Know Your Foe: Florida State

Oregon faces Florida State for the first time in the two schools history and it will be one of the most important games Oregon has ever played in. On Jan. 1, 2015, Oregon and FSU play for a chance to advance to the NCAA Championship game. Jason Staples, publisher of NolesDigest.com, Scout's FSU affiliate responded to five questions about FSU's team headed into the Rose Bowl.

1. This game will feature two Heisman Trophy winners. What kind of motivation is that for Jameis Winston headed into the Rose Bowl?

Almost none. I’m sure it’ll be in the back of his mind somewhere, but Winston is motivated by one thing: he hates to lose. That doesn’t change regardless of his opponent, and it’s why he is such a tireless worker. It’s why he watches film for over three hours per night—texting his observations and questions to Jimbo Fisher the whole time—every week, regardless of whether the opponent is Wake Forest or Oregon.

2. It seemed that the Seminoles had to come from behind several times this season. Were there any common denominators that caused teams to give FSU a struggle?

There have been numerous factors involved in FSU’s widely-discussed propensity to play close games this season. The first is boredom. There were a number of games this season where FSU looked like a defending NBA champion around midseason—going through the motions until they flipped the switch and turned up the intensity.

A related factor is the stress and pressure of dealing with a lengthy winning streak and the constant circus around the team (how many programs have two New York Times reporters assigned to dig up anything and everything that could possibly be construed as negative towards the program for nine months?). They’ve handled the latter remarkably well, but the former has been a real challenge.

Other teams that have had similar streaks have talked about the pressure and stress of dealing with it, and you could see the strain taking its toll on both the players and coaches late in the year. The level of catharsis after FSU’s ACC Championship Game victory over Georgia Tech was striking—players and coaches looked like the weight of the world had just fallen from their shoulders. One of the hardest things about following a championship is that it's almost impossible to have as aggressive a mindset the next year, to avoid playing not to lose.

During the regular season I think there was a lot of that—this team desperately didn't want to lose, didn't want to fall short of what was expected. That is gone now that they’re in the playoff and are playing in a game where a loss wouldn’t be seen as such an abject failure. It’s clear that they feel they're back on the hunt rather than being the hunted. As a result, I think we'll all see a much looser, more aggressive FSU in the playoff than we have seen all season.

The third reason is youth. Florida State has one senior in its regular defensive rotation, backup defensive tackle Desmond Hollin, and the passing game has depended in large measure on a true sophomore and a pair of true freshmen at wide receiver. That has led to a number of missed assignments easily chalked up to youth and inexperience.

The third factor is the extra preparation they faced in every game. Not counting the opener, FSU played six opponents in 2014 that had a bye or FCS team the week before facing the Seminoles, and every team brought something new they had devised in the offseason to give FSU trouble. The NC State game was perhaps the best example of this, as the Wolfpack saved numerous packages and gadgets specifically for the first quarter against FSU. They had previously showed almost nothing of what they ran in the first quarter against the Seminoles, and it took a little time for FSU to catch up and adjust. And after going down 24-3, FSU won the game 49-17. (Oregon fans should be familiar with this dynamic as teams often punch themselves out in the first half before the Ducks pull away in the second frame.)

The fifth factor is injuries and FSU’s overall lack of depth, particularly on the defensive front seven. The Seminoles were unusually healthy in 2013 but have definitely made up for it in 2014. For example, Florida State was playing without seven of their nine scholarship linebackers in the second half against Louisville and was forced to play a backup safety at one of the linebacker spots.

The defensive line went through a similar rash of injuries. Starting nose tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample (Timmy Jernigan’s replacement) was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle against Clemson and was a huge loss. His replacement, Derrick Mitchell, missed two games with a knee injury. Mitchell’s backup, Derrick Nnadi, missed three games with knee and lower leg injuries. Nnadi’s backup, Justin Shanks, also missed two games with a knee injury. Top defensive end Mario Edwards, Jr. missed a game and a half with a concussion. Freshman defensive end—and best FSU pass rusher—Lorenzo Featherston missed significant action due to shoulder and knee injuries. Backup defensive tackle DeMarcus Christmas was out for five weeks with a high ankle sprain and didn’t see the field much afterwards.

All of that turmoil combined with youth on the defensive line has meant Edwards and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman playing more snaps (each logged over 80 snaps against Miami, for example), which means a lower overall intensity level each snap. You could see the difference when opposing offenses got in the red zone and these guys ratcheted up the intensity. Most of the year was just survival on the defensive side of the ball.

On the offensive side of the ball, FSU lost last season’s Rimington Award winner, Bryan Stork (now starting at center for the New England Patriots), and the center position was an absolute mess through the first eight games. Stork’s replacement, Austin Barron, struggled early in the season before breaking his arm. Barron’s replacement, redshirt freshman Ryan Hoefeld, was nowhere near ready for action and was so thoroughly dominated on the interior that he was facing his own backfield shortly after the snap on a shockingly high percentage of plays.

FSU couldn’t run the football consistently because their interior offensive line was a sieve, and they couldn’t protect Winston from pressure straight up the middle, which led to a thumb injury (against Syracuse) and a nasty high ankle sprain (against Louisville) that significantly limited the FSU quarterback down the stretch. Most quarterbacks wouldn’t have even played against Virginia, let alone take the beating Winston took in that game as FSU couldn’t protect him and he couldn’t move.

FSU finally made a change before the Miami game, putting their All America left tackle Cam Erving at center and true freshman Rod Johnson at left tackle. That move has made a huge difference, as the FSU offensive line has been dominant since, with the FSU backs tallying 599 yards on 97 attempts (6.2 YPC) since the move, and that against several very good defenses. Winston has also had more time to throw and isn’t constantly getting pressured through the A gaps anymore, which is a huge change from earlier in the season.

The sixth factor is turnovers. Florida State turned it over a bunch in first halves this season, thanks chiefly to their problems on the offensive line and young wide receivers not running routes with enough precision. (Six of Winston’s interceptions were off a deflection, and around half were due to a receiver mistake.) Things are improving in this department as the receivers have matured and the offensive line and running game have gotten shored up.

3. Winston is obviously the best known Seminole, but who are some other less talked about FSU players that could have a major impact on this game?

Most Oregon fans have also probably heard of WR Rashad Greene and RB Dalvin Cook, who get a lot of attention in the national media. The matchup between Greene and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (who reminds me of former Ohio State corner Antoine Winfield) should be fun to watch, though they’re unlikely to be matched one-on-one much.

Cook has been FSU’s closer from the running back position and is one of the faster backs in the country. Karlos Williams (6’1, 230) is the starting RB, however, and will also impact the game, particularly on short yardage.

Florida State’s three corners are probably the best Oregon will have seen all season—not just as a group but they may be the three best individual corners the Ducks will have faced. All are projected as potential first-rounders, with the nickel corner (FSU plays a base 3-3-5/4-2-5), Jalen Ramsey, being the best of the bunch.

Ramsey is 6’2, 205 and long jumped 7.62 m for the FSU track and field team, giving an idea of his speed and athleticism.Ronald Darby (5’11, 195) ran a 10.41 100m as a senior in high school, and P.J. Williams (6’1, 210) rounds out the group. That group allows Florida State a lot of flexibility against spread schemes, as they’re not afraid to put them on an island.

FSU also has two probable first-rounders on the defensive line: 6’4, 315 DT/DE Eddie Goldman and 6’4, 295 DE Mario Edwards, Jr. Both can two-gap as well as anyone in the country at their positions and have been outstanding against the run all season. FSU will likely use them to mush-rush Mariota to compress the pocket while not giving him running lanes, as the Seminoles have done against other dual-threat QBs all season.

Last but not least, TE Nick O’Leary, the Mackey Award winner, is likely to play a big part in this game, as my early film study has suggested Oregon has had trouble with athletic tight ends at times this season. O’Leary is an outstanding option route runner and does a great job creating contact and moving to space. I expect Oregon to spend a lot of time the next few weeks working to take away those option routes—and FSU is likely to throw a few counters in the mix, including shake routes, seams, and out-and-up concepts from the usual option route looks.

4. In your estimation, what will FSU’s biggest concerns about playing Oregon?

The biggest concern is probably Oregon’s ability to scheme receivers wide open on vertical routes downfield using rub and switch concepts and slip concepts off the bubble package. The FSU secondary has been inconsistent when using Banjo technique against these concepts all season, and the Ducks are sure to test FSU’s ability to communicate on the fly in the secondary. About half of Oregon’s passing scores this season have come on these and similar concepts, and FSU can’t afford to give Marcus Mariota easy vertical throws to wide-open targets.

On a related note, all the various eye-candy Oregon’s offense presents to defenders is a concern of any defense facing the Ducks. FSU’s linebackers and safeties have to “know before they go” or it’s a quick six points on the scoreboard, and FSU has given up big plays due to poor eye discipline a few times this season.

Mariota’s ability to make plays with his feet is another obvious concern, especially since FSU’s left defensive ends (Demarcus Walker, Chris Casher, and Lorenzo Featherston) have been poor maintaining contain most of the season. FSU’s inability to consistently set the edge on that side is also a concern against the Ducks’ jet and fly sweep series.

Since it’s a playoff game and keeping Mariota healthy is less of a concern, I expect to see Helfrich and Frost use Mariota more in the running game with various read calls, and even a defense as fast as FSU’s has to worry about Mariota’s ability to outrun pursuit if he’s able to get to the edge.

It is still unclear just how healthy FSU’s linebacking corps will be for this game, but they’ve been a liability in coverage this season, mostly after injuries started to limit some of their mobility. If I were the Oregon staff, I would try to get advantageous matchups against FSU’s LBs in the passing game early to test them in coverage. If Matthew Thomas and Terrance Smith aren’t moving well, that could be a serious concern. If that pair is healthy, FSU should be able to match up reasonably well underneath thanks to their speed.

Beyond those elements, the opportunistic Oregon defense’s ability to create turnovers is the other significant concern for an FSU team that is a shocking minus-4 turnover margin on the season (by contrast, the Noles were +17 last season, same as Oregon this year). FSU obviously can’t afford to be so generous with the football in this game or they could get run out of the stadium.

5. By the same token, what should Oregon most be concerned about playing FSU?

From what I’ve seen in my film study, Florida State should have the edge on both lines. I expect FSU to be able to single-block every Oregon defensive lineman—particularly at the nose tackle position—and get offensive linemen to the second level in the running game. Oregon’s linebackers (who have impressed me on tape) will have to be outstanding with their angles and will need to get off blocks to stop FSU’s resurgent running game.

Oregon will also have to do a better job getting pressure on the passer than they did in the games I’ve broken down so far. When Winston gets the kind of time opposing QBs have gotten at various points in the Oregon season, he is surgically precise. Bottom line: Oregon will need to find ways to get pressure with four or five or FSU is going to score a lot of points. (Conversely, if they can do that, FSU will have to avoid the turnover bug.)

I think O’Leary against the Oregon LBs or safeties should be a major concern for Oregon, as he appears to be a mismatch for any one player they can throw at him, particularly in the red zone. If they have to bracket him, that opens the door for Greene or one of the other receivers to make plays.

Oregon has been terrific in the red zone all season, but I do think they’re going to have more trouble with FSU’s defensive front in short yardage and goal line situations. I don’t think Oregon will be able to get to the second level on the offensive line in most of this game, which is going to limit their ability to run with the same success they’ve had all year.

This is also probably the first time Oregon will have faced a team that is faster across the board than the Ducks, so it’ll be interesting to see how Mariota and crew respond.

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