Late Week Thoughts

Notes on the defensive scheme against Clemson, why it's important to remember that the coaches are human beings, and looking forward to Wake Forest.

First off, I think the defensive staff came into this game with the best scheme they've shown all year. There were a few major and a few minor adjustments, each of which helped the defense over the course of the game. The defense still gave up too many big plays and an absurd yards-per-play number, but those numbers don't tell the whole story about how different the scheme was.

First of all, rather than playing the usual 75% man-free coverage scheme FSU is known for, the ‘Noles varied their coverages significantly more than usual against Clemson (Bobby Bowden's denial of this in the postgame interview notwithstanding—more on that in a moment), playing a good amount of cover-two and a few other zone packages, with a few zone blitzes thrown into the mix. This was done in an effort to keep Clemson's speedsters in front of them, protecting against the big play. And for the most part, it worked—Clemson's three biggest plays came against man coverage (C.J. Spiller's long TD catch matched up against FSU MLB Kendall Smith being the most egregious of these situations).

In addition, mixing coverages a bit more allowed the ‘Noles to disguise their coverages better, leading to some mistakes from Clemson triggerman Kyle Parker, who threw two pick-sixes to FSU free safety Jamie Robinson, who played his best game as a Seminole (unfortunately one of them was called back due to an offsides penalty). The first of these was the direct result of the Seminoles showing one coverage (man) before the snap and switching into another (cover two) afterwards.

Robinson INT 1

As you can see in the above picture, the cornerbacks are playing with inside leverage, an indicator of man coverage (that Mangum was so deep would have suggested a cover-two man, though he could have rotated down at the snap, indicating man-free), which led Parker to throw the seam to the tight end, who would have been in man coverage against a linebacker and inside the safety.

Robinson INT 2

But at the snap, the corners jumped outside and the safeties stayed deep on the hashes (the corners actually bailed, blurring the line between a cover-two and quarters and helping the safeties stay inside a little more), with middle linebacker Kendall Smith doing a good job taking away the seam to the deep middle, forcing a tougher throw. A veteran quarterback would have thrown short (even on a third and long), but the redshirt freshman didn't make the adjustment, instead throwing it directly to Jamie Robinson, who was able to return the interception for a touchdown.

Such is the benefit of mixing coverages and creating a little confusion for the offense—sometimes an outmanned defense can create turnovers or other big plays through smoke and mirrors. Mickey and the staff called an excellent game, with the only few errors coming when they got a little too aggressive and went man-free in situations that allowed a few too many big plays. But taking the game as a whole, the plan was solid.

A Note on Coaches and Humanity

One of the more interesting things about this week's postgame was that this time I was able to take a friend of mine along for the interviews (he had worked the game as a photographer)—a friend passionate about FSU football, passionate in criticizing the FSU coaching staff, especially on defense. He had joked about asking certain extremely pointed (and somewhat disrespectful) questions during coaches' interviews, but I had warned him beforehand that things look different when you see the humanity of the coaches and players up close.

As we were leaving the stadium, my friend was a changed man. It's not that he still does not think the situation at FSU needs a change (it does), but he commented that he had been struck by how much pain he had seen in the coaches after the loss. He hadn't expected to see the hurt that he saw; he suddenly realized that these men die a little bit inside after each loss, that they take it far worse than even he does—and he is as rabid a fan as they come. He was especially struck by how hurt defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews seemed, how much pride the man obviously took in his work. It was clear how much pride that man takes in his work, and he was obviously hurting. This week, after participating in some message board action, he mentioned to me on the phone that many places where he would have just piled on a week ago, he has found himself defending the staff a bit.

One of these places involves yet another embarrassing Bowden postgame press conference that has been a subject of discussion throughout the week. Yes, it's embarrassing that Coach Bowden doesn't recall simple details about the game. (Bowden actually got chippy with me after I asked a question about how the defense had varied its coverages more against Clemson than was usually the case, asking me how many games I had seen this year and asserting that it was actually the opposite—that they had played more zone defense against Clemson, cutting their packages down some. This of course made my point—FSU rarely plays zone coverage, and they played a few different zone looks over the course of the game, reducing their man-free snaps from the usual 75–80% to around 10–15%, meaning the coverages were necessarily more varied. Andrews confirmed as much in his interview after the game.)

But it's important to remember the humanity of these coaches. By having had the opportunity to be closer to Bowden than many (first as a player—though a walk-on who didn't much know Bowden—then as a member of the media covering the ‘Noles), I've noted for some years that Bowden's best, freshest interviews come after wins. But after losses, the man's memory tends to be even worse, and he looks older and more spent. These losses have eaten him up the last few years, and it was obvious that he didn't want to be there in the Clemson postgame, that he's frustrated that things aren't working as they should. And as all of us know from the common human experience, our minds simply don't work as well when we're depressed, hurt, and frustrated.

I'm not saying that FSU doesn't need to make some major changes—because they do, but I am saying that it is important to remember that these coaches and players are human beings who have invested their lives into wins and losses. Nobody hurts more after a loss than they do, and sometimes that can have effects like what was observed in Bowden's presser last Saturday. Yes, Bowden should be held accountable for his program, but how he sounds after a frustrating loss in which he lost the arguably the top performing QB in the nation should not be the basis of criticism. As my friend learned, it's important to remember the humanity involved. In his words: "Before, I just sort of saw Bobby Bowden as a pawn that needed to get out of the way in order for us to win again. But seeing him, how hurt he was by the loss, I honestly wanted to give the man a hug. I still think he needs to step down, but it's just different now."

Looking Forward

It'll be interesting to see how E.J. Manuel looks against Wake Forest, whether (as the coaches like to say) he has pee running down his leg or not. The biggest thing to look for in terms of the future is what his demeanor looks like after the first three or four drives. If he starts to calm down, get over the initial anxiety, and look settled, it's a great sign for FSU's future. The Wake defense is sure to throw the kitchen sink at the kid, trying to bait him into mistakes with some exotic looks. This is where having a veteran offensive line can help immensely, because if Manuel can stay clean, he'll be able recognize those traps more effectively.

I expect Fisher to run Manuel more than he has Ponder the last few weeks (partially because Ponder was so banged up); I'd expect to see a healthy dose of zone-read and related packages this week. The main reason for that is that those sorts of packages force the defense into more vanilla coverage packages, simplifying things for the young QB. If FSU is able to run the ball a bit against Wake, Manuel could actually have an excellent game, because Wake won't be able to pressure him the way they did Ponder last year. Wake isn't nearly as big on defense as they were last year, so that should help.

The bigger concern is the Wake offense against the FSU defense. Hopefully the defense comes out with a similar plan to what they showed against Clemson, playing a good bit of zone and allowing all eleven players to look into the backfield a bit, minimizing the damage that can be done by misdirection and formation matchups. Unfortunately, Riley Skinner isn't as prone to mistakes as Kyle Parker, so it will be harder to force turnovers. It's certainly not a matchup that favors the ‘Noles, but it is a winnable game.

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