Battle in trenches will play major role in Miami-FSU Labor Day showdown
Posted: Wednesday September 1, 2004 12:15PM; Updated: Thursday September 2, 2004 1:10AM
Will FSU big men like David Castillo be healthy enough to pave the way for skill players like Cro Thorpe (rear)?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Remember the last regular-season bender between Florida State and Miami, when steady rain turned Tallahassee's Doak Campbell Stadium into a mud pit and the Hurricanes quite literally slipped past the Seminoles to a 22-14 win?
If early reports about Hurricane Frances' toll on the Sunshine State hold true, the teams' Labor Day rematch in Miami could be just as wet and a good deal windier.
"I check in with the National Weather Service constantly," said Dale Sandin, who is chiefly responsible for keeping the Orange Bowl's Bermuda grass surface from turning into a bog. "And what I'm seeing is not good."
A tough day for Sandin could be rough on players, too. As if this game wasn't daunting enough, with both teams so closely matched in their first conference meeting since the Hurricanes joined the ACC, damp weather could pose an extra challenge for two offenses that are looking to improve this year. Slick conditions could make sharp throws and cuts difficult for the teams' skill players -- notably Miami's Frank Gore and Florida State's Leon Washington, two tailbacks who have recently returned from injuries. And that, in turn, puts an additional burden on those unheralded bruisers who provide protection in the trenches.
The offensive lines already had a lot to prove in this game. Routinely among the most productive offensive attacks in the nation over the past decade, neither finished above 25 in the NCAA's top scoring, rushing or passing teams last season. Miami, relative to recent years, looked particularly pokey. Forced to fight through intermittent injuries, the Hurricanes' linemen took part of the blame for the inconsistent play of quarterback Brock Berlin. Florida State's offensive line, meanwhile, allowed 25 sacks and helped produce only 133.2 rushing yards per game in 2003. "We were considered the weak link last September," FSU junior center David Castillo said. "This year, it's the opposite."
With eight offensive line starters set to return between the two teams, both Miami and Florida State made the top 10 in just about every preview magazine that bothered to rank the nation's interior units. While the Hurricanes boast 6-foot-7 tackle Eric Winston, Florida State counters with consensus All-America tackle Alex Barron. A mix of veteran leadership and proven young talent rounds out the starting lineup.
Offensive linemen are under additional pressure this season, thanks to a bit of NCAA policymaking. A new rule adopted in February stipulates that head officials announce the jersey number of a player after he is flagged for a penalty during a game.
Already in place at the NFL level, the rule was tested by the Big Sky Conference last season and now affects every division. The NCAA rules committee claims that the policy eliminates the lengthy process by which officials used to huddle together after a flag was thrown, and also forces more accountability from the refs in general.
Players seem divided on the subject; While some grumble that offensive linemen don't deserve the negative publicity, given what little publicity they receive as it is, others embrace the challenge. As Miami guard Chris Myers recently told the Palm Beach Post: "If you can't handle some referee calling out your name because you were too lazy to not hold, you shouldn't be on the field."
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"We're tighter as a unit than we've ever been," Castillo said.
Echoed Miami senior right guard Chris Myers, "Last year, we had a lot of guys without too much game experience. Everyone's meshing now."
And yet, gloomy forecasts that have nothing to do with the weather have been coming out of these schools of late. Both the 'Canes' and 'Noles' offensive lines are dealing with injuries past and present. Miami right tackle Rashad Butler and left guard Tony Tella, two of their line's most athletic members, are suffering from a left ankle fracture and back spasms, respectively. While Butler is doubtful for the Florida State game, Tella just started to work his way back onto the field Monday.
On the opposite bench, the Seminoles could be without Castillo and right guard Bobby Meeks -- who both, coincidentally, were also injured during the Seminoles' loss to Miami last October. FSU head coach Bobby Bowden said Meeks has been slowed by the right ankle he sprained on Aug. 18, and declined to disclose the nature of Castillo's latest injury as of Tuesday morning.
What does all of this mean for Monday night? In intrasquad games, at least, these O-line wounds were felt.
"I would have liked to have seen them play better, to be honest," Hurricanes head coach Larry Coker said of his offensive line after a closed scrimmage last Thursday. "The first-team defensive line won that battle, and they've done that their share of the time."
Five days earlier, reports out of Tallahassee were equally somber: While not a single touchdown was scored in that day's scrimmage, the defensive line had 15 sacks.
Of course, it's in games like Monday's that a program's future reveals itself. Even if Frances dumps less rain than expected, it's likely to be a steam bath in the Orange Bowl, and it will be interesting to see whether the green giants will wilt or thrive in the humidity. For if the Sunshine State's marquee programs are touted for one thing, it is the ability to restock talent from year to year, from the state's trademark speedsters to the essential big men. If this is a battle to be won in the trenches, the team with the hardiest young linemen may win.
Hurricanes and Seminoles coaches and veterans are keeping their O-line backups prepared, administering pop quizzes and pep talks over the past few days. As Bowden told reporters earlier this week, "I can't beat Miami with half-injured [players]. We've got to go and get two other guys ready, and that's exactly what we've done."
By the same token, it's all but a certainty that some half-injured players at a variety of positions find a way onto the turf on Labor Day, come hurricane or high-ankle sprain. Games like this just don't come around every September.
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.