With just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter and Florida State up 31-13, backup punt returner Jesus “Bobo” Wilson muffed a punt, giving Syracuse the football at the FSU 21 yard line. The Seminole defense, which had just forced a three-and-out, dutifully marched onto the field and lined up to stop yet another Syracuse threat.
Although the defense had struggled to get pressure on the quarterback through most of the game, Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards, Jr. whipped their blockers, pressuring T.J. Long into a poor throw that was intercepted by safety Nate Andrews. The defense then trotted to the sideline with no appreciable celebration, yet another routine play in the books.
This play typified Florida State’s workmanlike performance in their 38-20 road win over Syracuse, a game in which I could not escape the impression that this FSU team is much like an elite NBA team during the regular season, doing what is necessary to win but devoid of the passion and intensity that only comes when it “really matters.”
After winning a BCS National Championship in 2013, this team sometimes seems uninterested in playing against the Wake Forests and Syracuses of the football world. These games have become merely part of the routine, another practice on the way to bigger games like the upcoming home tilt against Notre Dame.
The defense has looked lethargic and vulnerable at times but then turns up the intensity when challenged—as demonstrated against Clemson, the second half against NC State, and repeatedly in the red zone against Syracuse, which came away without a touchdown in four trips inside the Seminole 20-yard-line.
But once an opposing offense gets deep into FSU territory, Eddie Goldman, Mario Edwards, Jr., and other difference-makers on the defense seem to flip a switch and transform back into a dominant unit for a few plays. This is frustrating for those expecting to see complete-game dominance from the Seminoles, as it points both to the defense’s high ceiling and the seeming lack of passion displayed by this team in large stretches.
Some of this inconsistency seems to be the result of youth. Last year’s team had such strong senior leadership that lapses in concentration and motivation simply did not happen.
Injuries have been another significant factor, particularly on the defensive front. Without Nile Lawrence-Stample (season) and Derrick Mitchell (last two games), the Seminoles are thin at the defensive tackle position. At this point, there is still a noticeable drop off from Mitchell to Desmond Hollin and Derrick Nnadi, though the latter continues to flash the physical tools to be very good as he gets more experience. The overall rotation has also been reduced due to these injuries, meaning the Seminoles’ top players are conserving their energy as they stay on the field longer—a player can give 100% for three or four plays in a row, but it’s not possible to do it every play for multiple 10-play drives over the course of a game. Thus some of the switch-flipping we’ve been observing.
The Seminoles are talented enough to get away with this routine approach most of the time, but against better teams like Notre Dame or if the Noles make it to the College Football Playoff, they’re going to have to play the full game with the intensity they’ve shown in the red zone.
Getting their injured and suspended players back on defense and continuing to develop some of the youngsters like Nnadi will be critical to Florida State’s championship hopes, but it’s also going to be critical for the Seminoles to learn to close teams out with passion and intensity earlier in games, developing a killer instinct like the one they showed on the way to a championship last season.
Much of this team has clearly been there before and acts like it, but this team will have to turn up the intensity to championship levels if it wants to get there again.