Florida State's heralded offensive line, tabbed the best in the nation by many analysts, faces the ultimate challenge in the Miami Hurricanes' dominant front seven. The group features three potential first-team All-Americans -- tackle William Joseph, end Jerome McDougle and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma – and has helped UM limit opponents to 241.2 total yards per game.
Strength versus strength.
It's a challenge the ninth-ranked Seminoles (5-1) welcome as they try upend the top-ranked Hurricanes (5-0) and get back into the national championship race.
"We want it (game) on our shoulders," FSU senior tight guard Montrae Holland said.
"We are going up against some great players, projected to be first- and second-rounders in the NFL. We just have to go into this game mentally prepared to be in a physical game. We have to be ready to be matched up against some of the best defensive players in the country. If we are the best, we have to play like it."
The Seminoles' offensive line, which features four seniors, has lived up to its preseason billing. Despite losing senior starter Milford Brown during preseason drills – he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA – the unit hasn't skipped a beat. Sophomore Ray Willis has stepped in Brown's tackle slot, and fellow sophomore Alex Barron also has played well in starting and relief roles.
"When our line blocks like they're capable of, they're a pretty dadgum good front," offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden said. "They'd better be at their best when they go down to the Orange Bowl."
No wonder. UM's defensive line recorded six sacks last week against UConn, the second-most this season behind the seven against FAMU in the season-opener. Opponents, meanwhile, have registered 17 sacks against the Seminoles in six games.
FSU leads the Atlantic Coast Conference and is ranked 12th nationally in total offense (446 yards per game). Additionally, the Seminoles' rushing attack, paced by tailback Greg Jones, has developed into a formidable weapon. FSU is one of eight schools in the country to average better than 200 yards per game both in rushing and passing.
UM coach Larry Coker has said in order to defeat FSU for the third consecutive year (last year the Canes won 49-27 in Tallahassee), his team will have to stop the Seminoles' 20th-ranked rushing offense, punctuated by Jones' average of 105.5 yards per game. Jones scored a career-high three touchdowns against the Tigers, including a classic run where he busted through eight tacklers.
''It's a major concern,'' Coker said. ``They're a little bit like a mirror image of us, what we try to be. I watched the Clemson game [FSU won 48-31] and they couldn't tackle that back (Jones). He just ran through the entire team at times."
Jones also enjoyed some success against the Hurricanes last season, rushing for then a career-high 91 yards on 15 carries.
"This year's been great because they've put so much responsibility on us," senior split tackle Brett Williams said. "So many times, the coaches have told us it's on the offensive line whether we win or not. We had some good rushing on Miami last year. And we know if we want to go down and have a chance to hang with those guys, that's what we're going to have to do."
Of course, another key against the ‘Canes will be the group's ability to protect quarterback Chris Rix. Last season UM managed seven sacks and forced Rix to throw four interceptions and lose two fumbles. And Holland said the ‘Canes don't two-step around their approach.
"Most teams, they try to beat you by scheme. But Miami just lines up and says, ‘Bring it. Bring it,' " Holland said.
"We have seven guys in the box and let's see what can you do against us. It's basically a simple scheme. It's basically who is the bigger man. Who is going to win this battle. That's what makes this team so much different than the teams we play."
The Seminoles also have another point to prove – they are double-digit underdogs and haven't beaten a No. 1-ranked team since upending Florida, 24-21, in 1996. Their three defeats to No.1 include a 41-23 setback to UM in 1986.
If FSU's offensive line believes it's the country's best, Holland says it must produce.
"It's a different role," Holland said.
"People wouldn't expect us to go in there and match up against Miami real well. The last two years we've been underdogs. It makes you play harder when people don't have faith in you. We are going to go and try to prove everyone wrong. They have great athletes. We have great athletes. You have to execute. And you have to be ready to battle. Both teams are going to have to bring their ‘A' game. This is what it's about."
DON'T FORGET SECONDARY
While UM"s front seven has received most of the accolades, their secondary also has performed well. The Hurricanes' pass defense is rated third-best in the NCAA, allowing 124.8 yards per game, behind Louisiana State (115.6) and Texas (121.4).
Additionally, opponents are gaining a naitonal-low 8.67 yards per catch and the ‘Canes are rated fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense, a category that combines statistics such as interceptions and completion percentage.
The Hurricanes allowed 94 passing yards against Florida A&M, 191 against Florida, 101 against Temple, 138 against Boston College and 100 against Connecticut last week. With the limited yardage: limited deep passes. Coker expects that to change with Rix, saying, ''He's exceptionally good at throwing the deep ball,'' Coker said. ``It is a concern. I [haven't seen] a lot of people taking shots down the field. You'll see that from Florida State. That has always been a Bobby Bowden trait.''