These Noles Keep Attacking

Since the early 1980s, Florida State and Miami have had one of the greatest rivalries not only in college football, but in all of sports. Many games have gone down to the very last play, with Miami enjoying a disproportionately large amount of success in these close games as FSU often seemed to play "not to lose" in these tight games.

With Jimbo Fisher at the helm, however, that approach seems to have changed, as the 'Noles not only jumped to an early lead but continued to attack, for once knocking the 'Canes out when they were on the ropes.

Perhaps the most painful loss I can ever remember was the 2002 loss in Miami, when Greg Jones ran wild against an exceptional Miami defense, only to watch the Hurricanes storm back in the fourth quarter, behind a long screen pass to Willis McGahee (a play featuring a key block-in-the-back by Andre Johnson) and Xavier Beitia's "Wide Left" miss. We had worked so hard in the offseason targeting that very game, believing we could line up and run it on that defense. And for three quarters, everything confirmed all that work. But then we decided to drop into a two-tight-end I-Formation in the effort to run down the clock, clinging to a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter.

In response to that shift, Miami also pulled out of the cover-2 shell they had run all game, putting nine in the box instead of seven. And just like that, our running game went "poof," we were unable to run much clock, and Miami tore our hearts out with two late scores, forcing Beitia, a kicker who relied on a consistent routine if there ever was one, to attempt a hurried field goal at the end.

Two years ago, FSU again jumped out to a huge lead in the first half—and again, Miami came storming back in the second half after the 'Noles stopped attacking, trying to hang on to the lead. Fortunately, Florida State managed to hang on to a two-point win. These are by no means the only examples of this second-half "tightness" against Miami, a program that has seemed to have FSU's number for so long. Granted, there were other games that were close throughout, where neither team stopped attacking, but it has long seemed that if FSU had a lead against Miami, you could count on them merely to hang on for dear life—playing not to lose. (Surely this must have been the result of our staff being snakebitten after a couple of devastating close losses in the 80s.)

Knowing this history, when Florida State went into the half with a three touchdown lead on Saturday, the question was whether the Jimbo Fisher Seminoles would begin to play conservatively to protect the lead, or whether they would continue to attack, keeping the foot on the accelerator. And folks, we have our answer. Miami, as expected, came back out in the second half and counterpunched, bringing the game within two scores. But unlike the last couple decades, these 'Noles didn't play not to lose against Miami—these 'Noles kept attacking. The formations stayed the same, they stuck to the game plan (with a few counters to boot), and the defense kept up the pressure.

This change in mentality was clearly signaled on 3rd and 12 deep in Miami territory, up by two touchdowns. In the past, this situation most certainly would have precipitated a run between the tackles, setting up for a mid-range field goal to stretch the lead to 17. But these 'Noles keep attacking. The play call? A slant-and-go to 6'6 WR Rodney Smith (a talented youngster who hadn't yet made a big play in his career)—touchdown. And ballgame.

The difference in approach, in mentality, is huge—this kind of attacking mentality fosters better execution as players only learn to play at one speed. It also shows a great deal of confidence in the players (which in turn is rewarded by having more confident players)—when a team begins to "play not to lose" the subtle message is "we're not as good as them, so the sooner the game ends, the better." By continuing on the attack, the message is exactly the opposite, and the rewards of such thinking are reaped in close games, when the players truly believe in themselves in every situation because their coaches have communicated that trust.

It was equally telling that, upon E. J. Manuel's late entrance, the 'Noles did not set up in the victory formation and kneel on the ball, but called standard running plays with the backups. Again, the message is that these Seminoles will always keep attacking, regardless of the situation. Fisher said as much after the late score against Oklahoma, and now, after watching this team against Miami, I believe him.

A Few Observations

It is clear that Fisher's teams will consistently show as little as they can against lesser programs, saving their best stuff for these games. The first two touchdowns were the direct results of Fisher calling plays that hadn't been shown all year, catching the Miami defense completely flatfooted. The play-action middle screen to Jermaine Thomas was a thing of beauty (when was the last time FSU was a good screen team?) and hadn't been shown in a couple years. Those inside traps to Prior had been set up all year, and it was clear that Miami had never prepared for the counter to all the outside pitch plays off that action. Seminole fans should be excited about a coach who will always save a few extra wrinkles for Miami and Florida.

This team is not 28 points better than Miami, but this was a mirror image of the Oklahoma game—only this time, the 'Noles were the aggressors and the 'Canes were shell-shocked. If these teams play again, I expect a close game.

The linebackers played perhaps the best game they've played so far. They were asked to do a lot in this game—staying in the game when Miami was in spread sets, allowing FSU to stop the run without giving up plays in the passing game. If a team can cover the spread out of a base defense (meaning the linebackers are able to limit receivers), it sets up favorable matchups for the defense.

These defensive backs are playing loose and confident—a huge difference from the last few years, when it looked like FSU's defensive backs were terrified of getting beaten. They've gone from having a "Cougar" mentality to a "Maverick" or "Iceman" mentality, to use a Top Gun parallel. (I've long felt that you need your defensive backs—especially CBs—to have a fighter-pilot mentality; they've got to play right on the edge, confident, and ready to react. It's clear that Stoops' teaching style has really clicked with his segment—a segment that seemed overly torn down the last few years.

For the first time all year, Christian Ponder looked like he was getting his weight shifted over to his left side. For most of the year, his balance has been a little further back and to the left. This game, he was able to push the ball downfield with more authority (though his accuracy was still not quite to 2009 levels)—a sign that perhaps he is getting healthier and more confident.

I've said several times this year that Rodney Smith is a future star, that it would only be a matter of time before he made a big play or two that got him rolling. That might have just happened with his big catch in this game. I'll be interested to see if he becomes a major threat as the year goes on. If so, look out—his emergence as a downfield big-play threat would add the one dimension this offense has lacked all year.

It looked like the defensive line got a bit worn down in the second half—granted, they had been on the field quite a bit longer than the offense, but it's still a potential concern. Fisher has expressed his concern that bigger OLs might be able to wear our DL down late in games—one reason he continues to emphasize the run so strongly—and that showed a bit in this game.

Chris Thompson's 13-yard run on 3rd and 12 was the play of the game—you could just see Miami's shoulders slump after that one. It was also a microcosm of just how hard this Seminole team played, how badly they wanted it (and was reminiscent of the desire Warrick Dunn used to play with, fighting for every last inch).

The chemistry between the players and the coaches is so radically different this year—as could be seen in the celebration at the end of the game. There hasn't been this kind of trust between the coaches and staff since Devaughn Darling's tragic death in the spring of 2001. There's no question these players like and respect their coaches and believe this staff really will do what's right for them, and that is the greatest sign of all that Florida State is back on track—and is the reason that these 'Noles will keep attacking.


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