Clemson at Florida State: Preview

Sean Maguire steps in as the starter for Florida State as they face division rival Clemson at home. We break down the matchup and tell you what to expect.

Florida State on Offense

Jameis Winston’s suspension has obviously made this game a good bit more interesting and certainly makes FSU more vulnerable. Sean Maguire has a strong arm and a good grasp of the offense, but there’s obviously a gap between the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and his backup.

Fortunately, because of how Florida State practices, Maguire has been throwing to the first team receivers all fall, and he has had time to get used to working with the first team offensive line—and they’ve had time to adjust to his cadence, which is an often-overlooked factor when a new quarterback comes into the game. (The transition back to Winston in the second half actually has the potential to cause a few problems initially in part because of this factor.)

One thing is certain: Maguire and the FSU offense will come out aggressively and throw the football downfield in the first half. Many in the national media have suggested that the Seminole offense will play conservatively and try to pound the football in the first half, but don’t believe a word of it.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher believes the best way to protect a young or inexperienced quarterback is to throw on first down and in other opportunities where the offense has leverage. The aim is to protect the quarterback from long-yardage situations when the defense knows the offense has to throw and can apply pressure while throwing different coverage looks at the new QB.

You can be certain that FSU’s game plan will be geared even more than usual at maintaining leverage. Expect FSU to throw on first down and run in longer-yardage situations, keeping Maguire out of situations where he might make a mistake. I expect the basic plan to be for Maguire to come to the line with a run/pass check on each neutral down (1st and 10, 2nd and medium, etc.).

If Clemson stacks the line of scrimmage as expected against a young quarterback, Maguire will attack those looks in the passing game. If the run is there, FSU will run it. It’s really the same basic system the Noles run with Winston with the exception that Fisher obviously trusts Winston more in bad-leverage situations. Maguire has been in this offense for three years and can make all the checks, so don’t expect a reduced offense in the first half at all.

In his previous appearances, Maguire has shown particular comfort throwing downfield off boot action to the right, so expect to see FSU run the bootleg out of the pistol formation with a deep “over” route (where a receiver comes all the way across the formation in the direction of the boot to catch on the opposite hash mark). Rashad Greene has had success running that route in the past, but I expect to see Bobo Wilson as the guy running the “over” in this one as Greene will have extra attention all game.

I also expect to see FSU continue to run a lot of the “X-Cross” or “Levels” concept they used frequently in the Oklahoma State game. This concept gives Maguire an easy read to the play side, with an automatic throw to Greene if he’s open and an option route to tight end Nick O’Leary as the second read. If Clemson overloads the play side to stop it, the backside seam or post comes into play. Florida State has repped this so much with both quarterbacks that Maguire should be very comfortable with it at this point.

Another factor in play here is that although Clemson did have difficulty stopping the run against Georgia, most of those problems emerged late in the game after losing backup defensive end Tavaris Barnes to injury. Barnes, of course, was playing in place of suspended starter Corey Crawford, who is an excellent player and very solid against the run. Georgia followed Barnes’ exit with three long touchdown runs to put the game away and give the misleading impression that Clemson’s defense is weak against the run.

Florida State’s coaching staff is aware of that dynamic and knows better than to expect to be able to line up and pound Clemson by running the football early and often. In the 2013 matchup that largely featured the same personnel up front on both sides, Clemson was able to limit Florida State to 3.2 yards per carry—the Seminoles’ lowest average all year.

Instead, expect FSU to target Clemson’s bigger defensive weakness: their safeties and linebackers matched up in coverage against FSU’s skill talent. Georgia also had success putting multiple tailbacks on the field and splitting Sony Michel wide in the passing game to take advantage of some of those matchups. I expect to see Florida State do some of the same with Karlos Williams and Mario Pender, both excellent receivers. When FSU does run, I expect them to run more to the left side to take advantage of Vic Beasley’s lack of size and slow him down as a pass rusher.

I think Clemson’s defense is better than it was last year and is significantly underrated after the deceptive score against Georgia, but I don’t think they match up especially well with Florida State’s offense even with Maguire at quarterback. Last year, FSU averaged 7.7 yards per play against Clemson. I expect that to be a bit less this year but still reasonably high at around 7 yards per play, again with most of that coming in the passing game.

Florida State on Defense

As everyone already knows, Clemson lost a great deal from last year’s offense. But they’ve reloaded exceptionally well at the skill positions and returned several key pieces on their offensive line.

Receivers Charone Peake and Mike Williams are NFL-quality big receivers with outstanding downfield speed, though Williams had a few key drops against Georgia. Freshman Artavis Scott has been as advertised and provides a game-breaker. Adam Humphries continues to provide versatility and reliability in the slot. Florida State should be most concerned about Williams’ ability to get free from physical coverage and create separation downfield, especially if corners Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams are still not fully healthy after being limited with hamstring injuries through the first three weeks.

In the running game, Clemson badly misses tight end Sam Cooper, who broke his fibula in warmups before the Georgia game after missing 2013 with a knee injury. Cooper is the Tigers’ most physical perimeter blocker, and their running game has not been impressive in his absence.

Senior D.J. Howard is the starter at running back, but he doesn’t provide much “pop” at the position. I expect to see more of freshman Wayne Gallman and junior C.J. Davidson in this one. Gallman in particular flashed in his few appearances against Georgia, displaying an impressive combination of power and speed.

But FSU should still have an advantage over Clemson up front on this side of the ball, and that is where I think this game will ultimately be won. Clemson remains unsettled on the interior three of the offensive line, and Georgia had a great deal of success providing pressure through the A gaps in passing situations, as you can see below.

I expect to see FSU follow suit with ample use of dime packages and pressure looks up the middle. Because Mario Edwards, Jr., Eddie Goldman, and Derrick Mitchell should all have an edge on the inside, FSU should feel comfortable putting extra speed on the field around them, limiting the space Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris can work with.

In the end, I think Clemson continues to have trouble moving the football against Florida State’s defense, averaging around four yards per play on the game and simply not scoring enough points to keep this one close through four quarters.

I do not, however, foresee a blowout anything like last year’s game, where several early turnovers knocked the Tigers out by the end of the first quarter. Instead, I expect this one to look a bit more like the 2012 game, which was competitive through three quarters before FSU pulled away late. I expect FSU to have a narrow (perhaps a touchdown) lead at the half before pulling away in the late third quarter. I have FSU 41, Clemson 24.

Wayne McGahee III: I had a completely different prediction piece for this game before the news Wednesday. Before Winston was suspended, I had Florida State winning 44-21. Now that Maguire is going to play for at least a half I had to temper my expectations a little bit.

That’s not because Maguire is a bad player—he is actually very talented—but because he is 1) Not Jameis Winston and 2) doesn’t have the chemistry with the first team receivers and is also not used to Barron snapping to him. That being said, I do think Clemson will likely try to stack the box to make Maguire beat them, and

Florida State will come out firing to make Maguire more comfortable.

The Florida State defense has had to prepare for two very different quarterback styles. Stoudt is a more conservative quarterback, but that leads to a lack of big plays. Watson on the other hand isn’t afraid to take risks and is more of a boom or bust type of player at this point. The defense will have to know exactly which quarterback is in the game at all times. I think that Florida State will have a 3-7 point lead at halftime and Winston comes in and blows it open in the second half. Noles 37-21.

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