Quarterback Controversy in Tallahassee?

Another quarterback controversy is brewing at Florida State. Find out why Jimbo Fisher said he would "bench" Christian Ponder after the close win against UNC and why, thanks to the Davey O'Brien committee, there is yet again a quarterback controversy in Tallahassee.

Yet another quarterback controversy is brewing at Florida State, with Jimbo Fisher asserting that he was going to bench starter Christian Ponder because of a mistake made late in the Seminoles' win late against UNC. In discussing the ‘Noles' final, clock-killing drive, Fisher commented that Ponder could have potentially gone over 400 yards for the game by throwing a simple bubble screen instead of running the quarterback draw that was stuffed short of the first down.

Anytime FSU runs a bubble screen or QB draw, it's the QB's option as to which one is executed on the snap, depending on coverage. Against most zone coverages, the QB should throw the bubble screen. Against man, the QB draw is usually best. (This is a great example of Fisher's use of "constraint plays" in his offense.) Despite the Tar Heels being in a bubble-friendly zone coverage, Fisher said Ponder took the "conservative" route and kept it himself, despite the bubble being open. After a comment that it must have been Ponder's "third missed read this season," Fisher replied, "I'm gonna bench him."

Fisher was kidding, of course, but this brief tête-à-tête showed at just how high a level Ponder has been playing at this season. The real quarterback controversy is how little attention Ponder is getting for his play. This week the Davey O'Brien Award voters showed just how ignored Ponder's outstanding play has been on the national level, leaving him off their list of semifinalists for the award supposedly given to the nation's top quarterback—and this after Ponder shredded one of the nation's top pass defenses, completing his final 16 passes en route to a dramatic comeback victory.

Even more impressive is the calm that Ponder has brought to the offense; despite being down by 18 in the third quarter. Though (judging by the reactions on Twitter, in chat rooms, etc.) numerous analysts and fans gave up hope even before that, the players themselves never stopped believing they could win the game—and Ponder's leadership is a major reason why. In postgame interviews, Rod Owens alluded to Ponder singing in the huddle and making numerous unrepeatable but apparently quite funny comments to keep everyone loose.

In hearing that, I couldn't help but think of the famous John Candy reference made by Joe Montana at the start of the 49ers' game winning two-minute drill in Super Bowl XXIII. And the way Ponder is playing right now, it seems as though no comparison—even to someone like Montana—is too high. And for those who continue to point to the Seminoles' record as reason for the lack of national respect, how many losses did Florida have when Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007?

A Few Reflections on the UNC Game:

First of all, those saying the defense played better in the second half didn't watch the same game I did. The defense actually gave up more yards per play in the second half; field position was the real difference. Keep in mind that one of Carolina's first half scores came from the 12 yard line. That said, the defense did play noticeably better for the two drives following Owens' 98 yard TD, mainly due to the momentum and confidence generated by the offense.

In talking to some coaches and players, it became very clear that, although the defense still has some schematic holes (which I will explore further next week in the next installment of the "What's Wrong with the Defense" series), an equally significant problem is that many of the players just haven't "bought in" to what they're supposed to do on defense. I was told that after the Miami game, the defense really lost a lot of confidence, with many players not "buying in" from that point on. After the game, there was some hope that a few of the late stops would help establish some positive momentum on that side of the ball.

One coach and I talked after the game about how scheme problems were only a part of the defense's struggles, that if they could get the kids to buy into what they were doing—even if it wasn't exactly the right scheme—the defense could be significantly better overnight. Again, momentum and confidence are critical to a successful season, and this team hasn't had much of either. Getting a little healthier, especially up front, won't hurt the ‘Noles coming down the stretch, that's for sure.

Offensively, I disagree with Jimbo Fisher's decision to attempt to establish a run threat early. In talking to Fisher and Rick Trickett, it was obvious that they wanted to get UNC's defensive line tired and winded, testing their toughness, and Fisher wanted to keep their pass rush. But I'm convinced the ‘Nole offense would have been better off coming out throwing out of the spread on first down and then using the run game as a constraint on the defense as they started to play the pass. That's what happened in the second half, and I'm convinced the ‘Noles could have won going away by doing that in the first. This was a definite game where passing to set up the run was a better option—in my opinion, at least—than running to set up the pass.

Once FSU did turn to a full-scale spread passing attack, forcing those DLs to chase plays laterally, UNC had no answer, and conditioning became a definite factor up front, with FSU being able to run it a little bit in the late third and early fourth quarters. Trickett was right: the FSU offensive line won the battle in the trenches with their toughness and conditioning, but it wasn't until they forced UNC to chase plays to the sidelines and get winded.

Personnel Notes:

* Justin Mincey made a huge difference in this game; I'm not convinced FSU would have won without him. He was the first defensive lineman I've seen all year who got consistent penetration in the backfield. One of the reasons most of UNC's yardage came from receivers and outside runs was that they had some trouble running it inside against FSU. That is a very positive sign—one of the few positives on defense.

* Jamie Robinson had a good second half for the most part against UNC; it was the first half I've seen him actually look comfortable at the free safety position. His interception was the result of him simply being in position—it was where he should have been when Miami threw a similar route for a long completion late in that game. There were a few other plays where he finally looked like he trusted his zone and stayed deep—he'll need to continue that.

* Nigel Carr has a lot of talent but he's out of position quite a bit—even more than some of the other linebackers. He's got to play more under control. The defense missed Watson on those outside runs, as Watson is more consistent (though he hasn't had a great year, in part due to injury) and a bit faster than Carr at this point.

* Mister Alexander struggles in coverage, despite having moved from safety and having good tools to do so. He really needs to be rushing the passer almost full time at this point.

Looking Ahead

The game against NC State is an interesting matchup, because on the one hand NC State should put up a lot of yards and points against the FSU defense. On the other hand, FSU's major weakness this year has been stopping the run, and NC State hasn't run it much this year. I'll be interested to see how the Seminole pass defense does in this game. My initial thought is that this will look more like the BYU game than the Georgia Tech game—still a lot of yards and points, but not quite a drive-for-drive and score-for-score match.


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