Florida State Survives Wake Forest 43-3

Florida State isn't winning pretty, but the Seminoles aren't losing, either.

Florida State still has yet to play a complete game this season. Last week at NC State, the Seminole defense took the first quarter off, giving up 24 first-quarter points before getting bailed out by ruthless efficiency from Jameis Winston and the offense in a 56-41 win. This week it was the FSU defense bailing out an offense that sputtered through much of the game, including two first-quarter turnovers.

As often happens with teams starting on top, national pundits have spent the past few weeks scrutinizing Florida State, pointing out the flaws of a team that has “not looked like the number one team in the country,” as commentator Ed Cunningham reiterated in the second half on Saturday. Experts observed that the Seminoles lacked a marquee win and pointed to more impressive performances, such as Texas A&M’s week one seal-clubbing of South Carolina and Oregon’s comeback blowout (?) of Michigan State in week two, as evidence of Florida State’s relative weakness.

Never mind that Florida State had played the toughest schedule of the remaining unbeaten teams entering this weekend. Oklahoma State was not highly ranked coming into the season, and Clemson (absent their starting defensive end and his injured replacement) was blown out in the fourth quarter by Georgia, so FSU was docked for not winning those games by more. Then the Noles “barely” beat NC State on the road by fifteen points, only increasing the scrutiny.

Then this week reminded everyone just how difficult it is to go unbeaten, as four of the top six teams and five of the top eight in the polls fell. Florida State has not yet played well, but they have displayed a world-class chin so far, managing to avoid the upset bug that bit Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and UCLA (though in truth Oregon and the Aggies were defeated by better teams) on Saturday. This is a Florida State team that managed to beat a very good full-strength Clemson team with Winston standing on the sideline in street clothes.

Again, Florida State didn’t play well on offense against Wake Forest on Saturday. But in the context of the carnage occurring below them on Red Wedding Saturday, the Seminoles’ school-record 21-game win streak speaks for itself. FSU has been nowhere near its ceiling, but that the Noles managed to escape a sloppy offensive performance with a 43–3 win (covering a 38-point spread) is a further testimony to this team’s high floor.

Pre-Film Review Thoughts

Wake Forest’s offense was every bit as toothless as our preview had suggested, managing 126 yards on 62 plays (2.0 YPP) and never remotely threatening the FSU defense even after getting the football in FSU territory after two first-quarter turnovers.

Regardless of how poor the Deacon offense was, Florida State’s defense did tackle much better on the day, showing better angles and tackling fundamentals over the course of the game.

Chris Casher and Demarcus Walker were clearly in the doghouse, as true freshman OLB/DE Lorenzo Featherston got the start, with fellow freshman Jacob Pugh the first off the bench at that spot. Casher (who did have a minor shoulder injury last week) and Walker didn’t play much until garbage time. "I'm very pleased with where [Featherston] is at for a freshman,” Fisher said, “getting the number of reps he does in the fifth game."

Featherston's emergence has given FSU much more flexibility on passing downs, as Mario Edwards, Jr. was sliding inside on passing downs with Featherston on the outside. Featherston's quickness and length to the outside prevent Edwards from getting double teamed inside in this look, which should give headaches to offensive coordinators the rest of the year. If Matthew Thomas returns for the second half of the year as expected, FSU's passing down pass rush could be as good as any in the country—and that was the biggest defensive weakness as recently as two weeks ago.

Markuss Eligwe looked rusty to my eye in his first action back from Lisfranc surgery, missing his gap on a few occasions and not presenting quite the physical presence he was last season. One would expect as much in his first game back, but FSU needs Eligwe to knock that rust off as soon as possible with a very good Notre Dame team coming to Tallahassee in two weeks.

On the other side of the ball, our preview had pointed out that the Wake defense was actually decent:

“Wake Forest actually has a respectable defense, ranking 22nd nationally giving up 4.63 YPP. That’s all the more impressive given the lack of support they’ve gotten from their offense. … Florida State actually only averaged 4.1 yards per play against Wake Forest in 2013, the lowest output on the year.”

The Deacon defense held its own through the first half, only giving up 13 points and forcing two turnovers. Florida State finished with 475 yards on 74 plays (6.41 YPP) and finished five drives with field goals, a far cry from the 100% red zone touchdown efficiency of last week.

Jameis Winston never looked comfortable in this game, missing his spots throughout. Some of that discomfort was likely related to center Austin Barron’s first quarter departure due to injury, as backup center Ryan Hoefield had difficulty snapping with accuracy, forcing Winston to catch high and otherwise errant snaps all game.

Fisher said after the game that Barron fractured his hand or arm and might be able to return “by the end of the season,” a big blow for an offensive line that had just started to find some rhythm in the fourth quarter last week.

Star senior receiver Rashad Greene exited the game with a concussion, leading to increased reps from heralded freshmen Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane, who performed admirably and have continued to earn more playing time moving forward.

This FSU team is young in key spots, has battled injuries unlike what the 2013 team encountered, and has not looked like the top team in the country through most of this season. But nobody else has, either, and this FSU team is the one that has continued to get off the mat and keep fighting until it earns a decision. There’s a lot to be said for a team that refuses to lose even when it isn’t playing well. I’m just waiting for what this team is going to look like when both sides of the ball play well in the same game.

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