KEYS TO THE GAME:
-- Can Florida State's offensive line create enough room for a running game? Can the Seminoles protect Christian Ponder well enough that he's not forcing throws? Conversely, can FSU's seemingly improved defense take away Miami's running game and downfield throws by Jacory Harris? Are the Seminoles really ready for prime time? FSU's blowout loss at Oklahoma a month ago gives pause to this matchup. No one is sure whether that was just an aberration or this team is still talent deficient enough that the Seminoles can't compete with elite opponents.
-- Miami will look to pound the 'Noles with its running game. The Hurricanes rushed for 171 yards in their win over Clemson behind RBs Damien Berry (24 carries, 101 yards) Lamar Miller (7-53), and Mike James (5-31). The defensive front seven must keep the pressure on FSU QB Christian Ponder.
SCOUTING THE TEAMS:
-- Like his mentor, Alabama's Nick Saban, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher has sought to get the Seminoles equally proficient in running and passing. The Seminoles are third in the ACC in rushing offense, sixth in passing offense, second in total offense and scoring offense. They have been able to utilize a deep backfield, getting good production from all three tailbacks. The emergence of sophomore receiver Willie Haulstead has opened up some things in the passing game.
In four of the first five games, the Seminoles have been terrific on defense. But the Oklahoma game still raises question on whether the Seminoles have significantly improved from last year. Right now, it looks that way. FSU leads the nation in sacks and ranks fourth nationally in run defense. The Seminoles rank right behind Miami, at No. 2, in the ACC for scoring defense and total defense. The players have played and sounded like they are confident and content in new defensive coordinator Mark Stoops' scheme.
Miami is producing only 370.2 yards a game (ninth in the conference) but looked to be getting its running attack together in the win over Clemson. The move of Joel Figueroa to guard and starting freshman Seantrel Henderson at right tackle could pay big dividends. The problem for the Hurricanes is that they have a tendency to stop themselves. QB Jacory Harris has eight interceptions in his last three games and faces a Florida State defense that leads the nation in sacks with 5.0 per game. He had two picks against the Seminoles last year.
Defensively, Miami ranks second in the country to FSU in sacks per game (4.25) and is first in the nation in tackles for loss with 10.5 per game. LB Sean Spence (8.0) and DE Olivier Vernon (6.0) are the leaders in tackles for loss. The Hurricanes rank only fourth in the conference against the run, however, giving up 130.8 yards per game to opposing rushers. The Hurricanes, who had only nine interceptions all of last year, have six already this season, including three against Clemson in their last outing.
Seminoles: Miami has won nine of the past 12 matchups, including the Orange Bowl game at the end of the 2003 season, but Florida State has won three of the past five, including the past two in South Florida by five points combined. Six of the past nine matchups have been decided by three or fewer points or in overtime. ... PK Dustin Hopkins has never attempted a game-winning kick, but it wouldn't be a Miami-FSU game without at least figuring the kickers into the game. With seven of the last meetings being decided by just a total of 28 points, it could come down to a field goal. Hopkins made a 51-yarder last year against Miami in his first college field goal attempt. He's 7-of-9 this year. ... LB Christian Jones, a freshman, subbed last week for injured starter Mister Alexandera and registered a team-high six tackles. It earned him ACC player of the week honors, along with FSU C Ryan McMahon. Among Jones' tackles was a sack. He also broke up a pass. ... QB Christian Ponder will be the third FSU quarterback to make a third start against Miami, joining Chris Weinke and Chris Rix.
Hurricanes: Two of Miami's top three receivers had nice games against Florida State last year. WR Leonard Hankerson, who leads the Hurricanes with 23 catches for 388 yards this year, had four receptions for 72 yards against the Semioles. WR Travis Benjamin, third on the team this season with 11 receptions for 165 yards, had four catches for a game-high128 yards. But LaRon Byrd, who is No. 2 in receiving this year (12-118), did not have a catch against the Seminoles. ... The team with the most penalties has won 17 of the last 28 meetings between the Hurricanes and Seminoles. The team with the most penalty yardage has won 18 of 28 meetings since 1983 and at one time had won 13 straight in that span. ... Miami has an 10 touchdown "drives" that have consumed under two minutes this season. ... True freshman Seantrel Henderson made his first career start when he opened at right tackle against Clemson. ... Miami is the only team over the last 35 years with shutouts of Florida State. The Hurricanes did it twice -- 47-0 in 1976 (FSU coach Bobby Bowden's first season) and 31-0 in 1988.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
TB Jermaine Thomas -- He's coming off one of his best games, gaining 122 yards, including 112 in the first half, and two scores against Virginia. It was his first 100-yard game this season, sixth in his career. He will factor prominently in the Seminoles' hopes of establishing a running game.
QB Christian Ponder -- This will be his third start against Miami and he enters with great memories. He passed for 294 yards, two touchdowns last year against Miami. In the 2008 victory at Miami, Ponder rushed for 144 yards, second-most rushing yards by an FSU quarterback in any game in school history. On the flip side, however, Ponder has struggled throughout his career to deliver a big game against a nationally-ranked team. There is a lot of pressure on him to make it happen this time.
CB Greg Reid -- He draws the assignment to matchup against Miami's talented receiver Leonard Hankerson, who is second in the ACC in receiving and has produced six touchdowns. Reid has two interceptions and deflected four passes. This will be one of the deciding factors in the game, whoever can win or neutralize the other in this position battle.
WR Leonard Hankerson -- A liability who had a reputation for big drops his first two years, Hankerson has played his way into a first-round draft pick in his senior year. He is fourth in the ACC in receptions per game (5.8) and second in receiving yardage (97.0), and he leads in touchdown catches with six after a three-TD day against Clemson.
LB Sean Spence -- Spence is the playmaker the Hurricanes have lacked on defense in recent years. He leads Miami in tackles with 38 stops, including 8.0 for losses (1.5 sacks). Spence had 34 tackles in Miami's last three games, all on the road (Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Clemson). He also has broken up two passes and has forced a fumble.
CB Brandon Harris -- Harris made the defensive play of the game in the win over Clemson when he stopped the Tigers' Andre Ellington for no gain on a fourth-and-one deep in Miami territory with Miami up by only six points. His potential matchup with FSU WR Bert Reed (28-251) could be one of the keys to the game.