The Preview Part 2: South Florida's Defense v. Florida State's Offense- with Prediction

So you read my take on USF's offense against Florida State's defense.  One slight addendum to that preview.  I know some people on the Western Kentucky team that USF beat.  Central Arkansas beat Western Kentucky 28-7 IN WESTERN KENTUCKY.  They said that Tennessee's offensive line was much better than USF's offensive line, and that USF's offensive line wasn't much better than that of Central Arkansas.  Now let's flip the script.  The 'Noles have one of the best offenses in the nation.  Against Ranked opponents this season, Florida State is averaging over 450 yards and 44 points.  They are talented and smooth.  I'll do this like I did the previous installment.  Breaking down their defense and what FSU will do to attack it.  Finally, I'll have a quick look at the special teams and make a prediction.

This summer I wrote:

Strategy:  The Bulls are a 4-3 base team and they do not hesitate to bring an 8th defender into the box to help with run support.  They aren't blitz crazy nor are they uber-conservative.

Coach:  The Bulls' Defensive Coordinator is Joe Tresey who took over for Wally Burnham after Burnham took the Iowa State job.  Tresey was at Cincinatti before this and is highly thought of in some coaching circles and he can be very aggressive.  Additionally, HC Jim Leavitt is a defensive minded coach and has a lot of input with his favored unit. 

2008

Bulls' Defense Overall Run Defense Pass Defense
Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI)  Per Drive, better explanation at link.
39th
S&P+ Defense (National)  Per play, better explanation at link. 38th 10th 78th
S&P+ Defense Conference Games Only 3rd 2nd 6th

If you are curious as to what these numbers mean, click on the links.  Just know that they are widely accepted by professional gamblers and other people who study the game for their living as the best and most consistent measures of performance. 

Front 7

USF's defensive line is the best in the Big East.  Phil Steele calls them the 6th best defensive line in the nation.  Simply put, they are loaded.

USF loses Defensive End Jarriett Buie and his 5 sacks (all in Big East play).  He was a solid contributor and started all 13 games for the Bulls.  The only other loss is Sampson Genus, a defensive tackle who is now competing for a spot at center.

At right end is Super Senior George Selvie, a 6'4" 250lb terror who passed up the NFL draft to return to the Bulls.  He's a two-time All-American and a favorite to win multiple national awards.  As a three year starter (37 games) he has 186 tackles, 60 for loss, and over 20 sacks.  He was hampered by injury last year, but when healthy, he's in the conversation for the best defensive end in America.  Selvie is just one of the elite pass rushers Florida State Freshman All America Offensive Tackle Andrew Datko will face this year as the 'Noles confront America's toughest schedule.

At the other end position (replacing Buie) are senior Aaron Harris and junior Craig Marshall, along with Jason Pierre-Paul.  Harris is a tweener at 6'4" 265lbs and has played defensive tackle for some of his career.  He's a more natural end and everyone in USFs program raves about him.  He had an excellent sophomore season and is considered the front runner to man the strongside end position by many.  Craig Marshall is more of a pass rushing specialist at 6'5 260 and needs to refine his game, particularly by getting in the weight room.  He did play in every game last season and had 4.5 tackles for loss.  If he makes improvements this offseason, he could overtake Harris.  Even if he doesn't start, he will play a lot of snaps for the Bulls.    The real wild card here is Paul-Pierre, a stud JUCO transfer (top JUCO defensive lineman in the country).  Pierre-Paul stands 6' 5" 265 and some believe he will take the starting spot, mostly based off his impressive film, frame, and recruiting profile.  David Bedford had a nice spring game and should also contend for playing time.  

At Nose Guard the Bulls have juniorTerrell McClain.  At 6'3" and 306lbs, he earned playing time as a freshman and continues to dominate for USF.  Both strong and quick, FSU fans should compare him to Moses McCray.  McClain should expect to be 1st team Big East in his second season as a starter. 

At the other tackle is Rs.Fr. Cory Grissom (6'2" 289lbs), who hurt his ankle early in the season and missed the rest of the season.  He has great quickness and athleticism, but is obviously quite raw.  Backing him up is 5' 11" 267lb Sophomore Keith McCaskill.  He has a good wingspan and is very quick.  

NOTE:  There is a chance Harris will play tackle not end, so keep that in mind.  The coaches are hoping that Grissom can get the job done at tackle, but if he can't or if some of the other ends blow up, Harris could end up back at tackle.

All in all, this is an excellent defensive line with multiple players who could eventually play in the NFL.  

.

Linebacker

The departed:  USF lost First Team all-Big East Strongside 'backer Tyrone McKenzie, who led the team in tackles (116) and tackles for loss (14.5), to go with a sack, a pick, and eight pass breakups.  He is the only significant loss.  

USF will still have a strong linebacker corps, and it starts with Senior middle linebacker Kion Wilson, an 11 game starter as a junior at 6'2" 235. He is the big hitter who started 11 games a year ago.  His backup will be Michael Lanaris, 6'1" 230 and one of the better linebackers in Florida coming from 2007.

Senior Chris Robinson is currently projected to replace the departed McKenzie on the strong side.  At 6'3" 240lbs, he is an decent force player who had a good spring.  Some USF fans aren't pleased with him, however, and wonder if he will ever put it all together.  A former defensive end, he's an excellent blitzer but also has limited range and is the guy the Bulls pull when facing a 3, 4, or 5 wideout set.  Also competing for the job is JUCO stud JaQuan Williams.  Phil Steele projects Williams to start at one of the outside backer spots, but I'm not sure on that.  Needless to say, he is talented.  Sam Barrington and Armando Sanchez also factor in here, but their roles are undetermined right now.

At weakside linebacker, the Bulls will plug in 6' 0" 230lb junior Sabbath Joseph, who played in ever game last season, but not as a starter.  He's excellent in coverage but is a bit on the small side and can struggle getting off blocks.  Backing him up will be 6' 3", 222lb Senior Donte Spires.  He was an excellent JUCO recruit who played well in 2007 and was ineligible last year (academics- redshirt).  Don't be surprised if he starts.  

Overall this is a decent linebacker corps.  None would start for Florida State, Miami, or UF, but they are good.

Lack of Sacks

One thing that was really puzzling to me was USF's lack of sacks.  The disparity in their run and pass defense was huge, as they were 10th against the run and 78th against the pass.  The Bulls had only 23 sacks in 401 passing plays (sack rate of 6.1%).  Part of the reason was Selvie being banged up, but other players also must step up.  If they don't, look for the Bulls to blitz more.  

I was pretty accurate here.  Let's discuss the changes

Along the defensive line, Pierre Paul is starting at left end.  The other starters are of course Selvie, McClain, and Grissom.  I haven't been particularly impressed with Grissom and he could be exploited.  This is still a talented defensive line, but they haven't played quite as well as I expected.  The decision to start Pierre-Paul could make them more stout against the run (he started last game and is expected to start Saturday.)  He's a very talented player who wanted to play for FSU but was turned away by the lazy defensive coaching staff.  At this point, I don't expect to see DT McClain make 1st team All-Big East, but 2nd team is possible.  Harris is the backup to Grissom.

At linebacker, it is exactly the same.  I will note two things.  First, Jacquian Williams, the backup strong side backer is really quick and plays some rush end on passing downs.  He's # 57.  Second, these guys like to run around a lot, but for their size, they should be better at taking on and shedding blocks.  WKU did a nice job getting them blocked on the 2nd level.  

As far as the lack of sacks, well, that hasn't really been remedied.  USF has played two horrible D1-AA teams, and WKU, a provisional 1A school in Western Kentucky who lost to Central Arkansas 28-7, AT HOME.  This year they have 5 sacks on 72 opponent pass plays, a sack on 6.9% of pass plays faced.  That'd be good over a season, but that is ridiculously poor against the people they faced.  FSU's offensive line is great in pass protection, having allowed only 4 sacks on 108 pass plays.  That's a great % of 3.6.  And that was against two nationally ranked teams.  USF is going to need someone other than Selvie to step up.

FSU has the most athletic offensive line in the country.  They can block USF's front 7.  I am pretty confident in that.  Now, USF's defensive line is much much better than BYU's so it won't be the complete domination we saw in Provo Utah.  Their tackles aren't as good as Miami's but their defensive ends are better.  That's fine.  I'd much much much much rather play against good ends than good tackles.  

Before we talk more strategy, let's have a look at USF's Secondary. Over summer, I wrote:

Secondary

Having that extreme dedication to stopping the run does cost USF, however, as their 78th ranked pass defense indicates.  USF asks a lot of it's defensive backs (probably too much).  That approach could prove interesting this year.  

The Departed:  USF loses strong safety Carlton Williams, who was their defensive player of the year with his 56 tackles and 3 interceptions.  Williams played well for the Bulls, but he wasn't an elite talent and will not be playing pro ball.  They also lost one-year starter Tyller Roberts at cornerback, and underrated safety Louis Gachette.

What they're working with:  

At boundary corner, USF returns Senior Jerome Murphy.  The 6'1" 190lb Murply had an amazing 67 tackles from his corner position to go with his 7 pass breakups and 2 interceptions.  He is lightning quick and a coach favorite and should compete for 1st, 2nd, or 3rd team all-conference honors.   His backup is redshirt freshman George Baker.  

At field corner will probably be sophomores Quenton Washington and Tyson Butler.  Both are average talents who will be tested early and often.  They have potential but must work on their consistency.  

USF played over half their 2008 snaps in a Nickel formation (5 defensive backs), so the nickel corner position is vital to their defense (or it was last year).  The loser of the Washington/ Butler competition will square off against redshirt freshman Jon Lejiste.  The field and nickel corner spots are big unknowns for the bulls team and depth could be an issue (though not against FSU, because USF shouldn't suffer much attrition prior to the 'Nole game due to their pathetic opening schedule).  

The bulls have a stud in Free safety Nate Allen.  He's 6' 2" 205lbs and a serious NFL prospect.  Allen will be counted on to be the leader of this group.  He had 53 tackles last year, but the bulls would like to be able to use him in more of a centerfield role.  Of course, that will depend on their ability to stop the run without over-committing their defensive backs to the run game, similar to how FSU wasn't able to showcase Myron Rolle because the 'Noles needed him to help with their run defense.  Allen is a candidate for the Thorpe award.    

After starting South Florida's bowl game in December, the sophomore Jerrell Young will take on the starting job at strong safety.  Like Allen, he's also 6'2" 205lbs and is a huge hitter.  Young has a lot of talent but must put it together quickly.  USF wants to have allen focus more on the pass and use Young as their 8th defender against the run.  

Consistency is really the name of the game for the Bulls secondary.  The new defensive coordinator likes to be very aggressive, and that should work because this secondary is already hyper-aggressive.  It could hurt the Bulls, however, when teams hit them deep with double moves. 

There are some major changes here.  The bulls suffered a major injury to promising sophomore safety Jerrell Young (broken arm).  As I noted, he was expected to be their top run defender from the secondary.  That necessitated some moves.  Murphy was such a good tackler that they decided to move him from his Boundary corner spot to strong safety to replace Jerrell Young.  He'll be okay there.  But other positions are up in the air.  

The Bulls are playing more 4-3 and less 4-2-5 this year, and that was a wise decision in the Spring, though they couldn't have done it in anticipation of Young's injury.  It was just preference.  The corner positions will be filled with Freshman Webster, Baker, and sophomore Washington (who has been injured with an ankle but is expected back.  Butler is also in the mix.  Interestingly, when they go to their nickel look, they will put Murphy at Nickel corner and then insert promising redshirt frosh John Lejiste in Murphy's vacated strong safety spot.  I am not impressed with the corners for USF- they are both freshmen, but the safety tandem is impressive.

As much as I would like to see FSU spread out the Bulls, I really don't expect them to.  I would like to match FSU's 3rd and 4th wideout against 3 redshirt or true freshmen corners for USF.  But I don't think it will happen.  QB Christian Ponder is in a knee brace and multiple commenter's have noted that he has been limping around campus all week.  I have to be honest here- Early this week, I expected E.J. Manuel to start.  Ponder's legs are a big part of his game and the Noles offense, but he is also an excellent passer.  Everyone expects FSU to shoot Ponder up and start him.  There won't be a lot of 4-wide, because Ponder likes to run out of that set so often.  He is under strict orders not to run, but the guy will be so amped when they shoot him up, and it's his nature to run.  I hope he can avoid further injury.

Also note:  he banged up the knee in the 2nd quarter against BYU.  It wasn't the result of him being in with a 24 point lead.

What I do expect to see is more like the Denver Broncos or USC.  Under center, with 1RB, 1TE, and 3WR's, or 2TE, 2WR's.  I really don't want to see a lot of I-Formation.  Using the two-tight end set could cause USF some serious problems.  Selvie likes to play very wide, and the tight end to his side could force him to make difficult choices.  

FSU can run out of both the sets I mentioned.  They can also use some 3WR 1TE 1RB Shotgun.  WIth the 3WR look, the Bubble Screen option will be available should USF decide not to account for the slot receiver.  Here's an example, see the yellow circle to indicate the empty space.

Byu_off_coverage_medium

Their linebacker must account for the slot receiver if they stay in their 4-3 base defense.  If they get out of that 4-3 base defense, FSU will rip them over and over again with the run.  The key will be for their linebacker to split the difference, that is, play far enough out to discourage FSU from throwing the bubble, but not too far as to take himself out of position against the run.

I like FSU to come out and establish the run.  It should work.  However, because USF's defense is decent, they will probably get some tackles for loss.  FSU won't be able to stay out of long down and distance situations the entire game.  They will continue to control the ball and keep the defense off the field, however.

While USF has not shown to be a blitz heavy team this season, their DC does have that tendency and FSU needs to be aware of that (they are).  I anticipate USF getting frustrated against the run and doing several thigns against which FSU should be able to take advantage.  First, they will probably send some run blitzes (different from pass blitzes).  To counteract this, look for FSU to bring back the screens over the middle to Fortson and Goodman.  These middle screens are highly effective because FSU's offensive line is so athletic, allowing them to block faster players in the open field.   Someone once said that the only new thing in football in the past 30 years is the middle screen, as it basically allows the offense to run a kickoff return from scrimmage.  

The other thing they will do is stack the box.  Murphy (strong safety, but a converted corner) will come up into the box, particularly against the 2TE formations.  They will play Allen (free safety) very deep when they do this.  While putting more men in the box is effective for stopping the run, it also has a disadvantage: long runs.  The reason for this is simply geometry.  A player closer to the line doesn't have the angle to catch a player if he breaks a run.  He also has less reaction time.  If anyone watches the SEA@SF game last weekend, you saw Frank Gore break two 80+ yard runs against the Seahawk defense because he cleared the first wave of defenders and had only one safety to beat, not two, because Seattle played 8 and sometimes even NINE! men in the box.  

Additionally, I look for more play-action this week.  Getting the ball out of Ponder's hands will be important, because we don't want him taking shots, but another way is to use play-action to make the defense think run before they start rushing the passer.  That could put USF in a bind.  Their corners are 5'11", 5'11", and 5'10".  Everyone lies in media guides, so I am guessing at least one of those kids is really 5'9".  Jarmon Fortson is a legit 6'3" and is a beast for a freshman to handle.  If FSU can freeze USF on play action, they have an opportunity for a huge play.  Ponder must remember to look off Free Safety Nate Allen, who is a legit NFL 2nd round type safety.

Over Summer I wrote:

Can the Bulls improve on their 2008 defense?  It really depends.  Most likely USF will take a step back in run defense and improve somewhat in pass defense.  Their 2008 disparity (10th and 78th) was silly and unlikely to happen again.  They will be better if their front 7 can stop the run without much help and their front 4 can generate a solid pass rush.  If they continue to throw everything at the run and hang their defensive backs out to dry, however, they could have a rough year, depending on whether the corners can handle their responsibilities.  I look for USF's defense to again be top 40 nationally (39th last year), with a run defense in the top 25 and a pass defense that climbs back into the top half nationally.  They should have a top 4 defense in the Big East.  If the Bulls are to have a shot at winning in Tallahassee, they must have a great defensive performance, selling out for the run grabbing a few turnovers.  

It is so tough to judge what USF has done this year.  I generally agree with what the above said, except I don't know about their run defense as much now.  They will probably be more conservative because of their freshmen corners.  

Finally, special teams.  

USF has a huge kicker problem.  Last season they were 71st in the nation in terms of points earned and points expected from their kicking game.  They had solved the problem, but their solution broke his back falling of a Busch Gardens ride.  So it's going to be a freshman walk-on or Delbert Alvarado who is just terrible.  

1 Florida State 0.107
2 Syracuse 0.086
5 UCLA 0.052
8 Miami 0.045
10 Wisconsin 0.038
11 LSU 0.037
16 North Carolina State 0.021
23 Texas 0.016
29 Pittsburgh 0.012
37 Duke 0.008
44 Florida 0.004
48 Clemson 0.001
51 Virginia Tech 0
52 Vanderbilt -0.002
53 Maryland -0.002
56 BYU -0.004
57 North Carolina -0.005
61 USC -0.006
70 Georgia Tech -0.012
71 South Florida -0.012
83 Rutgers -0.021
93 Virginia -0.029
94 Wake Forest -0.029
106 Boston College -0.044
120 Auburn -0.093

USF should go for every 4th down if at all possible.  

Both teams have very good return units and poor kick and punt coverage units.  

I expect FSU to get 34 points.  FSU should start fast, then USF will adjust and counterpunch and catch up, then FSU has to throw their counters and the offense should be enough to put pressure on USF's offense and force them into mistakes.  While I think the potential for a blowout is definitely there, it will only happen if FSU gets a bit early lead.  I just don't think the offense goes for 50+, because USF is a decent defense, and because Ponder running and the threat of Ponder running is a decent part of FSU's offense.

34-27 Noles is my pick.  

Offensive Player of the game:  Andrew Datko.  

Defensive Player of the game:  NIgel Bradham (must play really well).  

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