Things to Watch For: Wake Forest

Florida State's real season starts with tomorrow's game against recent nemesis Wake Forest, a game that I honestly do not expect to be especially competitive. Thanks to West Virginia, FSU comes into the game off two FCS teams and chomping at the bit to play legitimate competition, while Wake Forest is a bit banged up after a narrow win over North Carolina.

I ultimately expect FSU to run roughshod over the Demon Deacons (250+ rushing yards) en route to a sizeable win. Nevertheless, there will be plenty to look for in this game as indicators for how good this FSU team can actually be.

FSU Offensive Line

Wake Forest has an undersized defensive line and will play without their most disruptive defender, NT Nikita Whitlock, but the Deacons' front will still provide a challenge in this one, as Wake Forest will throw a numerous stunts and blitzes at the young Seminole offensive line.

Unlike the huge front sevens used by pressure-oriented odd-front defenses (like Alabama), the Wake Forest front seven is smaller, with each player responsible for only one gap at a time (one-gap schemes are more typical of "even" fronts like the 4-3 used by FSU). The Wake coaching staff knows they cannot match up physically at the line of scrimmage (what a difference a couple years can make!), so they will use the flexibility offered by four linebackers to bring pressure and run support from different places, trying to confuse the opposing front into mistakes. Essentially, Wake Forest will test the young FSU offensive line to think through their assignments; if there is any hesitation, Wake will capitalize on it. Fortunately for Seminole fans, the young front has been reasonably healthy through the spring, summer, and fall and has thus been able to gel as a group, which should help immensely in terms of handling their assignments as a unit.

The key stat to watch here is the number of negative plays given up by the FSU offense. The zone blocking scheme FSU runs is designed to limit the number of negative rushing plays; essentially, if a defender gets penetration, a good zone blocking offensive line (and running back) will simply ride the defender in that direction, creating a seam for the running game. Working as a unit, a zone blocking offensive line should almost never have negative running plays (provided the backs make the proper reads). Given that, the percentage of negative plays given up in this game will actually be more telling for how far the OL has come than the number of rushing yards or yards per carry in this first "real" game. Assuming 70 offensive plays, anything fewer than five negative yardage plays would be a very good sign moving forward, while anything over seven would be a bad sign.

Patience on Offense

The Wake Forest defense can be very frustrating for offenses geared towards big plays, as their defense is the very definition of "bend but don't break." They are typically willing to give up yardage in small chunks, but they want to limit explosive plays, forcing the offense to execute on ten or twelve plays in order to score. Essentially, Wake waits for the offense to make a mistake and then pounces on it, either to get a turnover or a negative yardage play that puts the offense behind the sticks.

Florida State's unwillingness or inability to patiently execute its way down the field has been the single biggest factor in losing four of their last six games with Wake Forest, averaging 4.5 turnovers (including a whopping 13 interceptions) in those four losses. In general, I felt the FSU offensive coaching staff did as good a job as could have been expected given the injuries on offense last year with one major exception: the second half against Wake Forest, when they were able to run the ball successfully (5+ yards a pop) but got impatient due to being behind and instead threw the ball into the teeth of the Wake defense, leading to two second-half interceptions that effectively sealed the game for the Deacons.

This year, it will be interesting to see the willingness of the Seminole coaching staff to simply line up and run the football on Wake Forest's undersized front seven. Given the improvement on the offensive line, there is no reason FSU should not finish this game with over 250 rushing yards and over 5 yards per carry. (A word of caution about jumping to conclusions about play calls: Florida State runs a number of packaged play concepts in which a run play call is packaged with a bubble screen or another "constraint" play designed to take advantage of a defense set up to stop the run call. Expect FSU to use those kinds of short "passes" as extensions of the running game to keep Wake honest, especially early in the game.)

If I were the FSU offensive staff, I would want to come out with a few passes (perhaps a bootleg or two) to get Manuel's feet on the ground, but I would want to establish the run early in the game. In boxing terms, FSU should go to the body early and often and establish their physical superiority on the line of scrimmage right from the start. If you try to knock Wake out too early, they'll counterpunch and potentially win the fight, but if you're willing (and have the personnel) to pound them and push them around up front, those body blows can open up the knockout by the middle rounds. This strategy of course depends on the offensive line's ability to limit negative plays, but if you can be patient and play ahead of the sticks against Wake, you can score points.

In terms of standards, if FSU comes out of this game with one or fewer turnovers, that's a good sign that the FSU offense played with balance. In addition, the run/pass ratio on first down in the first half should be close to 50/50, if not tilted somewhat towards the run.

FSU's Back Seven

Aside from the play of Christian Jones (who so far looks like an upgrade at WLB) and the safeties, I have not been blown away by the performance of FSU's back seven in the first two games. This may well be due to boredom and a lack of focus in what amounted to exhibition games, but Seminole fans will want to keep a close eye on the performance of the cornerbacks and continue to monitor Nick Moody's progress at his new position.

Wake uses a great deal of misdirection on offense, which could take advantage of an aggressive player like Moody. Moody's performance in coverage against play action will be a good indicator of what to expect against Clemson and into the year. FSU should be able to limit the anemic Wake running game with its front four, so Moody should be extra patient and read his keys, sitting on the play action passing game and misdirection runs.

This will be the first game in which FSU's new field corners Nick Waisome and Ronald Darby will be challenged, and their performance will again give some idea of this defense's ceiling. Wake Forest may be limited in terms of downfield playmakers, but Tanner Price is a terrific passer who is also excellent at keeping plays alive with his feet and not taking sacks. The young corners will have to stay awake throughout, as Price can take advantage if they peek into the backfield or miss an assignment.

I haven't been sure if Xavier Rhodes has truly looked healthy in the first two games as the competition wasn't good enough to judge his performance. This game will provide an indicator of whether he's truly healthy—and we can expect to see Wake Forest try an early double move or two on him to test that surgically-repaired knee. Finally, as good as the defense was last year, they struggled to close teams out and get off the field at times last year, particularly in losses against Clemson, Wake Forest, and in the fourth quarter against Virginia. Winning third down will be key to this team's success; a third down conversion rate of lower than 15% for Wake Forest would again be an excellent sign, while 20% would be okay. Likewise, keep an eye out for how many three-and-outs the defense forces. Anything over a 25% three-and-out ratio is excellent and would be a good goal against a Wake Forest team with limited playmakers but an excellent quarterback. Anything below 10% would be a bad sign.


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