Florida State Seminoles @ North Carolina Tarheels Offensive Preview

Florida State travels to North Carolina in Chapel Hill for the first ESPN Thursday night game at Kenan Stadium. The matchup features the Seminoles boast one of the nation's best offenses, but they will be up against an equally elite defense of the Tar Heels.  The game also features the ACC's worst defense (Florida State) against the conference's worst offense (UNC).  That's for tomorrow, however, as today I'll discuss the units that keep FSU and UNC in every game.

Left Defensive End 92 - E.J. Wilson (6-2, 280, Sr.)
Left Defensive Tackle 9 - Marvin Austin (6-3, 305, Jr.)
Right Defensive Tackle 93 - Cam Thomas (6-4, 325, Sr.)
Right Defensive End 42 - Robert Quinn (6-5, 270, So.)
Will Linebacker 47 - Zach Brown (6-2, 225, So.)
Mike Linebacker 52 - Quan Sturdivant (6-2, 235, Jr.)
Sam Linebacker 54 - Bruce Carter (6-3, 230, Jr.)
Cornerback 12 - Charles Brown (5-10, 205, Jr.)
Strong Safety 21 - Da'Norris Searcy (6-0, 210, Jr.)
Free Safety 27 - Deunta Williams (6-2, 210, Jr.)
Cornerback 16 - Kendric Burney (5-9, 190, Jr.)

That's quite the imposing lineup.

 

So just how good is UNC's defense?  They are definitely amongst the best ten in the country.  Maybe the top 5. Here's their performance in their 4 D1 games:


at UCONN E. Carolina U
GTech U. Virginia
FEI OFFENSE RANK (FSU is 8th) 49 62 2 66
Plays 61 61 77 68
Yards Per Play Allowed 3.2 4 5.3 3.8
Rushes 31 28 65 37
Yards/ Rush Allowed 3.3 2.6 5 3.7
Passing Plays 30 33 12 31
Yards/ Pass Play Allowed 3.1 5.3 6.9 3.8
1st Downs- Success-Stuffed 26-15-7 23-7-11
29- 12- 13
Standard 2nd Downs 6-13 (46%) 3-8 (38%)
1-5 (20%)
Passing 2nd Downs 2-8 (25%) 5-12 (42%)
4-15 (27%)
Standard 3rd Downs 1-6 (17%) 6-7 (86%)
7-10 (70%)
Passing 3rd Downs 1-8 (13%) 3-11 (27%)
0-9 (0%)
Notes

Had bad snap for -12 yards* 

3rd and long, 4 sacks 2 picks

Next best defensive performance against UCONN was 4.7 yards per play.  UNC held the Huskies to 3.2 yards per play in Connecticut.  By far their worst offensive performance of the year.

Killed them on short yardage play action

* 2 Plays over 20 yards

1 of only 2 teams to hold ECU under 4 yards per play.

On road in Atlanta, UNC held YellowJackets to 64% of what FSU gave up against Tech in Tallahassee

Many of the failed 2nd downs set up 3rd and 4 or less

No plays over 20 yards

  • Yards-Per-Play is used because it is the best standard measure of defense.  Total yards is moronic (please don't try to argue this, just use the search feature at right).  It really isn't the fault of the defense if the offense allows the opponent to get 17 possessions or take the ball in UNC's red zone three times in a contest.  How many snaps did you have, what did you do with them (or allow your opponent to do with theirs).  Simple enough.
  • Sacks have been re-allocated to Passing plays (since they are the result of a failed passing play and not a run play)
  • Kneel-downs have been removed as they are a non-competitive play.
  • Passing Down= 2nd & 8+ / 3rd & 5+ /  or 4th & 5+
  • 1st Down Success= Gaining 50% of necessary yardage for 1st down (or TD if in goal to go situations)
  • 2nd Down Success= Gaining 70% of necessary yardage for 1st down (or TD if in goal to go situations)
  • 3rd Down Success= Gaining 100% of necessary yardage for 1st down (or TD if in goal to go situations)
  • Advanced Statistical Ideas are the brainchild of Bill Connelley (RockMNation.com)

So, is this performance Fluky?  If not, why are they so good?  How can FSU attack them?

Here's how good FSU's Offense is:

Week_8_offensive_fei_medium

Click to enlarge, but you're not seeing things.  That is indeed the Seminole Offense at #8 Nationally.

Week_8_defensive_efficiency_medium

Again, click to enlarge.  Yes, FSU's defense is 101st, and UNC's is 10th.


Is UNC's defensive performance fluky?  No.

First, be sure to consider their performance from last year.  UNC returns 8 starters off last year's excellent defense.  Very few realize just how good that defense was. I'll refresh your memory:

Acc_defenses_quad_chart_medium_medium

In Diagram A, We see that only North Carolina State gave up more total yards per game than UNC.  So by that measure, they weren't very good at all. 

In Diagram B, we see Brian Fremeau's FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index) Opponent Adjusted Defense Measure.  That's drive-based, and doesn't measure plays that happen in garbage time (which I like, because I don't care how the defense did when it was up by 24 points in the 4th quarter).  I put a lot of weight into this measure, and while it calls the 'Heels only the 4th best defense in the conference, you have to remember that Boston College, Wake Forest, and Clemson all had Nationally Elite defenses as well.  So by this measure, they were very good.  Also, this measure takes into account where the offense starts with the ball (if the offense starts on the defense's 10, it's pretty good to hold to a field goal).

In Diagram C and D, we see Bill Connelley's excellent S&P+ measure, which is the other premier metric for gauging performance.  This indicates that UNC was a middle of the conference defense. 

So which one do I trust?  I discard A, because it doesn't account for how many plays UNC's defense faced, what position the offense put the defense in, or exclude stats from garbage time.  So I'll say that UNC's defense was somewhere between B and C/D, which is to say that it was definitely in the top 25 nationally, but probably not top 10. 

UNC runs a very conservative scheme under DC Everette Withers, though HC Butch Davis' fingerprints are all over this unit.  You'll see lots of two-deep coverage.  The corners play a mix of man and zone, and they never press/ play tight without help over the top. [This has changed some]  They run a 4-3 look that is mostly gap control and they are huge.

But aside from good coaching and tremendous talent, there's yet another reason they are once again very good:

Tremendous Health

In contrast to their offense (which I will discuss tomorrow), the Tarheel defense has remained remarkably healthy.  I couldn't find where any important player missed significant playing time due to injury, and if they have, they are entirely healthy for Thursday Night's game.

Turnovers To Come?

As we know, turnovers are for the most part, not the result of some sportcaster-esque "someone making a play", and instead largely a function of leveraging your opponent into passing downs.  UNC hasn't produced those turnovers, yet they have done a nice job of forcing their opponents into passing downs.  This was tough to diagnose.  Against ECU, both sacks for UNC came on first down bootlegs by ECU.  The Pirates did a fine job in passing downs, considering the circumstances, a combined 8-23 on passing downs with no turnovers or sacks.  Against UConn, they produced 4 sacks and 2 interceptions in 3rd and long situations. And against UVA, they produced no sacks or turnovers on 3rd and long (or 2nd and long for that matter).  UNC's sacks against UVA largely came when the QB had no pocket presence and ran into the sack.  Florida State has done a great job avoiding situational turnovers.  With only 1 interception in over 200 pass attempts (an amazing ratio), Christian Ponder has established himself as one of the finest QB's in the country.  FSU's turnovers have come via the fumble.  FSU fans should be happy about that, as fumbling is much easier to fix than interceptions, particularly when the turnovers are largely a result of an abnormally high fumble lost % (which is luck).  

If there is going to be a player who does generate the pressure on those long-downs, it will be Robert Quinn:

The sophomore has quickly made a name for himself as one of the best defensive ends in the ACC. He leads the conference and is seventh in the country with 11 tackles for a loss of 69 yards, and is tied for first with three forced fumbles and also has four quarterback hurries. He's second in the ACC and seventh in the nation with seven sacks for 58 yards. Quinn had a career-high 10 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, at Georgia Tech. He's a big reason why UNC has one of the top two defenses in the conference.

Anyway, Ponder is excellent.  

QB's Against at least 5 winning teams- performance in those games.
Name
Team TD Int QB Rating Yards/G Yards/Att
Christian Ponder FSU 9 1 151 292 8
Tyrod Taylor Va Tech 7 3 143 138 8.6
Kirk Cousins Mich St 6 4 139 220 7.9
Joey Elliott Purdue 14 10 132 278 7.2
Terrelle Pryor Ohio State 8 6 131 172 7.5
Jake Locker Washington 11 6 128 243 7.2
Tyler Sheehan BGSU 7 3 123 291 6.2
Adam Weber Minnesota 5 6 123 201 7.2
Ricky Stanzi Iowa 7 6 121 208 6.8
Jameel Sewell Virginia 5 5 119 191 7.1
Greg Paulus Syracuse 6 10 116 183 6.5
Paul McCall FIU 9 5 114 236 5.8
Juice Williams Illinois 4 4 112 177 6.2

Among QB's who have faced at least 5 winning teams, Ponder is the only QB with a QB rating of 150+ and he averages the most yards per contest. 

The Irresistible force v. the Immovable Object?  Basically. 

So how do they get it done?  It all starts up front.

Defensive Line

The 'Heels are absolutely loaded on the defensive line, which has been a trademark of Butch Davis teams from his days at Miami (both times), to his stint with the Dallas Cowboys, etc.  His defensive line coach is the highly regarded Jon Blake.  They return every starter and backup, and are very very talented.  This will be one of the toughest challenges the Florida State line will face this year.  Let's run through the group.

At Defensive Tackle, the Tar heels have a pair of absolute studs in 6'4" 325lb Senior Cam Thomas, and 6'3" 300lb Junior Marvin Austin.  Thomas is the space eater, and he'll play in the NFL because he has a low center of gravity.  He's a load and Florida State's All-Conference Center Ryan McMahon must be able to stymie him.  Often times Thomas draws a double team, and that allows Austin, arguably the most talented defensive tackle in the conference and a likely 1st round draft choice, to work against a single blocker.  Austin is explosive to be sure, but needs to have a more consistent motor.  I have no doubt he'll be up against the 'Noles and Austin is a serious candidate for ALL-ACC Consideration.  FSU's All-America Guard Rodney Hudson against Marvin Austin will be a great battle to watch.  So UNC has two NFL defensive tackles, one of whom is a serious 1st round talent.  They also have Senior Aleric Mullins (6'3" 305) and Sophomore Tydreke Powell (6'3" 305), both of whom will log 10-15 snaps per game.  It's safe to say UNC is loaded at defensive tackle.  

At defensive end, UNC is similarly huge, though less proven.  At Strongside End, the 'Heels have 6'2" 280lb Senior E.J. Wilson.  He's their "edge" player, setting the edge and turning the play back toward the pursuit.  He's backed up by 6'6" 260lb Quintin Coples, who was an all-world recruit.  Coples is very raw, but he is unquestionably talented and has 1st round draft choice written all over him if he can put it together.  At Weakside End, the Tar Heels have a really great story.  6'5" 260lb Sophomore Robert Quinn overcame brain cancer (I believe it was bran cancer) to have a great season last year and his stock is rising every day. He'll go against Andrew Datko and is the Heels' most improved lineman.  Quinn is an excellent edge rusher, though I do think he lucked  into a few of his sacks.

So this group is huge and talented.  This line will throw fresh talented bodies at the offense on almost every down.  Football fans and NFL scouts will be focused on the line of scrimmage in this one, and I honestly don't know who will win this battle of well coached talent.  They are great against the run and very good against the pass (an improvement over last season).

Fun fact:  the Heels are 2nd in the country in tackles for loss.  Over 13% of opponent's plays go for negative yardage.

Linebacker

While not quite the group that the defensive line is, UNC's linebackers are top notch.  6'2" 235lb Junior Quan Sturdivant shifted from Weakside backer to the middle spot for this season.  His production has exploded as he is protected from blockers by the defensive tackle duo in front of him.  He's similar to London Fletcher in that he's has excellent side to side range.  Sturdivant is going to be an ALL-ACC Player and is currently projected as a 2nd round draft choice, listed as the 3rd best outside linebacker in the country.  

At Strongside Linebacker is Bruce Carter, a great athlete with improving instincts (he was a quarterback in high school).  He's 6'3" 230 and is very good in pass coverage when he guesses right (watching these UNC linebackers, they are all decent in pass coverage).  He's another guy who is a lock to be a 1st day selection (1st 3 rounds), with the potential to be a late first or early second rounder.  Butch Davis is great at recruiting defensive talent, as he did at Miami, and I definitely see his imprint on these linebackers.  Carter also has a legit shot to be ALL-ACC, though the writers typically don't take two from the same team.

The only question at linebacker is at the weakside linebacker spot, and depth.  Zach Brown is an undersized (6'2" 225') sophomore who is very raw.  He sort of sticks out on film as the weak link.  He's not a bad player, but compared to the other monsters in the front-7, he's doesn't quite measure up.

Front-7 Size

While UNC isn't afraid to bring the safety down into the box to stop the run, playing cover-1 or cover-3, they would prefer not to do that, and they rarely have to. And one way they are enable to accomplish this (stopping the run with 7 and not 8 men), is with great size. 

We've done a lot of work on this, and you can read out 3-part series "Does Size Matter" here:  Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Here's what you need to know, there were 6 defenses that had a combined front-7 size of more than 1860lbs:  Alabama, South Carolina, Boston College, Wake Forest, Southern Cal, and... North Carolina.  All of those defenses were elite, all have numerous highly regarded NFL prospects, and all forced a lot of turnovers by stopping the run with their size and forcing teams into 2nd and 8+/ 3rd and 5+ situations.  UNC checked in at 1865lbs.  A defense that size is just hard to move out of the way and they don't need the extra run defender in the form of a safety.  When your focus as a safety is on the pass and stopping the run is an afterthought, you will play well against the pass.  There is a much more detailed explanation in the linked articles above. This year, their front-7 should be among the biggest in the country again, weighing in at 1860lbs.

The Secondary

As I said, these guys had a bunch of interceptions last year (top 10 nationally), but are they really that good?  I don't think so.  None are high up on draft lists despite being draft eligible, and they definitely benefit from the scheme and an excellent front-7. 

At the corner position, they have 5'9" Kendric Burney, who is a good college corner with quick hips who had 13 pass breakups last season.  At the other corner they feature Junior 5'10" Charles Brown, who was All-ACC in 2007 but got banged up last year and lost his job to 5'10" Senior Jordan Hembry, who played well last year.  I don't think these corners are all that special, and FSU fans hope they can match up 6'3" 232lb Super-Recruit Jarmon Fortson with Burney, as Fortson has a considerable size advantage along with his freakish athleticism. So the corners are above average or good, but definitely not great. I should note that their corners tackle well.

At Safety, UNC is lamenting the loss of Tramane Goddard, their 2nd Team All-American Safety.  He was a good college player, but he was an ALL-AMERICAN because of his interceptions, which is often a poor way to judge a player, particularly a safety.  In any case, he wasn't drafted and I think they overestimate his loss.  Replacing him at strong safety will be Da'Norris Searcy, a 6'0" 210' Junior who UNC fans are pretty high on.  He's a good athlete but I haven't seen him making a bunch of plays.  He's definitely the better athlete than Goddard was, but he doesn't have the instincts yet apparently.  At Free Safety, they have Deunta Williams.  I like Williams, he's now a Junior and won the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007.  He's their best secondary player from what I have seen (though they will tell you it's Burney).  Christian Ponder will need to look him off, particularly when throwing plays designed to split their cover-2.  Still, none of these guys seem all that special.  There's no standout NFL type talent here.

For more on UNC's secondary, check this article out:  UNC Butch Davis Coverage Schemes

Observations

I have to say that I was extremely disappointed in some of the things that East Carolina and Virginia did on offense.  Certainly there are things UNC did to limit them, but ECU and UVA really shot themselves in the foot.  I am going to focus on Virginia and East Carolina because UConn isn't really similar to what FSU does and Georgia Tech is obviously dissimilar.  UVA dropped 2 bubble screens and misfired on several more.  The whole point of a spread offense is to demand respect.  If you refuse to or prove that you cannot throw to the man split out wide, you might as well just use an extra tight end or a fullback because the defense won't have to respect that player and you put yourself at a numerical disadvantage.  UVA really messed up in that area.  Let's use a picture to illustrate.

Unc_split_the_difference_medium

Ponder throws the bubble so well that he could play for Oregon.  Because FSU will become more of a spread team with the loss of elite tight end Caz Piurowski, they must force UNC to account for all the men split out wide.  More on this later, but UVA and ECU and even UConn got terrible QB play. 

 

Run and Gun

I don't want to see Ponder under center much in this game.  FSU needs to commit to the spread approach and go all-spread, all-gun, all game.  And they need to run the ball from the gun and stay committed to running it from the gun (unless of course, UNC, by alignment, simply gives FSU the pass all day, which they might.)

The 'Nole line is extremely quick and very intelligent.  They are bigger and stronger this year, as last year they were the youngest offensive line in the country.  They will not try to blow UNC's line off the ball (nobody can), but rather turn them and gash them.  Still, this will be no easy task and quite the battle, as UNC is quite good against the run.

Virginia actually had a lot of success running the ball from the spread.  The Cavs had 17 runs of five or more yards.  They also had a good bit of tackles for loss, but I happen to think a good portion of those were a result of their offense being horrible (definitely outside the top 80 in the country.  They used 3 QB's in the game, etc.)

In order for FSU to run on UNC they must do an excellent job of cut blocking.  Rodney Hudson is one of the best cutters I have ever seen, but this must be a collective effort.  Cutting will decrease the aggressiveness of some of UNC's defenders, and can also start to wear on them.  Nobody has done a good job of cutting these guys yet, except for GTech of course. 

There is some precedent for running from the gun against UNC.  Last year, against an elite UNC defense about as good as this one (maybe a bit better), West Virginia and NC State gashed them for 31 and 41 points respectively.  FSU's offense is at least as good as those two were.  The key will be to run Ponder early, make UNC respect Ponder's legs, and then let Thomas go to work.  Remember that Ponder should be fully healthy for this game, and UNC might have forgotten about this kid's tremendous legs.  He's FSU's best running QB since Charlie Ward.

Finally, I would not be surprised to see a lot of Pistol.

 

The Passing Game

FSU can throw the ball on UNC.  So far, UNC has seen nothing but really poor qb play.  The plays were often there to be made by UVA and ECU, and their QB's just didn't take advantage.  Additionally, UNC doesn't have the ability to simulate what FSU does in practice at anything approaching a similar level (if they did, those kids would be playing).

Last year, UNC played a lot of man-under coverage (2 deep safeties, man underneath), and some cover-3.  This year, they haven't seen any decent wideouts, and as a result, they have mixed it up.  I was shocked when I fired up the DVR.  

Disrespect_medium

They have been playing a lot of man coverage with only 1 or even no deep safety!  Look at the picture above.  For whatever reason, UNC has become a blitz happy defense.  Now, is that just something they wanted to show their future opponents, knowing it wouldn't matter in the games in which they showed it?  Could it be that they are desperate to force a turnover or big play knowing that their offense is terrible?  I'm not sure. 

What I am sure is that if they try that against Florida State, Ponder will have a field day.  Remember that this is the look Ponder has practiced against every day for the past 3 years against Mickey Andrews' old school defense.  The alignments UNC has trotted out just won't fly against FSU.  I would expect UNC to force FSU to establish the run before the Heels come out in something like this.  They have to respect FSU's wideouts.  They will play lots of cover-2 and cover-3.  If they do come out in this, expect 1 or 2 long bombs, probably up the seam, to get them out of that look.

 

UNC has also blitzed their corners a lot.  FSU's RB corps will need to do a good job of picking up UNC's blitzes, because in a game like this,  it will be tough enough to move the ball.

FSU might break out some no-huddle here.  We saw WVU do it last season.  NCST did it as well, and ECU and UVA did it too (though their offenses were horrible).

In addition to the bubble screens, FSU needs to throw some RB screens.  UNC hasn't done a good job defending RB screens to date, and with FSU's incredibly athletic offensive line, there should be some great opportunities to hit some plays.  It also serves as a regulator of UNC's aggressiveness.

This is out of place, but UNC hasn't faced anything even resembling a downfield passing game yet.  I would like to see FSU match up on UNC's safeties in the downfield game.  Perhaps TE Reliford could be big here?

Ponder's ability to check could be huge in this game.  FSU often calls 2-3 different plays in the huddle, and Ponder then selects the correct one. 

I don't want to make this defense seem unbeatable.  They are not, but they are very good.  And they are at home, at night, on a Thursday, behind a sellout crowd, and will be well rested.  The 'Noles offense will probably see more 2nd and 8+/ 3rd and 5+ situations than they like, and I suspect it will take a broken tackle or two leading to a big play for the 'Noles to get the win.  Methodically marching the ball on this defense likely isn't an option.  Expect FSU to spread them out and make them account for all 11 offensive players by running the quarterback, and make no mistake about it, FSU will need to throw the ball to win.  That's difficult to do in 2nd/3rd and long, so I expect FSU to throw the ball early, ala Bill Walsh.  I do think UNC can be beaten by throwing on early downs.  We saw Notre Dame do that to them last season, as well as NC State and West Virginia.  The real key is to get their big guys to play in space in situations where they do not know they will be playing in space (aka not in 2nd and 3rd and long!)

Offensive Prediction:  FSU will get 6.2 yards per play, which is 17% more than any offense has put on Carolina this season.  How many plays FSU gets is dependent on a lot of factors.  If they get 60 plays, that's 360 yards.  If they get 75 plays, that's 465 yards.  If FSU can put up 6 yards per play on this defense, I will be extremely pleased.

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