Series Record: Florida State leads, 15-2
Last Five Games: Florida State leads, 4-1
Getting to know the Seminoles
After being embarrassed on the national stage by Louisville two weeks ago, Jimbo Fisher and his FSU team bounced back last week, toppling South Florida, 55-35, to improve to 3-1 (0-1 ACC). The Seminoles’ 2016 campaign has been a shaky one coming out of the gate, pairing wins over Charleston Southern and USF with a second-half comeback against Ole Miss and the aforementioned 43-point blowout loss to the Cardinals.
Fisher admonished his team following the USF win in the postgame locker room, challenging their focus and attention to detail. FSU opens its home ACC slate against UNC on Saturday, and Doak Campbell Stadium should provide a hostile environment as the Seminoles aim to get their season back on track.
It took four weeks, but All-American running back Dalvin Cook seems to have finally found his groove. After only rushing for 228 yards combined in the Seminoles’ first three games, the junior back gutted USF last week for a career-high 267 yards and two touchdowns. Cook, the heart of FSU’s offense, is one of the most elusive runners in all of college football. He is dangerous in every single part of his rushing attack, from his ability to get low and break tackles within the first ten yards, to his impressive acceleration once he finds a bit of space. That acceleration was put on display against USF on FSU’s first offensive play of the game: a 75-yard touchdown run down the left sideline.
FSU’s rushing attack doesn’t stop at Cook, though. His speed is complemented by the brute force of sophomore running back Jacques Patrick. At 6-foot-2, 231 pounds, Patrick is a tough rusher to take down. While Cook is capable of breakout distance runs, Patrick is the type of back to continually pound the defense down to extend a drive. Patrick, who gets rushes when Cook needs a breather, is averaging over six yards per rush so far this season.
The Seminole offense is still figuring itself out in the passing game. Redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois was the hero of FSU’s opening week comeback against Ole Miss, but has since struggled with inconsistency. He’s completed just 59.6 percent of his passes this season, including a 7-of-18 performance against Louisville. A learning curve was expected, which is why the rushing attack is so critical to this offense.
One part of Francois’s game that might expose UNC’s defense is his ability to scramble and run. Francois has a strong ability to extend plays with his legs and even break out into the open field. He rushed for 59 yards against Ole Miss and 75 yards against USF, including a 35-yard touchdown run. UNC has yet to face an athlete the caliber of Francois at quarterback this season.
Florida State’s wide receiver corps is one of the most impressive units in the ACC. The group is full of experienced pass catchers, which is exactly the complement that the young Francois needs. Junior Travis Rudolph has been Francois’s favorite target so far this season, as the 6-foot-1 receiver has 16 catches this season for 233 yards and three touchdowns, although he’s only caught three balls the past two weeks.
The most versatile member of FSU’s passing offense is senior receiver Kermit Whitfield. Whitfield is a 5-foot-8 slot receiver with impressive downfield speed and great agility. Sound familiar? Think Ryan Switzer. Whitfield had a breakout season in 2015 and will be looking to find his form against the Tar Heels. A deep threat option is 6-foot-5 sophomore Auden Tate, who is the recipient of Francois’s longest pass of the season (39 yards).
With a slew of individual talent on every level of the field, FSU’s defense was supposed to be in elite company entering 2016. Ironically enough, the exact opposite has happened after four games. The Seminoles are giving up an average of 35.0 points per game, which ranks 109th of 128 FBS teams. They rank 92nd in total defense, allowing 414 total yards per game, 62nd in pass defense, and 103rd in rushing defense. While the 530 yards given up against Louisville may be an outlier, there are not many things going right with the Seminole defense.
Two positives from Fisher’s defensive unit this season has been their ability to get the quarterback and force turnovers. FSU ranks 13th nationally with 13 sacks. Senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker accounts for 5.5 of those sacks and he has wreaked havoc in opponent’s backfields thus far, forcing two fumbles in the process. At 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, Walker is able to power his way through the offensive tackle with ease and find his way to the ball. Second on the team in sacks is the man who plays opposite of Walker, defensive end Brian Burns (4 sacks).
For Florida State to find success in the ACC this season, they need to keep forcing turnovers. The Seminoles have six interceptions and have recovered four fumbles so far this season, a stat that puts them into the top 10 in the country. Sophomore defensive back Tarvarus McFadden has broken out in 2016, already picking off three passes in just four games. That’s a critical development for a defense lacking arguably the top safety in the country in Derwin James due to injury. The Seminoles are giving up an average of 207.8 passing yards per game this season.
“He’s got tremendous ball skills. He’s got great quickness and acceleration. I mean he can stick his foot into the ground, he knows how to set you up and change speeds, he knows where the hole is going to be, he knows where he’s trying to get to, he can stop and stick his foot, and be really fast. He’s got great ball skills. A lot of times those little guys have trouble because they ain’t got big hands, but in those really tight areas he’s got great ball skills. We recruited him, we tried to recruit him. He’s a dadgum hillbilly from West Virginia. He wouldn’t come. He was a good player, though.” –Fisher on UNC wide receiver Ryan Switzer
“He’s got really, really good vision…. He makes really good jump cuts and cuts on a dime. And then if he makes those cuts and you miss him, then he can hit his head on the goal post. He’s that fast. He’s done it pretty much to just about everybody.” – UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik on Cook
Matchup to Watch
UNC running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan vs Florida State’s front seven
UNC will attempt to match Cook’s production with its own tail back tandem. Hood and Logan were held in check by Pittsburgh last weekend. Hood finished the game with 25 rushing yards while Logan only finished with six yards. Through four games, FSU’s defense has struggled mightily against the run. They were decimated by Lamar Jackson and Louisville, giving up 314 rushing yards, and are allowing an average of 205.8 rushing yards per game. If there were ever a week for Hood and Logan to get out of their funk, it may be this one. UNC’s run-pass option may allow for more running lanes given FSU’s more balanced defensive approach compared to Pitt.