As was noted in this space last week, the things were certainly not as bad as they seemed against Wake Forest. With several key players back on defense and another couple on offense, the ‘Noles looked like a completely different team against Colorado.
The biggest difference between the two games is the success the ‘Noles had running the football against the Buffaloes. The young offensive line was able to provide sufficient space to run (and do so without costly holding penalties), leading to many more friendly down-and-distance scenarios that protected Christian Ponder from having to win the game. Instead, he was able to simply manage the game, ensuring that the right checks were made at the line and only throwing when necessary. As Jimbo Fisher has said from the time he arrived at Florida State, running an effective offense is dramatically simplified when a team can run the football.
Ponder played an uneven game; he did not look comfortable until the fourth quarter, having a case of happy feet in the pocket early in the game. That said, Fisher made the right move (and one I am not sure I would have made) in leaving Ponder in the game, giving him some much-needed confidence going into the Miami game this weekend. After being allowed to work through some struggles and some bruised confidence after the Wake Forest game, Ponder will be much better prepared for the adversity he will face against a very fast Miami defense on the road.
Another hidden factor in Ponder's uneven performance this week was the inconsistency of the receivers in being in precisely the right place every time—a few times Ponder was late with the football in part because of a lack of confidence that the receiver would be in the right place. That is an area the offensive staff will be working on throughout this week.
Thankfully, due to FSU's success running the football and staying in QB-friendly situations, Ponder was not required to throw the football down the field as he and D'Vontrey Richardson had needed against Wake Forest. Though many of the same plays were called, because of the difference in situations and the types of coverage employed by the two opponents, Ponder was frequently able to check down to safer throws over the course of the game, again giving him much needed experience and confidence at recognizing the easy yardage a defense is allowing.
On the other hand, this was a very spotty performance by the defense. This is certainly one of the best tackling defenses I have seen in years at FSU, and there are some tremendous athletes on the field. That said, there have been way too many coverage breakdowns in the last two games for this defense to be considered anywhere close to where they need to be. There were two occasions against Colorado where CU quarterback Cody Hawkins simply missed wide open receivers virtually assured of big-play touchdowns, while two of CU's touchdowns came on similar coverage breakdowns. Part of the problem is the staff being slow to signal the defensive play call, but there are still concerns in the secondary outside that (very correctable) issue.
The front seven also did not maintain the level of gap control it will need as the competition gets better—too often there were wide creases for Colorado's tailbacks on first down. The defense simply has to do a better job of limiting the yards allowed on first down than it did against Colorado; tackling so well in space has limited the impact the breakdowns in gap control up front have had so far this year, but FSU simply needs to be more consistent and disciplined in its front seven. Eventually, someone is going to miss a tackle, and if we don't "fit" better up front, it will lead to big plays when we can least afford to give them up.
There is plenty to be excited about on the defensive side of the ball, however. The physical presence of Justin Mincey and Dekoda Watson on the field makes a huge difference—FSU's pass rush was substantially better this week than last due in large part to Mincey being a difference-maker up front. Likewise, Patrick Robinson's return should help shore up some of the breakdowns in coverage. Another positive is the continued solid play of Korey Mangum, who has been the surprise player of the year so far for the ‘Noles. On the other side, Ochuko Jenije has flashed good potential in the last two games, despite blowing an assignment late in the game. Having that solid depth at corner will be even more critical as the ‘Noles begin to play more spread-style offenses later in the year.
Another major impact of the returnees from suspension is improved play on special teams—better depth is critical in getting the best athletes possible on the field in these game-changing plays. I still would like to see us stop running ridiculous sideline returns that call for the return man to run across the field before getting to his blocks; it is no coincidence that Garvin's big return came on a simple middle return. I'd like to see FSU emphasize that type of return and let its speedy returners hit the seam hard.
Nigel Bradham had an excellent game for a true freshman. Considering I think Nigel Carr's long-term potential might even be better than Bradham's, FSU will be in good hands at the linebacker spots for a while.
Greg Carr is finally becoming a complete receiver. It's taken a while, but he's getting there.
Myron Rolle is one of the best in-space tacklers we've had at FSU. He doesn't come up and lower the boom very often, but he almost never misses a tackle if he gets his mitts on a guy.
Ponder is putting too much air on his take-offs, fades, and corner routes. It's a better mistake to make than the alternative, but he still needs to take just a little air off it to give his receivers a better chance.
Louis Givens is a heck of a special teams player. He needs to get mentioned more, because he is just fearless out there and flies down the field.
As good a week as Antone had statistically, he still left a lot of yards out there, especially in the first half. He still isn't always hitting the correct seam. We missed one third and short simply because he never saw the seam that had opened up behind Hudson. Jermaine Thomas looks like a natural runner with excellent vision and will be very good here; he's going to continue to get more time as he learns the pass protections better.
We have badly missed having a big back the last couple weeks. Getting Marcus Sims back this week and Ty Jones sometime soon will be a tremendous help to our offense—almost as significant as getting Piurowski back this week.
This was the best our offensive line has blocked for four quarters probably since 2003 or 2004. Datko will be a freshman All American this year if he stays healthy. Those guys will only improve as the year goes on. If they stay healthy, Florida might have their hands full.