Certainly Strong hopes to fare better than the Gators last interim bowl game coach. He's off to a good start as the players seem focused on the task at hand, winning a state title.
In 1989, defensive coordinator Gary Darnell was handed the keys after the resignation of Galen Hall. The Gators were snowed under, 34-7, in the Freedom Bowl by Don James and his Washington Huskies. Discipline went out the window during the week for a few who wore the Orange and Blue. The game was an afterthought. One Florida player relayed a message to me two days before the game that they were going to lose. It appeared that a few of the players were more consumed with getting into their rental cars and touring greater Los Angeles than focusing on X's and O's. Several other Florida players were upset at the liberties taken by their party hearty teammates. It showed up on game day.
The Huskies controlled the football 41:52 to Florida's 18:08. The Washington offensive and defensive fronts flat whipped the Gators in every facet of the game. The Gators vaunted running game led by All-American Emmitt Smith never materialized. Smith gained just 17 yards on seven carries. Quarterback Donald Douglas scored the Gators only points on a 67-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Douglas led Florida with 65 yards rushing.
Florida couldn't throw the ball either. Under heavy pressure, Douglas completed just 8 of 18 for 91 yards and an interception. Drop back passer Lex Smith shared quarterback duties with Douglas but was also unable to find time to throw. Smith completed just 3 of 10 for 57 yards.
Washington racked up 433 yards of total offense. They nearly tripled the Gators in first down production, 28-10. Leading 27-7, a reserve quarterback by the name of Mark Brunell put the finishing touches on the game with a 20-yard touchdown run for the Huskies in the fourth quarter.
Fast forward to the present. Strong has endured criticisms of his scheme and the Gators folding in the fourth quarter the past two years. Then again, Strong wasn't entirely in control of his own unit. Former head coach Ron Zook obviously had plenty of input in the defensive scheme.
The pre-game hype has centered around Brock Berlin. Sure, the game sets up well for him considering his ties to both programs and the opportunity to stamp an exclamation point on his roller coaster career.
However, the greater opportunity in this one definitely belongs to Charlie Strong. The Peach Bowl finally gives Strong an opportunity to run his defense without looking over his shoulder. It also serves as his directorial debut with an audience for athletic directors in the balcony taking notes for future interviews. Obviously, it's an opportunity for redemption as the team on the opposing sideline just happens to be a hated enemy which dealt the Gators, Zook, and Strong one of their most troubling losses in years. In a season that taught some young Florida players the ugly business that can be college football, Charlie Strong will get some much deserved attention if he can command the focus of a team that has endured a year's worth of lessons.
Miami Offensive Line vs Florida front seven
One of the sources of pride in previous seasons in Coral Gables has been Art Kehoe's offensive lines. Kehoe and the 'Canes have produced three first team All-Americans in the past four years in Bryant McKinnie, Brett Romberg, and Joaquin Gonzalez. This season Miami had one second team selection on the All-ACC Team, right tackle Chris Myers.
Seniors Joel Rodriguez (center) and Myers are the old men of the Hurricanes offensive front. Rodriguez is in his second year as a starter after seeing time as a backup in his prior two years at Miami. He was named an honorable mention on the All-ACC team. Rodriguez earned MVP honors from the Miami staff for his efforts against the Gators last year. Myers has enjoyed success as a Miami starter the past three years. He was a second team All-Big East selection in 2003. Myers also had a solid game against Florida last year.
The 'Canes finished averaged 3.8 yards per carry, eighth best in the ACC. Unlike previous years, they didn't blow teams off of the football. They are much more effective in pass blocking situations. They allowed only 25 sacks in 346 passes, which amounts to a sack every 13.84 attempts.
Florida's front seven had a stellar outing in Tallahassee six weeks ago. They dominated the line of scrimmage, holding the Seminoles to 34 yards on 25 carries. The Gators also harassed Florida State quarterbacks Wyatt Sexton and Chris Rix. Florida sacked the pair four times and forced them into quick throws. And they did all this without the services of All-SEC linebacker Channing Crowder.
There is plenty to talk about when the subject is Florida's linebackers. Brandon Siler earned SEC Freshman Player of the Year honors, an award that Crowder gladly accepted last season. Earl Everett was also on the All-SEC Freshmen Team in 2003. They should be fully charged and have plenty to say about this one.
Analysis: Miami needs to run the football to win this game. You won't see Coach Strong sitting back and waiting on Berlin to win the game this time. Miami accumulated a mere 51 yards rushing and seven first downs against Tech. The 'Canes will come out and try to establish the run with Frank Gore. They'll need more than the big play to score enough to beat the Gators. Furthermore, they want to keep Chris Leak, Ciatrick Fason, Andre Caldwell, Chad Jackson, and the Florida big play attack off of the field. The Gators' three linebackers should hassle Berlin and Gore plenty.
Miami skills positions vs Florida secondary
Quarterback Brock Berlin struggled mightily in his last outing against Virginia Tech. Berlin completed only 16 of 31 passes for 139 yards. He threw no touchdowns and one interception. The game was billed as a duel for the ACC Offensive Player of the Year between Tech's Marcus Randall and Berlin. The Shreveport, Louisiana native wound up as the second team All-ACC quarterback after his game with VaTech. For the year, Berlin completed 56.2 per cent of his passes, while throwing 21 touchdown strikes and only five interceptions.
Running back Frank Gore finished fourth in the ACC in rushing. Slowing down Gore was the key to the Virginia Tech defensive plan. They held him to 46 yards rushing and a pair of receptions. Miami running back Tyrone Moss sprained his knee in the 'Canes final regular season game against Virginia Tech. He has had some practice time and should play.
The 'Canes are rumored to be without their top tight ends. Starter Kevin Everett has a dislocated left shoulder. Reserve tight end Greg Olsen will not play in Friday's game. That should leave reserve Buck Ortega (seven receptions for 59 yards) as the starter. The 'Canes will probably utilize fullback Talib Humphrey in the role as well.
Wide receiver Roscoe Parrish (5-9, 172) was a second team All-ACC selection. He finished with team highs in nearly every category. He caught 39 passes for 630 yards (16.2 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns. Starting flanker Lance Leggett (6-4, 174) is having a solid season as a true freshman. Leggett takes a pass for a touchdown every 3.75 receptions. He also leads the Hurricanes in yards per catch with a 20.5 average.
The Florida secondary hopes to be much improved. They didn't give up the big play against Florida State in a game in which they had to keep the Seminoles out of the end zone. However, Berlin is much better than any Florida State quarterback. Florida's safeties will have to keep Berlin from throwing it over their heads or dropping a beauty to a wideout running the post. Berlin usually throws a nice post pass. He is most dangerous from the shotgun.
Analysis: Florida's front seven has to get their hands up when Berlin is about to release the football. He is only 6-1, and when he was a player at Florida, he had difficulty throwing when Florida's D-Line got in his face. He continues to struggle in that area. With Virginia Tech leading the 'Canes 16-10, Hokie defensive tackle Jim Davis (6-4, 265) forced a pair of Berlin passes to the turf, while defensive end Darryl Tapp (6-1, 265) knocked Berlin's fourth down play to seal the Hokies victory with 57 seconds left to play.
Florida offensive line vs Miami defensive front
The Florida offensive front has had a tremendous season. In past seasons, the Canes have had the edge in that department but that trend has run its course. The Gators have a chance to leave a big impression on Miami as well as catapult themselves as one of the more imposing units on the national radar when the 2005 season opens.
Two members of the Hurricane front are either out or not at full strength. Defensive end Bryan Pata injured his knee in Tuesday's practice session but will play Friday night. Middle linebacker Roger McIntosh will not play in Friday night's game due to a herniated disc in his back. He is sixth in the ACC in total tackles.
With McIntosh out, weakside linebacker Tavares Gooden is the leader of the front seven in tackles with 64. It's hard to believe but the Canes don't have a player among the top 10 in the ACC in sacks or tackles for loss. The Hurricanes have tallied 33 sacks on the season. They have also recovered 14 fumbles.
Miami ranked eighth in their conference in rushing defense. Virginia Tech ran for 149 yards on them. Virginia ran for 221 yards on them. Wake Forest ran for 157 yards on them. Clemson ran for 113 yards. North Carolina ran for 279 yards. All of these games were roughly within the past 60 days.
Analysis: Florida's offensive front has been equally effective running the ball. Florida's offensive front is strong. Miami has struggled against strong offensive fronts. In their last five games, the canes have allowed opponents to run for 919 yards, or 183.8 per game. And now…they face the SEC's leading rusher Ciatrick Fason.
Florida skills positions vs Miami secondary
Ciatrick Fason has had an outstanding season. The telling statistic is the Miami defense gave up 183.8 yards per game on the ground over the past five games. Fason ran for 1173 yards in the regular season. A few weeks of rest and some time with the family have him energized to run for at least a hundred more on Friday night.
Leak can't come into the game too pumped up. The timing routes have been good throughout the bowl preparations. He must continue to take what they give him because Miami will defend against allowing the big play.
Florida's wide receivers hauled in three passes for 25 or more yards against an FSU secondary that boasted of its preparations to stop the Gators big play offense. Against a Florida State secondary that had three All-ACC selections, the Gator receivers consistently found big holes in the coverage. OJ Small, Andre Caldwell, and Chad Jackson should make for formidable opposition for Miami. All three rank among the SEC leaders in receiving yardage per game. Up and coming tight end Tate Casey, Dallas Baker, and Jemalle Cornelius should help keep the Canes blowing wind.
Devin Hester and Greg Threat each picked off three passes for the Hurricanes, who as a team rank sixth in ACC red zone defense giving up 19 touchdowns in 25 attempts. Antrel Rolle is a first team All-ACC selection, while Threat made the list as an honorable mention.
The Canes have clearly struggled against solid quarterbacks the later part of the season. The collapse of their run defense has crippled the effectiveness of their secondary. Tech's Marcus Randall threw a pair of touchdown passes against Miami completing 11 of 18 along the way. Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst completed 21 of 37 for 237 yards just one month earlier. North Carolina's Darian Durant completed 21 of 29 for 266 yards and two touchdowns. .
Analysis: Ciatrick Fason will not go out quietly. He knows that a big game against Miami can only help get the attention of NFL scouts. He is a weapon catching the ball as well. The Canes have picked off passes. Leak must recognize that this is a big play secondary. However, while solid early in the season, they have proven that they can be beaten, probably in part due to the struggles of their run defense. Florida's receivers have improved as expected.