Going into their game against the 7th ranked BYU cougars, Florida State had many doubters. Most national pundits predicted that FSU would lose by a minimum of two touchdowns. Outside of the Nole's questionable defense, they also faced doubts about their offensive line. Thought of as the best in the ACC and one of the best in the country headed into the season, the Noles OLine didn't dominate Miami in the run game, though they did pass protect very well, allowing only 2 sacks on 43 pass plays. Against Jacksonville State, they struggled, like the rest of the Nole team did off of only two days of practice and the Miami loss still lingering. Writers wondered where the Seminole's vaunted run game had gone? Coming into BYU, few thought the Noles would remedy their run game problems, particularly because the Cougar defense had been so dominant, or so they seemed.
Last week I broke down the BYU-Oklahoma film and thought that it wasn't that BYU's defense was so amazing, but that Oklahoma beat themselves with repeated dumb penalties and a silly gameplan. Check the link, I called it. People often underestimate the importance of offensive line play and thus fail to account for it when evaluating a team. But offensive line play can make an average running back look like a world-beater, or make a talented quarterback look below average. OU's offensive line was the country's finest last year, but this year, replacing 4 starters, and having to move a tight end to center after an injury, they cost Oklahoma the game against BYU with 10 offensive penalties including 5+ false starts. I profiled it in that article, but if FSU was to beat BYU, they would have to avoid 3rd and long situations and silly offensive penalties, because BYU plays great team defense but they struggle when having to defend both the run and the pass because of their lack of athleticism.
But FSU Offensive Coordinator/ Head Coach in Waiting Jimbo Fisher said that he was was not worried about the run game or the offensive line. Florida State's legendary Offensive Line Coach Rick Trickett guaranteed that his unit would get things worked out. He unilaterally denied all interview requests for his linemen, stating that they were going to "stop talking and start blocking."
Florida State's offensive line could not have performed better. Their play was the antithesis of Oklahoma's offensive line. Not only did the Nole's offensive front not lose the game for Florida State, they absolutely won it. While OU committed 10 offensive penalties, the Noles had only 1 enforced against their starters (FSU pulled their first team offense once the score got to 54-21. At the time they were pulled, FSU starters were gaining 7.2 yards per snap of the football). BYU was shellshocked. "We didn't think they would be so physical," said BYU Coach Bronco Mendenhall. It started from the opening play. FSU would not punt until the end of the 3rd quarter, with the game already well in hand. The Noles marched for touchdown drives of 60, 70, 80, 82, and 86 yards the first three quarters. FSU dominated BYU. Everyone wants to assume that FSU's speed made the difference, but the Nole's offensive line was much, much stronger than BYU's defensive front. BYU's linebackers could not get off the blocks of FSU's offensive line. Florida State's likely All-America guard Rodney Hudson took home ACC offensive lineman of the week honors.
After the jump, see just how dominant they were.
The Noles run game was excellent. The offensive line did not allow a tackle for loss (though one did come on a reverse where an FSU wideout made an ill-advised juke by the sideline.) It started on 1st down. The Noles had 21 1st down runs. The results were as follows: 12, 12, 9, 9 (touchdown), 6, 5, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1 (touchdown). Florida State did not have any runs stopped for no gain or loss. Zero. They also dominated short yardage. On 2nd and 3 or less, FSU ran every time and picked up the first down, every time: Down-Distance (Gained) 2-2 (6), 2-1 (4), 2-2 (4), 2-1 (4). Third down was the same story, 3-1 (6), 3-1 (4), 3-1 (2). The announcers were stunned, calling the offensive line "velcro" because BYU's defensive linemen and linebackers could not shed the blocks. Want another crazy nugget? BYU's leading tacklers were their cornerbacks, who had 10 and 11 respectively. BYU's cornerbacks had more tackles than the defensive line and linebackers combined, mostly because Florida State's line denied them any penetration and consistently put them on their backs.
"We showed great efficiency on a down to down basis. Constantly stayed ahead of the sticks. Were always in manageable downs, we executed with great consistency, we were very physical up front, were very multiple, distributed the ball a bunch (8 different Seminoles carried the ball), we won 1st down consistently," said Florida State Offensive Coordinator and Head Coach in Waiting Jimbo Fisher, who coached the Noles to the ACC's top offense last season and won the ACC Offensive Coordinator of the Year award. Florida State held the ball for 40 minutes, compared to just 20 for BYU.
It wasn't just the run game. Christian Ponder was an incredible 21-26 passing for 195 yards, 2 TD's and no interceptions. His quarterback rating was a preposterous 170. But the credit also needs to go to the offensive line. Ponder was not sacked. He was hurried only twice, and was hit only three times. Florida State had an incredible 30 1st downs. They started out a perfect 10-for-10 on third downs, and the starters were 11-of-13 overall. Ponder had time to go through all of his reads. When BYU blitzed, FSU picked it up and FSU isolated the single coverage. When BYU played a conservative zone, Ponder sat back and read all five players in the pattern.
Perhaps the best way to judge their performance is to ask BYU's coach, Bronco Mendenhall:
"I thought they played hard, I thought they played physical and I thought they sustained it from beginning to end. I was very impressed with their preparation. A frustrating loss for our football program. Our inability to make critical stops on third down, due to the way Florida State was playing. They won the physical matchup in terms of being able to run the football, and run it effectively from the beginning of the night through the end of the night. I thought those factors were the biggest difference in the game -- prohibiting our offfense from having enough snaps and being on the field frequently enough to give us the balance we were hopeful for. Florida State played more physical tonight. I think they played with more hunger, meaning more desire. Many plays were stopped at the point of attack, but I think hey continued to play longer and harder than we played.
I was impressed through the week with their line's athleticism. I was impressed today that they were more physical than I anticipated. They were very athletic in the first two football games in terms of getting downfield on their screen passes, and cutting. Their size is more like defensive linemen, as you watch them. So they are very athletic. I didn't think they would be able to move us off the line of scrimmage. And not only did they do that, they did it consistently, beginning to end. And that was the biggest surprise to me of the game. And I have to give them credit."
[On the difference between FSU and BYU's front, and why Bronco expected to have success against FSU]: "Because I believe Oklahoma's offensive line was a very good front, and I think that we were capable of more. Yet, they, from beginning to end, ran the football and it wasn't a lot of elaborate schemes. It was basically zone blocking which was their men against our men."
[On Halftime Adjustments]: "Really, when it comes down to the adjustments made -- and this will sound maybe less than what you hoped to hear, it really comes down to gap integrity, and each player doing exactly what they are supposed to do. And when you run zone schemes, someone is losing at the point of attack, or someone is getting cut off, and losing their gap. And that is where seams develop."
"Basically, man for man, Florida State's run offense was better than our run defense this evening. And when you start taking chances and bringing pressure -- and we brought more today than probably in any of the previous two games, maybe all of last year, in trying to help them make plays, but even then Florida State handled that well. Everything we had planned and prepared, we used. And none of which was very effective. Our zone pressures weren't working in terms of getting to the quarterback. We had some man pressures that also weren't effective. And base zone and even dropping eight [wasn't effective]. So execution ultimately was their execution was better than ours."
While All-America Candidate Left Guard Rodney Hudson took home ACC Offensive Lineman of the week honors, other starters played at an extremely high level as well. Left Tackle Andrew Datko is following up his Freshman All-America campaign with a great outing, dominating the Mountain West Conferences's All-Time Sack Leader Jan Jorgensen. Center Ryan McMahon improved his performance immensely from the Miami game and importantly, kept the line abreast of the various blitzes BYU was running from their uncommon 3-4 alignment. Right Guard David Spurlock and Right Tackle Zebrie Sanders both played extremely physical and did a great job maintaining their blocks, allowing the runner to find the hole.
It seems obvious now that the running game wasn't dominant against Miami because Miami schemed to take away the run and allow the pass, if Ponder could throw it, because FSU couldn't throw well last season, and because Miami has an excellent defensive tackle tandem which played well against Rodney Hudson while Hudson had an injured foot. But Ponder showed FSU can and will throw the ball, and now that teams have to respect both the run and the pass, they are in a bind. Florida State is averaging more than 450 yards against ranked teams. No school is averaging more (minimum 2 games). Starting last season when they were the youngest offensive line in the country with three true freshmen and two sophomores as part of FSU's Undercover Youth Movement, this unit has steadily improved. If a team is going to stop FSU's run game, they better have an elite level front-7, of which are only found at Clemson, UNC, and UF, on FSU's schedule, or they are just going to have to gamble and risk being shredded by the pass. With no Seniors and everyone expected to return in 2010, this offensive line has a serious chance to be the clear cut top unit in the country next season. The offense could follow a similar path. While It's not yet the best in the country, it should be the ACC's best again this season and has a real chance to be the best in the country in 2010.