Florida State is used to being on the other side of these games. Through the better part of two decades, the Seminoles struggled to get over the hump against rival Miami, outplaying the Hurricanes multiple times only to lose in the most heart-wrenching ways possible. Legendary FSU head coach Bobby Bowden joked in those years that that his epitaph would say, “…but he played Miami.”
Saturday night, Florida State stood on the other side of that equation, with Clemson outplaying the Seminoles through most of the evening, outgaining the Seminoles 407–318 and making seven trips inside the FSU red zone to Florida State’s two, only to lose the game anyway.
And make no mistake. Florida State should have lost this game. But as Jimbo Fisher often says, “You can play a game well and play situations poorly and lose. [Or] you can play average, play situations well and win the game.”
In this case, Clemson gifted the Seminoles with two missed field goals (a familiar element in FSU’s devastating losses to Miami), a key fumble in the red zone late in the game, and came away empty after having first-and-goal from one foot outside the Seminole end zone, thanks to a bad snap over the head of freshman phenom quarterback Deshawn Watson.
Florida State, on the other hand, displayed its championship pedigree by making just enough big plays in key situations to come away with an ugly overtime win, despite playing without suspended quarterback Jameis Winston and losing star DE/LB Mario Edwards, Jr. for the second half.
At the end of the day, the game was decided in the trenches, as Florida State’s defensive front won its matchup against the Clemson offensive line in short-yardage situations, holding the Tigers out of the end zone in five of seven red zone trips and coming up with the critical stop on fourth and one in overtime. (FSU, by contrast, scored touchdowns on both its red zone trips.)
FSU’s stout play on the defensive interior is especially good news for Seminole fans, as the defensive tackle position was perhaps the biggest question mark on this team coming into the season. With Winston returning for the remainder of the season (provided he can keep from further off-field foolishness), that puts the Seminoles in excellent position moving forward.
Either way, Florida State is fast becoming to Dabo Swinney and Clemson what Miami was to Florida State for so many years. As Fisher said, this Florida State team “knows how to win” at this point and showed why it’s so much harder to knock out a team that has won a championship.
In case there was any doubt as to his place in FSU lore, receiver Rashad Greene cemented his all-timer status and added to his legacy with yet another clutch play when his team most needed it. At this point, a strong case can be made that Greene is the best receiver in FSU history, and the program has had more than its share of great receivers, including the guy the national award for the position is named after. The guy just makes big plays at big times.
Much-maligned punter Cason Beatty picked a good time to play his best game in a Seminole uniform. (Perhaps he just needed enough punts to get into rhythm?) Regardless, Florida State would not have won this game without Beatty’s performance, which kept Clemson from being able to tilt the field position battle.
Defensive Tackle Eddie Goldman made a lot of money for himself tonight, particularly in Edwards’ absence in the second half. Goldman forced the C.J. Davidson fumble in the red zone late in the fourth quarter, preventing Clemson from being able to take a lead late. He blew up the play on Clemson’s fourth-and-one attempt in overtime, forcing Adam Choice to bounce into the arms of Chris Casher and Reggie Northrup without a head of steam.
And in a hidden element of the game, he may have had a significant role in the high snap that cost Clemson a key scoring opportunity from the one-foot-line in the third quarter. The play before, Goldman had perfectly timed the snap and pushed the center three yards into the backfield before making a tackle for a loss. That play was nullified by a (probably incorrect) offsides call, but its impact was felt on the next play, when Clemson center Ryan Norton tried to block more quickly as he snapped, hoisting the ball over Watson’s head and pushing the Tigers out of sure scoring position.
Roberto Aguayo’s excellence allowed FSU to play for overtime knowing they had the edge in the kicking game, whereas Clemson continues to have the same problems as FSU of the 90s.
Florida State struggled to run the football most of the game—FSU averaged an anemic 2.4 yards per carry even after eliminating the five sacks of Sean Maguire. But most seem to have forgotten that the Seminoles struggled to run the ball even in their dominant performance in Death Valley last year, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry in 2013. Clemson’s run defense is outstanding, with the performance at Georgia in week one the anomaly. And as we mentioned in our preview, most of Georgia’s rushing yardage came after Clemson was reduced to its third-string right defensive end in that game, whereas they were at full strength in this game.
Nevertheless, FSU struggled on the offensive line far more than should be expected of a unit starting five seniors. Many of the problems were due to miscommunications, but Clemson also caused problems by stemming their front and slanting their line to alter the blocking angles for the Seminole offensive line. Florida State tried to run a bit more power-based stuff in the first half with little success but had more success as they returned to their usual bread-and-butter outside zone later in the game.
I do think FSU running back Karlos Williams has put on a bit too much weight, as he’s not as smooth at 235 pounds as he was at closer to 225. He also appears about a step slower at this weight than he was before adding the extra weight. That said, he ran extremely hard even with little space most of the game and finally relaxed in overtime, hitting the rushing lanes more naturally rather than forcing the action, which has been an issue through the first three games.
The scoring play in overtime was very similar to the first Todd Gurley touchdown against Clemson in the first week, with FSU blocking specifically for the cutback in that situation.
Mario Edwards dominated everyone he lined up across until his concussion. If he and Goldman both maintain the level they showed in this game, Florida State’s defensive front will be elite the rest of the season.
Terrance Smith continues to be terrific against both the run and the pass. Reggie Northrup was solid against the run throughout. The outside linebackers, however, remain inconsistent, and the defense will very much benefit from the return of Markus Eligwe and Matthew Thomas later in the season. Chris Casher played well in spots (including several key pressures in a row midway through the second half) but was picked on in others.
Maguire will join Marcus “Rooster” Outzen as in FSU history as a backup quarterback with a legendary home win against a quality opponent. Maguire never really got comfortable in this game, and FSU struggled to stay ahead of the sticks more than expected, which did not help, as Maguire was pressured on 12 of 20 pass attempts in the first half, including three sacks.
FSU did come out throwing as expected, passing on 12 of the first 15 plays, but the offensive line struggled to protect and Maguire was jittery, particularly struggling when making vertical throws, which he uncharacteristically floated most of the game—a clear sign of nerves and discomfort. He also held onto the football too long on several occasions; at least two of the sacks FSU gave up were on him.
Some were questioning during the game whether Winston could have made much of a difference given the offensive line’s struggles. The answer to that is that he would have made a huge difference, both because of his ability to get rid of the football quickly and because of his strength in the pocket. In the situation shown below, for example, Winston likely shrugs off the tackle and steps forward to make the throw downfield, while Maguire could only get rid of the football to narrowly avoid the sack:
Without Winston at QB, FSU was also unable to take advantage of Clemson’s biggest defensive weakness—their safeties and linebackers in coverage.
Even on his most successful drives, Maguire took some major chances throwing to a covered O’Leary, not always seeing the outside coverage when O’Leary was bracketed. He ultimately paid for it with his first interception, on which he broke two rules by throwing late over the middle and throwing over the middle after pumping to that area and hesitating. That said, Maguire did improve over the course of the game and played well enough to keep FSU in it throughout.
Finally, Clemson is a really good football team and with Watson at QB may win out the remainder of this year, including a breakthrough win over South Carolina. The Tigers’ defensive front is up there with Florida’s as the best FSU will see on the year.