OK, so the time has come to play the game. The battle for South Florida bragging rights is on. So, does FIU really have a chance to win?
I'd say only if UM reverts to playing the way it did against Louisville, which means only with a ton of turnovers and sloppy play. UM has more talent than FIU does. But it's not the type of gap one would assume like the old days, say, five years ago when UM was competing for national titles and FIU was just starting out. FIU has players. And UM doesn't have as many great ones as it used to. Either way, I don't see this game being a cakewalk for the Hurricanes. I've got two reasons: 1) UM's offense still really hasn't gotten going and 2) FIU has a pretty good defense and has played better on special teams than UM.
OK, so FIU is 0-6. But five of those losses have come by a combined 14 points to pretty decent teams (Middle Tennessee State 7-6, South Florida 21-20, Bowling Green 33-28, Maryland 14-10 and North Texas 25-22 in 7 OTs). OK, so UM would have likely beaten all of those teams. But the way the Hurricanes have struggled offensively this season and on special teams, would any have those "guaranteed wins" been blowouts? Probably not.
The Golden Panthers will stay in this game behind their defense, which by the way ranks 32nd in the NCAA in total defense, 12th in pass defense and leads the nation in tackles for loss (by comparison, UM' ranks 15th in total defense, 61st in pass defense and 8th against the run). FIU has solid I-A players in Antwan Barnes, Alexander Bostic and Keyonvis Bouie (all locals) that could all probably be starting for UM.
But the reason UM will win Saturday is two-fold: One, FIU has its own problems on offense; two, FIU's weakness on defense is defending the run. And running the ball is the one thing UM has been able to do consistently since its 2-yard output against FSU.
So, with that, here are some goals/keys to the game I think the Hurricanes need to accomplish to not only beat FIU, but win comfortably enough for Hurricane fans to breathe easy and see some real improvement heading into the bigger showdowns against Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Boston College down the line.
1. PROTECT KYLE WRIGHT AND THE FOOTBALL (No more than 2 sacks allowed): FIU has a strong pass rush and has a knack for getting in the backfield. UM, which has only given up one sack in its last two games, can't allow for the Golden Panthers' biggest play makers to not only get sacks but lay the wood on Wright like UNC did early last week. FIU loves to run stunts and figures to give UM's offensive line a good challenge to begin with. So, getting protection from the backs will be key. Last week, Javarris James picked up a blitzing North Carolina linebacker who looked like he was going to drill Wright for a second time. James picked him up and flattened him. Now, the rest of UM's backfield -- Charlie Jones and Tyrone Moss -- will have to do the same. If UM doesn't allow more than 2 sacks, then consider it a victory for the Canes. Last week, by the way, was also the first time in a while UM didn't turn the ball over. It would be nice to see the Hurricanes establish some consistency in protecting it.
2. KEEP PLAYING STELLAR ON 'D' (Allow no more than 300 yards total offense, 14 points and produce at least 2 turnovers): UM's pass defense isn't as good as year's past, particularly the cornerback play and coverage downfield. Until that gets corrected, UM's front seven is going to need to continue to stop the run and create pressure on the quarterback. Last week, defensive end Calais Campbell and tackle Teraz McCray had one of their best games as Canes. Having them along with a few others getting into the sack business this week would build more confidence for a unit that really started slow and is now picking up steam. Since FIU's running game ranks 111th out of 117 and likely won't be very effective Saturday look for quarterback Josh Padrick to be slinging the ball plenty. If UM gets to Padrick like they did UNC's quarterback last week, Miami should meet all of these goals and possibly exceed them.
3. KEEP RUNNING STRONG (Run for 175 yards, 2 TDs and get at least 50 yards from somebody other than Javarris James): UM finished with 144 yards rushing against North Carolina last week and scored twice, but got most of its production on one play -- a 62-yard Javarris James TD run. This week, UM needs to show it can not only continue to run with James, but get production out of Charlie Jones and Tyrone Moss.
4. SUSTAIN MORE THAN ONE LONG SCORING DRIVE AND PUNT LESS THAN FOUR TIMES: Last week, the only time UM found the end zone on a long scoring drive was right before the half. The other two scores came on a trick play (Lovon Ponder's 37-yard touchdown pass) and James' long run. The big plays were great and so was the drive before the end of the half. But for UM's offense to win tough games, its going to need to know and show it can drive down the field every now and again. The Canes did it on the opening drive against Houston two weeks ago, but struggled offensively thereafter. Same deal against Louisville. Also, while Brian Monroe has improved with his punting, I don't think that's the only stat Larry Coker wanted his team to be leading the conference in at this point in the season. UM needs to keep Monroe off the field as much as possible and at the very least get into field goal range.
5. FIND THE RECEIVERS AND PRODUCE (AT LEAST 10 RECEIVER RECEPTIONS, 1 TD CATCH): I'm not asking for the world here. But considering only one receiver has caught a touchdown (Sam Shields) this season and only three combined for five catches last week, UM's receivers need to start making themselves a presence on the field. Wright and Lance Leggett only hooked up for two passes last week. Same the week before against Houston, although, both of those were much bigger plays. Either way, sometime this year, Wright is going to need to establish chemistry with somebody other than Greg Olsen. These next two games would be a perfect time to start.
6. GET A BIG PLAY FROM SPECIAL TEAMS (Blocked kick, big return, something): Sure, Monroe is punting better and Peattie appears to have corrected his kicking problems. But UM has yet to have a real big play on a kickoff or punt, whether its creating a block, fumble or big return. Last year, Devin Hester bailed the UM offense out plenty by providing good field position. Every now and then UM's offense needs to know it doesn't have to go the length of the field to score points. The defense has done its part (at least last week with a few turnovers) but now the special teams needs to show it can do provide a boost.
My prediction: UM 34, FIU 13. FIU keeps it close in the first half, 10-6, but eventually fades as UM piles up more than 200 yards rushing and gets TDs from Javarris James, Tyrone Moss and Charlie Jones. And as a special bonus, the UM defense produces its first TD of the season. FIU scores late on UM's second team defense and covers the 27-point spread.