Many Seminole fans are still shell-shocked after a third straight loss to Wake Forest on Saturday, especially given how poorly the Seminole offense played. Seven turnovers, 139 penalty yards, and numerous missed assignments all contributed to one of the sloppiest offensive performances imaginable. Nonetheless, there is no reason to panic; despite an ugly performance, the offense is still headed in the right direction.
Surely everyone can remember the pressure Tiger Woods was under a couple years ago while going through his extensive swing change with Hank Haney. After not having the kind of success people were accustomed to seeing from him, his decision to make the changes was widely questioned. He wasn't putting the ball in the fairway as often, his greens in regulation were down, and he seemed to be losing the ball to the right in pressure situations. After each tournament (or even each round) he constantly had to defend himself, saying, "I'm close," and insisting that progress was being made, even though it seemed he wasn't going anywhere. Then suddenly the new swing clicked—and Tiger ran off two of the greatest years professional golf has ever seen, winning nearly 80% of the tournaments in which he entered—an absolutely unheard of feat in the modern game.
FSU's situation is similar right now. After a very frustrating and ugly loss, it is simply premature to jump the gun on anything right now. As with Haney, our coaches' plan is sound. Jimbo Fisher and Rick Trickett have won in every place they've coached, and their direction is sound. But any careful listener would have realized the possibility of just this sort of performance when Trickett was asked about his OL on Wednesday of last week: "Physically [about freshman tackle Andrew Datko] not going to match up with a fifth year guy being a true freshman but hopefully that technique will get him through. … I've never been any game like I was in the first game. You started five guys and three of them had never been in a game and then when your second team goes in none of them had ever been in a game. It's just something we have to work through."
What we saw against Wake is simply (very painful) growing pains of several young players at key positions who had never played an FBS (D-1A) opponent. It was clear from the very start that the speed of the game was something that our youngsters simply were unprepared for. Rodney Hudson went through similar troubles at Clemson last year and came back to have an excellent year—the difference is that this year we had three young Hudsons up front and two inexperienced QBs behind them.
I can't repeat this enough: Wake's defense is big, fast, and experienced, and this was the first real major college action for three of our starters on the OL. We had kids playing against grown men, and they struggled a bit, especially in the running game. There is going to be a ton of improvement on that front the next couple weeks as the game begins to slow down for the young guys. I do think having Ty Jones back from injury will help us, but we need to continue to get Antone Smith carries as well (Smith's few good runs this week were called back due to penalties). That said, having D'Vontrey Richardson at QB gives FSU an automatic running game even when the OL is struggling. The couple option plays and zone read plays were the best running gains all night aside from some very nice scrambles by both young QBs.
What about the playcalling, though? Many fans have been complaining that Jimbo Fisher's offense got impatient and abandoned the running game for too much downfield passing. I disagree. Most of the problems in that department stemmed from playing behind the chains far too often. The numbers are staggering: FSU was in 1st and 15 or worse three different times, 2nd and 15 or worse four times, and 3rd and 12 or more six times (two of which were INTs). The ‘Noles were in 3rd and 6 or worse an amazing 12 of 16 third down plays during the game.
Was this because Fisher refused to run the football? The numbers say otherwise: FSU ran the football on 11 out of 24 first down plays (the last three drives, all 2-minute-drill drives, all started with a pass) for an average of 2.6 yards gained per first down rushing play (and a fumble). FSU also ran the football nine times on second down for an average of 3.3 yards per rush, with one lost fumble. Unfortunately, two of the three biggest second down runs were followed by a false start (from 3rd and 2 to 3rd and 7) and a personal foul call (from 3rd and 1 to 3rd and 15).
When a team plays so much from behind the chains due to penalties and difficulties running the football, the natural result is more difficulty protecting the passer and more turnovers as it becomes increasingly necessary to throw downfield in the attempt to get first downs. This is precisely what Florida State encountered in this game. Fortunately, most of the mistakes leading to this are easily correctable—penalties and missed assignments. Just by eliminating the penalties and getting into more QB-friendly short-yardage situations, the offense will dramatically improve. I anticipate a dramatic improvement against Colorado. I'd be surprised if the ‘Noles score fewer than 28 points against CU.
Wake Forest tackled EXTREMELY well. Aside from a couple excellent plays from the QBs, I don't remember more than three or four missed tackles from their defense all night. That Wake defense is probably a top 10 defense—based on my observation, they should have three or four first day NFL draft picks in the next draft (two linebackers, one DB, and perhaps a DL), and they have at least six players on that defense that will play in the NFL.
One place to be more concerned is the defense. Yes, they did not allow a touchdown, but there were players running free in the secondary at least four times, only one of which was completed. And it was not because of pressure that those throws were missed—the defense simply cannot rely on the QB missing throws downfield in the future. The defense allowed too many yards on first down until the fourth quarter and only forced five three-and-outs (though they did force two turnovers) over the course of the game (two of which were in the last two minutes as Wake was content to run out the clock and kick a field goal). Fortunately, now that the defense will be at full strength, some of these concerns should be more easily addressed.
I am pleased that the team refused to quit at any point, despite how poorly things continued to go. Two years ago (and perhaps even last year), this team would have quit. The fact that they continued to fight shows that they're buying into what we're doing.
D'Vontrey Richardson clearly looked the better of the two QBs, showing his rare combination of running and passing skills. He also looked a bit more comfortable with the speed of the game, though that may have had something to do with it being a bit easier to come off the bench with less pressure on his shoulders. He looked like he knew where to go with the ball, which is encouraging—the first INT was simply an overthrow (the right throw), while the second appeared to be the same though it is less clear.
Christian Ponder struggled more; after the shock of throwing an INT on his first pass and then coming off the field after a fumble on the next drive, it never looked like he got settled. It looked at times like the game was moving a little quickly for him after that. That said, I would probably start Christian again this next week with a plan to see D'Vo at some point in the first half if the situation allows.
There is no reason to make a switch to Weatherford at this point—the game will move half as fast for the two kids this week, and they'll only get better as the year progresses. In addition, as we continue to break in a young offensive line, the young guys' mobility will continue to be a plus. Most of all, Seminole fans need to remember that Chris Weinke threw six interceptions in his first conference game as a redshirt sophomore. These two (who combined for five on Saturday) will be just fine—Fisher has a fantastic track record with QBs and will get them back on the horse right away.
My initial prediction for this year was that we would lose to Wake Forest and win the rest of our conference games—I still think that is a very viable possibility as we see our youngsters improve the rest of the year. There's still a lot to be positive about, despite the showing on Saturday.