Miami won’t reach Florida State’s heights until it solves its quarterback dilemma

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Instead of watching Miami and Florida State on location for what would’ve been my 26th game in the annual rivalry, a pretty bad stomach virus forced me to do something pretty cool — stay on the couch and watch the game at my 68-year-old father’s house.

Dad is fighting prostate cancer again, and it was the first UM-FSU game we watched together since I was a teenager living under his roof.

Dad hasn’t covered South Florida sports like I have for the better part of three decades, but his football credentials include plenty of trips to the Orange Bowl to watch games — including season tickets for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins.

So, my viewing experience for Florida State’s 27-20 victory included a lot of grumpy old man takes from the guy sitting next to me — especially right before the half.

Analytics have killed the game. What happened to coaches who went with their gut? (Don) Shula wouldn’t have settled for a field goal like that. He would have taken a shot at the end zone.

The game ended with Dad shouting at the TV.

What is Miami doing? Do they not realize the clock is running? Why are they huddling? There’s no urgency. Hello!

Football is not a complicated game. The team with the better quarterback and the more exciting offense usually wins.

The Seminoles have won three in a row in the series in large part because they’ve owned that edge with Jordan Travis. Since his fourth-and-14 completion to Andrew Parchment led to FSU’s come-from-behind win over Miami in 2021, the Seminoles have gone 22-4, declaring their return among the college football elite with this year’s 10-0 start.

FSU should finish the regular season unbeaten, win the ACC title for the first time since 2014 and reach the College Football Playoff in January. But on Saturday the Noles looked just slightly better than 6-4 Miami because the Hurricanes are still trying to solve their dilemma at quarterback.

Freshman Emory Williams, starting in place of interception-prone Tyler Van Dyke, literally gave up his left arm in the fourth quarter to convert a fourth down and try to rally the Hurricanes to victory on the game’s final drive. He left the stadium in an air cast for a local hospital with a significant injury on a play coach Mario Cristobal called “the ultimate sacrifice.”

Williams will have a shot to be Miami’s starting quarterback when he comes back next season. But let’s also put things into perspective: He may not be the answer to Miami’s needs. Unlike Norvell, who found his quarterback in Travis toward the end of his second season at FSU (amid an 8-13 start), Cristobal (11-11 through his first 22 games) has uncertainty at the position going forward. Miami’s passing offense, quite frankly, is a mess.

Before he left screaming and in tears, Williams completed only 8 of 23 attempts for 175 yards. His two touchdown throws to Jacolby George — including what felt like a miracle 85-yarder when two FSU defensive backs collided — were his best passes of the night. He had plenty of others that went off the mark, including one off the chest of an official standing in the middle of the field.

Cristobal has done a fine job improving the Hurricanes at the line of scrimmage and by hiring a smart defensive coordinator in Lance Guidry to run the right kind of scheme for the players Miami has on that side of the ball. The Hurricanes did after all hold FSU to 57 yards rushing and outgained the Seminoles 335 to 322.

But you can’t go very far in college football without a top-notch quarterback or a high-scoring offense. Each of the nine unbeaten or one-loss teams with a shot at reaching this year’s Playoff ranks in the top 32 in scoring and has a quarterback who ranks in the top 25 in passing efficiency.

Louisville, Miami’s next opponent, ranks at the bottom among those nine in both categories with quarterback Jack Plummer 25th in efficiency and the offense (32.7 points per game) tied for 32nd in scoring.

Through their first four games, the Hurricanes looked like they’d solved their offensive issues with the hire of former Air Raid aficionado Shannon Dawson to call the plays. Van Dyke started red-hot with 11 touchdowns and only one interception, but he’s fallen apart with 11 interceptions over his last 159 attempts.

How does that happen? How does a former ACC Rookie of the Year suddenly lose his ability to connect with receivers? There are plenty of theories — including one about Cristobal meddling too much in the play calling and asking Dawson to take a more conservative approach.

That’s understandable considering the Hurricanes have turned it over 20 times in 10 games — tied with Wake Forest and Pitt for the most in the ACC.

But turnovers are only part of the reason why Miami’s offense has regressed from scoring 44 points per game in nonconference play to only 19 per game against ACC opponents.

Surely, someone has to explain how Miami, a program known for producing elite tight ends, has completed only 12 passes to the position this season. How has Xavier Restrepo — one of the leading receivers in the ACC — caught only 13 passes over his last four games, including none against FSU? Dawson and Cristobal have to figure that out.

On the other sideline, meanwhile, Norvell deserves praise for becoming the first coach to lift one of the state’s three national championship-winning programs back to relevance since Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State emerged as the kings of the college football world.

The Seminoles may not be good enough at the line of scrimmage when push comes to shove to dethrone Georgia come Playoff time. But Norvell has certainly built a contender, taking parts recruited through the traditional high school ranks and pairing them with his yeoman’s work in the transfer portal.

Nine starters on FSU’s offense and five on defense began their college careers in other places, including outstanding receiver Keon Coleman, who essentially won the game with his 57-yard punt return and touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Jarrian Jones, a Mississippi State transfer, had the game-sealing pick on Van Dyke.

Seven of the 10 transfers FSU plucked out of the portal last cycle start for the Seminoles. That’s a pretty strong percentage. It takes a really good coach to identify not only personnel needs but character fits as well. Some guys are good at it. Norvell is outstanding.

He’s also a really good play caller, masterful with screens and timing. He hit Miami with the counter 52 times in a blowout last season in South Florida and called it at the perfect time Saturday to spring Trey Benson untouched for the go-ahead 38-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

He’s simply better at doing what he does with his personnel than Cristobal is right now.

Or, as Dad said, until Miami finds a quarterback, the Seminoles have the edge.

(Photo of Mario Cristobal: James Gilbert / Getty Images)

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