Here we'll focus on a few plays that illustrate a few of these mistakes. Unsurprisingly, we'll yet again see that the plays were there to be made, but missed assignments and mental errors are the reason for FSU's inconsistency.
FSU tight end Nick O'Leary is a fan favorite and the most talented tight end FSU has had in years. I suspect some of FSU fans' obsession with the tight end stems from watching the ‘Noles get burned by Miami tight ends for years in the 90s and early part of the last decade. Many fans continue to call for O'Leary to get significantly more targets than he receives, but although he is indeed a very good player, he has shown no reason that he should be specifically featured in an offense with a wealth of skill talent.
That said, FSU's first play was clearly designed to go to O'Leary, taking advantage of Miami's emphasis on taking away FSU's run game. The play call is a bootleg out of a two tight end, one back set with the receivers in tight and the tight ends lined up in the slot.
The design of the play is to get the Miami defense flowing fast to the defense's right, with O'Leary's pivot route first looking like a block before turning into the flat for an easy reception. This has the effect of getting the ball to a talented tight end in space while also giving FSU QB E.J. Manuel, who sometimes gets overly hyped early in games, an easy throw to get his feet on the ground.
The defense does exactly as expected, with O'Leary ready to pivot into the flat off the play action.
Here we see the end result: a good receiving tight end wide open in the flat with no one within five yards of him. Unfortunately for Seminole fans, O'Leary attempted to hurdle his tackler downfield and fumbled, setting up Miami's first touchdown.
The First Sack on Manuel
In the third quarter, FSU goes back to the exact same play but runs it to the opposite side. (This of course runs contrary to the claims of many outraged fans that FSU never ran the same play back to O'Leary again, despite how open it had been the first time.)
The major difference is that this time, Miami has a well-disguised corner blitz coming off the short side, right into the bootleg action. You'll notice that Miami's defense looks nearly identical to its prior set, with the only exception that the corner is lined up a little closer to the line of scrimmage. This corner blitz may have been a "go on sight" adjustment by the Miami coaches in response to this particular formation after the first example.
Another difference on this particular play is that O'Leary oddly stands in one place rather than running his pivot route, allowing the outside blitzer to run right by him, neither blocking nor running his route (white circle below).
I'm not sure if there was a protection check here, but this is clearly the same play and it's usually a bad sign if an offensive player is simply standing in one place with no clear indication of having a particular assignment. It appears to me that O'Leary either should have picked up the blitzing corner (a less likely check on a naked boot like this) or (more likely) run his route into the flat, giving Manuel a quick outlet in the case of a blitzing corner. At any rate, Manuel is a sitting duck here, as the corner has clearly recognized the bootleg and Manuel has no blocker or outlet in the flat.
In this case we have the same well-designed play called twice, once perfectly executed but spoiled by a bad decision that resulted in a fumble, and the next time poorly executed into the teeth of a good defensive call. Fans can demand that FSU force-feed its talented tight end all they want, but the fact is that his number is indeed getting called.
Second Sack on Manuel
Manuel has gotten much undeserved criticism from fans for "poor pocket sense" on a number of sacks that have been the result of a missed assignment, meaning a rusher who was supposed to be blocked simply comes free. When that happens, no quarterback is going to look like he has much "pocket sense" because there was no real pocket to begin with.
The second sack on Manuel is a good example of this. On third-and-seven, FSU lines up in the gun with four receivers and motions sophomore WR Rashad Greene from the outside left behind the quarterback and across the formation, motioning to trips to the field side. (This particular motion is very common in Air Raid offenses.) Miami sends a cornerback (orange circle) across the field with Greene, indicating man coverage and a likely blitz (middle linebacker is coming). The pre-snap read suggests that a quick throw to Greene in the flat will easily get the first down, as the corner responsible for him will never reach him in time.
The next picture shows a basic outline of the various assignments from the OL:
The breakdown on this one comes when first-year starter Menelik Watson (a favorite of this column for his nasty streak), who is responsible for blocking the defensive end, instead turns inside and double-teams the defensive tackle, turning the defensive end loose for an easy sack.
As you can see, this should have been an easy first down, with Greene wide open in the flat and lots of grass in front of him.
Unfortunately, a single missed assignment from an offensive tackle who has otherwise been terrific this year changes the outcome of a play from an easy first down (if not more) to a sack and punt.
These three plays typify the sort of little mental errors and lack of attention to detail that have caused the offense to stall at times this season. All three plays are simple, straightforward calls that FSU runs on a regular basis, but somehow one player manages to make a mental mistake and the play doesn't work. And it's not like FSU is running a lot of different plays out there (a myth among many fans); from what I saw, they ran around 12-15 different plays against Miami, which is well within the norm.
Ultimately, these breakdowns in execution are on the offensive coaching staff, but the leaders among the players also need to step up and hold their teammates accountable to pay close attention to detail and stay mentally sharp. As any coach in the country will tell you, these sorts of breakdowns are the difference between great offense and average production. The solution? Focused and attentive film sessions, focused reps in practice, and accountability.