FSU Pulls Away After Early Challenge

Any win in Raleigh is a good win for Florida State, no matter how ugly.

If you’re Florida State, any win in Raleigh is a good win. Carter-Finley Stadium has been a house of horrors for the Seminoles of late, with FSU losing five of their last eight at NC State and averaging under 20 points per game in those losses. Offense was not a problem on Saturday, as the Seminoles scored 56 points, but an early 17-point deficit certainly brought back memories of past ranked FSU teams stumbling in Raleigh.

If nothing else attests to how significant the culture change has been in Tallahassee over the past few years, the way Florida State came roaring back against their road nemesis after falling behind 24–7 in the first quarter on Saturday does just that.

“We can take a punch and stand up and compete now,” Jimbo Fisher said after the game. “There’s something to that, and I’m going to tell you—that takes time. That’s a culture. That’s the way you think, the way you believe in each other, and there’s a lot of inner trust in that locker room.”

Before the national championship game last year, the knock on Florida State was that they hadn’t been tested, that nobody knew how they would respond in a close game. The Seminoles would of course go on to win a nailbiter against Auburn in the title game. Nobody is going to bring that question up this year, as this Florida State team has fought and clawed its way to victory in each of its first games against FBS competition, proving that the program has learned how to win games in which it doesn’t play its best—games that over the past decade have slipped away.

Another Early Season Test

This game was reminiscent of last year’s Boston College game—also the Seminoles’ fourth of the season—in which the Eagles jumped out to a 17–3 first quarter lead and then led 24–10 in the second quarter after keeping a Florida State defense (playing without Mario Edwards, Jr.) off balance with new wrinkles they hadn’t yet shown through their first three games against inferior competition.

But then Jameis Winston and the FSU offense got on track, the defense adjusted, and Boston College eventually had to return to their base offense, at which point Florida State stormed back to win by fifteen, 48–33.

This was a nearly identical script. An NC State team that had played an extremely soft early-season schedule jumped ahead 24–7 in the first quarter in large part by keeping the Seminole defense off balance with new wrinkles they hadn’t shown so far this year and a key turnover by the offense.

Fisher talked after the game about the extra difficulty of preparing for early-year opponents who can reserve special wrinkles they haven’t yet shown in the attempt to pull the big upset. “[It’s harder] if they’ve got certain games ahead of you that aren’t significant,” Fisher said.” They can hide things, protect things, do things in how they plan—which they did a great job of—[stuff] I would [do] too.”

But much like last year, once the FSU offense found its feet, it was clear the reigning champions were not going to stay on the canvas, and a 17-point lead was not going to be enough for the Wolfpack. Like Boston College last year, NC State eventually ran out of gadgets and simply could not sustain its lead with its base offense.

Adding a Pass Rush

As with last year’s Boston College game, the Florida State defense discovered a new weapon on the edge during its comeback. Last year it was Christian Jones moving from the inside to the edge, where he was a much better player. This year, it was true freshman phenom Lorenzo Featherston, whose length and explosiveness was able to provide in the second half the pass rush Florida State has lacked so far in 2014.

And that has, in my opinion, been the single biggest lack on the FSU defense so far this season. Although the Florida State defense is not geared towards getting a lot of sacks, it’s still necessary to pressure the quarterback, and that’s something the Seminoles hadn’t done well enough through the first three and a half games.

Demarcus Walker and Chris Casher are good players and give the Seminoles size and power on the edge, but with Matthew Thomas suspended and Markus Eligwe still recovering from offseason Lisfranc surgery, FSU has lacked a true speed rush threat on the edge and has struggled at times to prevent opposing quarterbacks from breaking contain and extending plays. Featherston (and to a lesser extent, Jacob Pugh) filled that void on Saturday, showing how much better this defense can be with a major pass rush threat on the edge.

Fisher was almost giddy about Featherston’s play after the postgame press conference, and there’s no doubt the freshman’s future is bright. His performance also highlighted just how much better this defense can be once Thomas and Eligwe have returned, bringing their own dynamic talents to the linebacking corps.

Tackling?

This was probably the worst tackling game I’ve seen from FSU since 2009. Fisher was understandably exasperated after the game when discussing the defense’s seeming inability to get NC State’s offensive players on the ground, observing that FSU goes through tackling drills first thing every practice and that they simply did not observe proper fundamentals. Smart money says tackling winds up a pretty big emphasis this week as FSU prepares for Wake Forest.

Predictions vs. Hindsight

In our game preview, we talked about several things to look for in this game, wrapping up with several predictions about what might transpire. We evaluate those below:

I think Florida State finally starts to put things together on offense in this one, as Jameis Winston comes out blazing after three weeks off and Bobo Wilson has a bit of a coming-out party. Whether due to a reshuffled lineup or simply better communication, I expect the Seminole offensive line to begin looking more like they should, with Karlos Williams going over 100 yards for the first time this season.

Check marks basically across the board. Bobo Wilson had six catches for 109 yards and two scores, providing a solid second option throughout. Williams ran for 126 yards on 21 carries (6.0 YPC), and the running game seems to have finally started finding its stride in the second half.

But I do expect the defense to have some problems with Brissett, whose accuracy and size will cause some problems for FSU without Edwards.

This was more correct than we might have realized. FSU especially struggled to get Brissett on the ground in this one, and NC State’s 41 points attest to just how much the defense did struggle in this one.

NC State has some young talent to go with Brissett, but I think they’re ultimately a couple years away from challenging Florida State through four quarters. Florida State wins in the red zone and pulls away,

FSU was perfect in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on each trip—a key component in the Seminoles ultimately pulling away in the fourth quarter. It was a higher scoring game than we anticipated overall, but overall the results were not especially surprising.

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