Duke Johnson is one of the best running backs in the nation. Come Saturday, Johnson will be the best player Florida State has faced all season.
"You could put him in a class by himself," FSU defensive lineman Desmond Hollin said. "I don’t think there’s another running back like him. Best in the game I think would be him and (Georgia’s) Todd Gurley."
Up to this point, only Louisville’s running back Michael Dyer has presented a challenge comparable to Johnson. Dyer shredded Florida State’s defense for 128 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries — but he’s no Duke Johnson.
Through nine games, the 5-foot-9 Johnson has scorched opposing defenses for 1,213 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns, ranking first in the ACC with 165.1 rushing yards per game.
"He’s as good as anybody we’ve played against," said FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher.
The matchup does, however, come at an opportune time for the Seminoles defense. Finally healthy in their front seven, Florida State’s defense has held four of its last five opponents without a rushing touchdown (Virginia, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Wake Forest). For the year, FSU ranks third in the ACC in rushing defense in conference-only games, allowing just 108.8 rushing yards per game and only 3.1 yards per carry in six conference victories.
"It is big to just keep moving forward and stopping the run," Florida State safety Tyler Hunter said. "Because we know Miami, with Duke Johnson, they like to run the ball so we just want to stop them from running.”
In last year’s blowout win, Florida State was able to keep the versatile running back relatively quiet, surrendering just 97 yards on 23 carries before Johnson left the game with a season-ending ankle injury. Telvin Smith and Christian Jones, both currently in the NFL, were able to keep Johnson in front of them and make tackles in space, removing the opportunities for the big play.
This year, linebackers Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup will play pivotal roles as the Seminoles try to contain Miami’s Heisman Trophy hopeful. Both Smith and Northrup are athletic and can make tackles from sideline to sideline, but at times have over-pursued plays that have lead to huge chunks of yards — as was evident their win at Louisville.
Johnson can take a simple handoff all the way to pay dirt at any time, making gap control defense crucial for the Seminoles linebackers and linemen.
"Once he gets in green grass you have a hard time catching him," Fisher explained. "He has as many long runs as anyone I’ve seen."
Miami’s offensive line may be without 6-foot-6 324-pound left tackle Ereck Flowers for the second straight game. If that is the case and Flowers can’t go, the Hurricanes will start a freshman in his place — a situation that would favor FSU defensive linemen Mario Edwards Jr.
If Smith, Northrup, Edwards and the rest of the defensive line can control the trenches and contain Johnson, then it will force freshman QB Brad Kaaya — who leads the ACC with 20 touchdown passes — to make pressure throws against possibly the most gifted secondary he’s ever faced.
This rivalry game has plenty of other areas that are important to securing victory, but Florida State knows that stopping Johnson and the Hurricanes rushing attack is paramount.
"I still think they’re a run-first team," Fisher said. "I still think they’re going to run the ball with Duke (Johnson) and be physical.