ACC Football Notebook: Week 6

While Seminoles hope for more of same, Miami seeks to start a new streak

GREENSBORO, N.C. ( – Florida State versus Miami.

Mere mention of the phrase conjures memories of close games, as sense of history and the high emotions that accompany one of college football’s greatest in-state rivalries.

The series record is predictably tight – Miami holds a 31-28 edge in all-time meetings – but those not closely associated with either team might not realize how streaky it has become over the past two decades.

The eighth-ranked Seminoles (4-0, 2-0 ACC) will seek their sixth straight series win when they welcome the Hurricanes (3-1, 0-0) to Doak Campbell Stadium for Saturday night’s nationally televised game. That would match the six straight wins (including a postseason victory in the Orange Bowl) posted by Miami from 2000 through 2004.

And prior to that, Florida State handled the Hurricanes five straight years from 1995 through 1999. In this kind of rivalry series where the talent level is almost always fairly even and spirit of pride and completion run high, is there a logical explanation?

Well … no, says FSU coach Jimbo Fisher.

“That's ball. That's life. I don't know,” said Fisher, who has been at the helm for each of the Seminoles’ win during the current streak. “The world just goes like that. I have no idea. There's so many factors that factor into it. If you could pin it down to one or two things, I'm sure they'd all get fixed on both ends. I really don't have an answer for that. I don't know.”

In addition to incentive to end FSU’s recent dominance, the veteran players on Miami’s team have the knowledge of knowing they can go head-to-head with a ranked Seminoles squad. The Hurricanes led No. 2 and then-defending national champion FSU by as many as 16 points in last November’s meeting at Sun Life Stadium before the Seminoles battled back and finally pushed ahead for a 30-26 win on Dalvin Cook’s touchdown run with 3:05 play.

“It’d be big,” Miami coach Al Golden responded when asked what a win this Saturday night would mean for his team. “I thought we played with a lot confidence last year. We didn’t finish. We left a lot of plays out there.”

Last year’s near miss should provide motivation, but maybe something a little more tangible, according to Golden.

“I don’t think you can carry anything forward but the experience,” Golden said. “I think our guys that played in that game a year ago have to lead now. We have to learn a lot from what we did well and what we didn’t do well. That’s going to be critical that we have that experience, that we share that experience with the guys that haven’t been in the game, and really just keep our focus on the game and not everything that surrounds it.”

Fisher hopes for a Saturday night atmosphere in Tallahassee similar to that of two years ago, when both teams entered the game unbeaten and ranked among the nation’s top 10.

“It's great,” Fisher said. “To have that atmosphere and environment to go out and experience it, it makes it great for the fans. To play your rivalry games at home, man, it's great to have that fan support behind you. There's no doubt about that.”

For the visiting Hurricanes, it will be a matter of staying on an even keel – as much as it is humanly possible to do so.

“I keep saying it – it’s a big game.” Golden said. We can act like it’s not a big game, we get that. But for our guys, we have to learn to be consistent and prepare. From that standpoint, I want to see them approach everything consistently, I want to see our staff approach everything consistently.

“They’ll be fired up. We know Florida State will be fired up … it is what it is. I want our guys to embrace the challenge and embrace the opportunity – all the atmosphere and everything – and play our game. That’s what I’m looking for.”

This week’s ACC slate opens with Friday night’s NC State-Virginia Tech meeting in Blacksburg. Host Virginia Tech stands 3-0 in Friday games at Lane Stadium under veteran head coach Frank Beamer. This week’s game will be just the second Friday night game at Lane and the first played before Thanksgiving.

“All the programs that play (college football) enjoy that stage,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “All of our players are excited about being the team that’s on (ESPN at 8 p.m.), and I’m sure our university is excited about being the team that’s on as well.”

Expect both teams to play with a sense of urgency following disappointing losses in last Saturday’s ACC openers. The visiting Wolfpack will seek to rebound from a 20-13 setback versus Louisville, while the Hokies seek to atone from a 17-13 loss to visiting Pitt.

“I think every game is a must win,” Beamer said “As you go along, the more you win, the more important the next game becomes. As you go along and you’ve lost one in conference (play), the more important that next game becomes. That’s the way it is. You want guys to rise to the challenge and I think we have that at Virginia Tech.”

Like the Hokies, NC State could dwell on a lot of what-ifs from last weekend, but Doeren has spent the week stressing to his troops the need to move on.

“We spoke yesterday as a team, and I told them we’ve learned one tough loss can’t equal two,” Doeren said Monday. “If we don’t win at Virginia Tech let’s not lose because of the last game. Let’s go play as hard as we can and execute as best as we can, letting the chips fall as they fall. Nobody’s going to be down on you, nobody’s pointing fingers. We’re all in this together. We’re going to be positive and move forward and the guys have been great about that.”

There was no way to sugar coat Wake Forest’s meetings with Florida State in the three years prior to last Saturday. The Seminoles figuratively and literally pushed the Demon Deacons around in every way imaginable, winning the trio of games by a combined score of 154-6.

That changed last weekend in Winston-Salem, where Wake Forest stayed in the game until the finish before coming out on the short end of a 24-16 score.

“I think that’s a gap that we’re closing,” second-year head coach Dave Clawson said of his team’s strength and physical conditioning. “Whether we’ve closed the gap or partially closed the gap, we’ll find out (this) Saturday (at Boston College). Certainly, looking at the Florida State game, I don’t think that you can say that we controlled the line of scrimmage or man-handled them. But from a year ago, we clearly closed the gap up front.

“So again, those things are going to be incremental things. I know from a year ago, we’ve gained on the rest of the league. We’ll find out next Saturday and for the next seven games.”

While Wake Forest seeks to build on the positives of the Florida State game, Boston College seeks to get back on the winning track following a frustrating outing at Duke in which the Eagles did not allow a touchdown but still came out on the end of a 9-7 score. While sporting the nation’s top-ranked defense, BC still seeks answers on a young offensive unit that has been hit hard by injuries at quarterback and other key positions.

“The expectation right now is to get a little better each week,” head coach Steve Addazio said. “The expectation is to coach our team. Give them a real plan, work on fundamentals and get a little better each week.

“If you try to take that to another level, you can tank a young team really quick and then you won’t see those incremental and then you kind of go sideways until the next year. We’re trying not to have that happen right now. I’m just trying to build confidence and look at the positives where they lie.”

Last week’s 24-22 win over sixth-ranked Notre Dame was monumental for Clemson’s football program – at least to outside observers – but the Tigers can’t afford a letdown as they refocus on ACC play with this weekend’s home game against Georgia Tech. And head coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t expect one.

“If we have a letdown, we’re going to get our butts kicked, but I haven’t seen that in the fabric of our culture,” Swinney said.

Swinney, who stepped in as head coach midway through the 2008 season, noted that his squad has played consistently, week-to-week, game-to-game, regardless of what transpired in the previous outing.

“We haven’t lost a lot of games but when we have, we’ve come back and played well. That was the rhetoric last year when we lost (to Florida State) in Tallahassee. We won nine out of 10 to finish the season and won the next week.

“Then we beat South Carolina (in the regular-season finale), and the rhetoric was we had accomplished all we wanted to accomplish. Well we played the best game of the season against Oklahoma in the bowl game.”

Swinney has always referred to each week as a “one-game season.”

“Everybody proclaims what’s going to happen after three or four games,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to play (all) the games … Then, at the end of the year, you get a consensus. We don’t practice any different, we do exactly we same thing every week whether it’s Notre Dame, Wofford or whoever. That’s our mentality. These are young people, and it is human nature and that’s why we put so much emphasis on systematic preparation. We don’t vary from that regardless of any success or failure that we have.”

Following losses in each of its last three outings – including two ACC games – Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson gave an honest assessment of where his team stands as it prepares for Saturday’s trip to Clemson.

“Right now, our margin for error is razor-thin,” Johnson said.

Johnson could point to a half-dozen plays – maybe fewer – that made the difference in last Saturday’s 38-31 loss to visiting North Carolina. But that, he said, is just the reality of ACC football.

“It's not easy to win unless you're just physically far-superior to other teams,” Johnson said. “It's a tough game. In my time here, I don't know if we've ever been physically superior the other teams in the league. Now, we've got our share of good players, but it's not like when I was, for instance, at Georgia Southern, to compare. When we were in the Southern Conference, there were probably two or three teams that could beat us. You could go out with your 'B-game' and you could win the rest, or your 'C-game.' That's not the way it is here. They're close, hard-fought games. And it's hard to win.

“And most teams are that way, not just us. Probably 90 percent of the teams in the country are that way. There is very little margin for error. You have to get some breaks. And right now, we are not getting any. They're going the other way.”

The loss of 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner to injury hasn’t been the devastating blow to Pitt that many expected, thanks in large part to redshirt freshman running back Qadree Ollison.

Following last weekend’s 122-yard rushing performance in the the win at Virginia Tech, Ollison ranks second among ACC rushers, averaging 106.8 yards per game. It marked the second triple-digit rushing game in four collegiate outings for the Niagara Falls native, who had 207 yards in a season-opening win over Youngstown State.

First-year head coach Pat Narduzzi still stops shorts of calling Ollison his definitive “starting” tailback, but he is clearly moving in that direction. As the Pitt gears up for this Saturday’s homecoming game against Virginia, Narduzzi wants to see more bruising, physical runs from the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder, like the one he delivered in on a fourth-and-1 play in the fourth quarter of the Virginia Tech game. Ollison burst through on a 13-yard gain that helped the Panthers’ maintain possession while clinging to their four-point lead.

“I think he got a bigger footprint there at the tailback spot because of what he did,” Narduzzi said. “I have to think, ‘What is his style?’ Qadree tends to dance around instead of just hitting it up in the there. When he hits it up there, (like) on that fourth and one, and not stuttering his feet – that’s not a slashing back, that’s a big bruising back. He can play like that once it becomes a habit because that’s how tailbacks run. I think he may have figured that out. Hopefully he can just get downhill and run.”

Virginia coach Mike London said Ollison, like Conner last season, has reaped benefits of the Panthers’ strong play up front.

“They're still a very physical football team,” London said. “You look at their offensive line. They double team and try to push to the next level. Connor was an exceptional player. Very tough, tough player, downhill – it's unfortunate that his injury occurred … (but) they're still running their blocking schemes. What their offensive line had been used to, their fullbacks and their tight ends. So they're still basically running their offense, the scheme, or the system of it, (and) it's a different cast of individuals that are carrying the ball for them.”