Meyer. The jury remains out on Miami's Randy Shannon. While there's little doubt about his abilities as a defensive coach or as a recruiter, games such as this will be his proving ground as a head coach. While questions remain about UM offensive coordinator Patrick Nix, the Hurricanes should be well-prepared defensively with former Kansas coordinator Bill Young in charge.
The defense gets the job done in the run game. LSU, Georgia and Michigan ran all over Florida in their wins over the Gators last season, and Auburn also had success on the ground. Florida must stop James and Cooper while forcing Marve to put the offense on his shoulders in his first start.
Young's defense plays out of its mind. If the running game stalls, Miami's offense is going to struggle to put up points. Miami's defense must keep the game close into the fourth quarter to give the Hurricanes a chance. To do that means a unit that underachieved last season must shut down the reigning Heisman winner and loads of other playmakers.
It's no coincidence Miami ceased to be a national title contender at the same time the quarterback play dropped off. Brock Berlin, Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman haven't been the answer. Maybe Marve is. Miami cannot have a one-dimensional offense and expect to win. That means Marve will need to make some plays in his first career game. At least there's precedent for success. The last time Miami started the season with a freshman starter at quarterback was 1983, when redshirt freshman Bernie Kosar was the starter and true freshman Vinny Testaverde was the backup. Miami won its first national championship that season despite an early season loss to Florida.
Florida 35, Miami 14
David is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.