Key matchups during UM-FSU faceoff

File photo: Wide receiver Braxton Berrios avoids a tackle during the 2016 loss against FSU at Hard Rock Stadium. Photo credit: Josh White

One of the most historic rivalries begins a new chapter today – Miami against Florida State. Here’s a deeper look at some of the key matchups to look out for on the gridiron.

Miami’s defense made national headlines coming into the season. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s unit returned its starting front seven and has impressed all season, holding opponents to just 13.3 PPG. While the defense has dazzled, Diaz said he believes there is a certain priority to set the tone early.

“They’re still Florida State,” Diaz said. “They still have highly-recruited and skilled players all over their offense.

Diaz also noted that big plays would be a critical factor in the game.

“We know that they have some guys who can make things happen.” Diaz said, “and we have to be at our best to shut them down.”

Although Florida State lost running back Dalvin Cook to the NFL, the Seminoles filled the void with a two-headed monster in the backfield – Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers.

Patrick and Akers have split carries through three games, combining for 293 yards on the ground and one rushing touchdown.

“Their running backs, Patrick – a big, giant beast of a guy,” Head Coach Mark Richt said. “Really great at breaking through tackles and playing the physical brand of ball. A lot of people want to talk about Akers, too, for good reason. He was one of the best players in the country last year in high school.”

Miami will also have to face Florida State’s star receiver, Auden Tate, who has had a breakout season in his junior campaign.

“Tate, the wide receiver – leading receiver, 226 yards, 13 catches, three touchdowns – a go-to guy for sure,” Richt said. “If you watched, I think it was the NC State game, he caught seven or eight balls, something like that, and probably would have caught a bunch more if he had finished the game. Very talented guy.”

Tate has been the key offensive weapon for the Seminoles. For Miami to be successful against Tate and the pass, the Canes are going to rely on cornerbacks Malek Young and Dee Delaney, who have combined for 26 tackles, five pass breakups and one interception through three games.

The Hurricanes will also need to game plan for true freshman quarterback James Blackman, who was thrown into the fire after a season-ending injury to Deondre Francois.

“He’s playing as a true freshman,” Richt said. “But I think he has done nothing but gain experience and gain confidence. He has had no interceptions, he threw a game-winner last week, which I’m sure helped him. He played two times away as a starter and now he gets to go home and play in front of his crowd.”

In two starts this season, the Belle Glade, Florida, native has thrown two touchdowns with no interceptions and completed 55.9 percent of his passes (33 of 59) for 399 yards.

Offensively, the Hurricanes have gelled in the past three games. Malik Rosier and the Miami offense are third in the country in yards per play and 11th in total offense. While the redshirt junior has impressed, Rosier expects Florida State to present some challenges.

“As of now they’re probably one of the fastest and most physical teams we’ve played so far,” the Mobile, Alabama, native said. “Their record doesn’t show how good their defense is. They fly around the ball. Every time you see a pass there’s someone in the way or deflecting the ball. Really solid defense.”

Rosier has developed a rapport with wide receiver Braxton Berrios, the leading receiver for the Hurricanes the past three games. The senior pass catcher has 10 receptions for 192 and three touchdowns and will need to hook up with Rosier if Miami wants to beat the Seminoles for the first time in eight games.

“I’ve known him for three years, almost four now,” Berrios said. “A long period of time, and we’ve always been close. We came in the same class, so we’re on the same page on a lot of things. He’s been doing what we all know he can and he’s been having a terrific season so far, and we all expect him to keep going.”

The Hurricanes will also rely on lead tailback Mark Walton, who has been dealing with an ankle injury the last two weeks.

The junior running back has already eclipsed 400 yards on the ground, including three touchdowns, and is averaging an impressive 9.2 yards per carry. The Canes were cautious using the Miami native during practice this week, but he is an integral part of their offense.

The Seminoles have topped the Canes in each of the last seven years, but the Hurricanes are looking to rewrite history and even the Noles’ winning streak.

“It’s time to change it around,” defensive lineman RJ McIntosh said. “It’s been time. This is a very big game for us, and we’re looking forward to going up there and getting a W.”

“It’s inexcusable, honestly, seven straight,” Berrios said. “It’s a great rivalry. We say it’s the best rivalry in football. It’s inexcusable to have lost to them seven straight times – and especially the ways we’ve lost and how close most of the games have been.”