Wow. Talk about a tough loss for a young team to swallow! After four straight weeks in which this youthful Seminole team had shown that it had learned how to fight and win close games, the penchant for playing so many close games finally caught up to the ‘Noles. This space has been concerned all year that the defensive front's lack of gap control would end up costing the team a loss, and Georgia Tech's option attack was perfectly suited to exploiting this weakness.
Florida State has historically had some success stopping one-dimensional option attacks (e.g. Nebraska in the early 90s), thanks largely to its solid defensive line play and speedy linebackers. This year, however, the ‘Noles have had trouble getting consistent play (let alone dominance) from the defensive tackle position, which is the most important element in stopping a triple option attack. Unfortunately, the defensive staff's puzzling decision to run a bizarre defensive scheme against Georgia Tech only compounded the problem.
Against a triple option attack, which demands the defense play "assignment football," 4-3 defenses traditionally assign the defensive tackles, inside linebacker, and the weakside linebacker (that is, the linebacker on the back side of the option play) to the dive back, the defensive end to the quarterback, and the outside linebacker to the pitch. The job of the defensive tackles in this scheme is essentially to occupy the middle three offensive linemen, clogging the possible running lanes and allowing the linebacker(s) responsible for the dive back a clean shot. Alternatively, in a one-gap control scheme, each DT is given a gap to occupy, while the linebacker also has a gap; as long as no player leaves his gap or allows himself to be pushed out of position, there will be no running room. Some combination of these base defenses is what most expected to see from Florida State against Georgia Tech.
However, for some odd reason, the defensive staff decided to pinch the defensive tackles into the "A" gaps on each side of the center, leaving a large "bubble" to the strong side. The defensive end on that side "crashed" inside on the snap and was responsible for the dive back (it also appears the middle linebacker was also responsible for the dive back much of the time), while the outside linebacker took the quarterback. The obvious problem is that, given man coverage from the cornerback, there was no remaining player to cover the pitch player (aside from a safety further upfield). Given no real perimeter contain player, Yellow Jackets gashed the Seminole defense for big yards on the pitch in the first half, leading to each of their first two scores. On at least one of these pitch plays, the safety responsible for the play was sucked inside, leaving absolutely no contain for the pitch man; the pursuit of the backside safety was the only thing preventing a long TD.
To top it off, pinching each defensive tackle into the "A" gaps several times created huge seams for the dive back (ACC leading rusher Jonathan Dwyer); two of these plays went for long scores. Remember: the triple option attack is designed to create vertical seams in a defense such that if there is a single missed assignment, there will be a huge play. Georgia Tech simply responded to FSU's pinched defensive tackles with slightly wider splits from the offensive line, effectively letting FSU's defensive tackles create seams for the running game with their alignment while also giving Tech's offensive guards easy blocking access to the ‘Noles linebackers.
Though there must be some reason FSU's defensive staff chose such a gimmicky response to the GT option attack, I am thoroughly puzzled as to why they did not simply choose to play a base eight-man front with standard assignments. Why have the defensive end crash for the dive back? Why not simply tell Everette Brown and the other defensive ends to hit Nesbitt on every play while (more traditionally) assigning the interior defenders to Dwyer? Perhaps the staff simply felt they needed to compensate for the ‘Noles weakness at the defensive tackle spot, that the interior of our DL was not good enough to stop Dwyer and GT's interior running game by itself. Either way, this defense has to get much better in gap control by the time it plays Florida or it might look like a track meet.
All that said, there were a ton of positives to be taken from this game. The offense put up good numbers against a very good defense, and the young OL did a more than respectable job against an elite GT defensive front. Christian Ponder took the next step forward by showing more ability to push the ball downfield and into seams. Jermaine Thomas flashed the skill that had many feeling he was potentially FSU's most talented freshman on offense—he has certainly made a case to share the load more as the season winds down. D'Vontrey Richardson showed how much better he can make this offense in spot duty. Preston Parker and Greg Carr stepped up and made huge plays.
Georgia Tech was the worst matchup remaining on FSU's conference schedule; I see no reason not to expect the ‘Noles to win out in the ACC. Here's hoping they get a rematch against the Yellow Jackets in the conference title game.
That was the best game I've seen Greg Carr play in a Seminole uniform. He showed toughness and excellent concentration going over the middle, and his catch on the two point conversion was absolutely spectacular. He is making himself a lot of money down the stretch this year.
Jermaine Thomas just has "it." He shows excellent vision, knows when to cut back, and has a great consciousness of when defenders are near his feet. He is a slightly bigger Joe McKnight type player, though he doesn't quite have the "suddenness" McKnight has in terms of acceleration. One big difference between Thomas and Antone Smith (who has also run extremely well the last few weeks) is in how high they raise their feet; Thomas gets tripped up a lot less than Smith. In addition, Thomas' height and longer arms make it easier for him to keep defenders from getting their hands to his pads. Our running game will be in excellent hands the next few years with Thomas, Ty Jones, Pressley, and Lonnie Prior.
This game was a major step forward for Christian Ponder; he did an excellent job standing in the pocket and putting the ball in the proper spots. Nowhere was this more evident than in several key 3rd and 4th down conversions late in the game. I haven't felt so comfortable with an FSU quarterback going for a critical conversion in a spread formation since Chris Weinke. There is just no sense that he's going to put the ball in the wrong spot. We're not far from feeling that we should score every time the offense gets it.
D'Vontrey Richardson is a fantastic weapon, and bringing him in for those running packages keeps Ponder from taking a lot of the hits he's taken the last few weeks. Ponder was starting to get physically worn down from the pounding he's had to take, and D'Vo's contributions help keep him fresh. Because he's just as good a thrower as Ponder, defenses can't relax and simply play the run with him in there (as his clutch throw to Parker displayed), so he will continue to be a major weapon whenever we choose to use him.
Marcus Sims had a good game up until the fumble and had been a solid contributor in short yardage prior to that play. I would like to see him tuck it higher and tighter in that situation, but there's only so much you can do when a helmet is put on the ball. I am more than willing to second-guess our staff's peculiar defensive scheme, but I can't second-guess giving the football to a kid who has been reliable to this point in the year both in practice and in games, nor do I think there should be any knee-jerk reaction in terms of Marcus' role with this football team. He is still a good player and will continue to help us in our goal line and short yardage packages as well as in the passing game.
As long as we don't let Spiller kill us on defense, we should beat Clemson comfortably.