It looked as though the Seminoles were on their way back to the national conversation heading into last Thursday night's game at N.C. State. First-year head coach Jimbo Fisher's squad was ranked 15th in the USA Today/ESPN poll and a win against the Wolfpack would move Florida State to 7-1 overall and deliver a likely 8pm primetime slot on ESPN this week against North Carolina. While ACC officials will never admit it, that scenario would have allowed the league to boast about FSU's return to the national spotlight after a post-expansion absence of ACC relevance across the country.
But the Seminoles coughed up a 14-point halftime lead against N.C. State and then preseason Heisman hopeful Christian Ponder fumbled away an opportunity at the goal line in the closing seconds. Fisher may have Florida State headed in the right direction – 6-2, 4-1 ACC – but the path back to the glory days of the 1990s is loaded with plenty of detours. After Oklahoma smacked FSU, 47-17, on Sept. 11, the Seminoles got revenge on their next four opponents, throttling BYU, Wake Forest, Virginia and Miami by an average of 25. 8 points per game. But Florida State had to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit and a minus-4 turnover margin to hold off Boston College on Oct. 16 before falling in Raleigh last week.
The Seminoles have leaned heavily on a strong rushing attack this season, ranking 20th nationally in tallying 207.4 yards per contest. That ground game paired with the nation's 15th-best scoring defense (17.6 ppg) helps explain FSU's season-long stay in the top-25 rankings, while a minus-0.5 turnover margin (94th) explains the two losses.
"I hope that Saturday was a wake-up call for some of our guys who - if they did - think that they could just punch the clock and show up and play. We're not good enough to just mechanically roll out the ball and show up and say, `We're going to flip that switch on Saturday, on game day, and play.' If you're not careful, you'll really get beat bad." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"Hopefully, if they're the competitors I think they are and have the character which I think they do, that we'll refocus and bounce back." – Fisher, after FSU's loss to N.C. State
"Hopefully we have six games left, I know we have at least five. I want to end on the right note, but we can't get too far ahead of ourselves. We got North Carolina this week." – Ponder
Matchups to Watch
Florida State's Christian Ponder vs. North Carolina's Pass Defense
The irony has been thick for North Carolina this fall – the Tar Heels have suffered a staggering amount of losses in the secondary during a season in which quarterbacks have returned to the main stage in the ACC.
The school announced that reserve red-shirt freshman Terry Shankle (ACL) was done for the year on Monday, marking the sixth cornerback and 10th defensive back that will have missed at least one game due to injury or suspension. All-ACC cornerback Kendric Burney returned to the lineup last Saturday against William & Mary, helping to offset the absence of cornerbacks Mywan Jackson (groin) and Tre Boston (ankle) for a pass defense that ranks 29th nationally (189.6 ypg).
Burney led UNC with seven tackles and a pass breakup, but the fifth-year senior admitted that he was a little rusty after sitting out seven games due to his involvement in the ongoing NCAA/UNC investigation.
"I think that will certainly help him, having had one game under his belt," Davis said of Burney. "He was a little disappointed with some of the performance that he had on Saturday. He guessed on a couple of routes from time to time and some of his mechanics and fundamentals were just a little bit out of sync just because of the speed of it."
But even with Burney back in uniform, Davis has indicated that the secondary personnel losses has limited UNC's ability to run certain nickel and dime packages. That could be a blessing for Ponder, who has completed 127 of his 210 passes this season for 1,383 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but is looking to bounce back after his second-down fumble in Raleigh that prevented Florida State from rallying for a last-minute comeback.
Ponder still managed to completed 17 of his 28 passes for 194 yards, one touchdown through the air and two rushing scores.
"He responded well to adversity, threw the ball where it had to be, was accurate, made good decisions with his legs, was creative with his legs in the pocket by running or scrambling or flipping balls," Fisher said. "He got back in the groove and felt very good. Hopefully he will continue that this week."
North Carolina's Ground Game vs. Florida State's Run Defense
The Seminoles's defensive statistics are impressive across the board – 23rd in total defense (315.5 ypg), 15th in scoring defense (17.6 ppg), 43rd in passing defense (200.1 ypg) and 23rd in rushing defense (115.4 ypg). But a closer looks reveals that opposing offenses may have found a crack in that seemingly impenetrable armor on the ground.
FSU's last three opponents – Miami, Boston College and N.C. State – have rushed 122 times for 549 yards and five touchdowns, good for a 4.5 yards-per-carry average. The Wolfpack nearly doubled their passing attempts (28) with rushes (53) last week in wearing down the Seminole defense and keeping Ponder and FSU's offense off the field.
North Carolina turned to Johnny White (713 yards, 6 TD, 5.8 ypc) repeatedly during the month of October, and there's no reason to think that will change in November. The fifth-year senior only needs to average 71.8 yards over his last four regular season games to become the first Tar Heel to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau since Jonathan Linton accomplished that feat in 1997.
"He's definitely come up big for us in a lot of games," Yates said. "… He's just got that ‘it' factor. He'll take a normal run 70 yards and he's done that a couple of times so far this season."
More importantly, success on the ground against Florida State will prevent too many 3rd-and-long situations for Yates. That's good news, considering that the Seminoles are tops in the country in sacks (4.1).