It was a tale of quarters for Florida State as the N.C. State Wolfpack pulled out a thriller over the Florida State Seminoles in Raleigh on Thursday-Night football. NC State scored early to go up 7-0. Florida State toughened up and went ahead 21-7. N.C. State tied the game at 21. Florida State made it 24-21. N.C. State drove the field and scored to go ahead 28-24. Florida State drove the field and on a second down and goal from the three yard line, Christian Ponder fumbled as Ty Jones' blindsided him on the playfake. Yes, his own man. For more on that, see here. We'll have to wait for Monday's press conference to see if Fisher will really reveal that Jones took the wrong angle. N.C. State recovered and the ballgame was over.
On defense, Florida State knew it had to defend the deep ball and force NC State to be patient and move the ball on multi-play drives. The 'Noles succeeded on stopping the big play, but NC State's execution was tremendous. That's a good NC State offense and a lot of credit must go to quarterback Russel Wilson who played an incredible game. The Pack gained 353 yards on 77 plays, only 4.6 per play. That's a very good number and the lowest output N.C. State has had all year in conference play. But NC State was a tremendous 12 of 18 on third down.
That's a really awful defensive performance on third down, but this defensive performance is about what FSU fans should have expected unless they were dumb enough to fail to see that Florida State's defense hadn't played much in the way of good offenses to date. Florida State's defense is not elite. It is good, and tonight the good but not great 'Noles defense came up against an excellent player in Wilson with a crop of veteran wideouts who got the job done. Russel Wilson repeatedly made great runs on third down. On some of those plays Florida State's linebackers were out of position. On others, Wilson just made a great play.
What was not expected defensively, however, was the NC State running game. Mustafa Greene played quite well, rushing for 73 yards on 16 carries, and keeping N.C. State ahead of the chains. Florida State could have changed it up and went after the run more, but then it would not likely have done the job it did against Wilson and the passing game. Some of the stunting by the defensive line, however, was questionable as it opened some lanes for Wilson.
The offense didn't fare much better and no offensive unit can escape blame. Florida State was extremely sloppy coming out of the gate. The receivers and offensive line combined for seven penalties in the first twenty minutes. Seven. In twenty minutes. Florida State was also forced to waste a timeout when the receivers could not get lined up. That's unacceptable and falls on the offensive staff, and ultimately on coach Fisher. Florida State had trouble with the slippery field, with several players falling down. On one such play, two receivers collided as one of them fell down. It might have been a busted route, but they were again not in the right spot. On that play the defensive back dropped a sure interception. Further, the run game could not get going thanks to the penalties putting FSU in long down and distance situations early. Ponder also made an awful throw that luckily ended up going for a touchdown, but that too was called back for holding. The offensive line also blew an assignment on an early third down, and after a terrible punt, NC State scored on the ensuing drive. Florida State's first four drives netted 18 yards on 15 plays.
Then FSU's offense got its act together. The receivers started catching the ball. On the next three drives Florida State went 166 yards on 21 plays (7.9 per play), scoring three touchdowns as Christian Ponder ran for two and hit Willie Haulstead for another. Florida State avoided silly penalties, lined up correctly, and that allowed FSU to operate some beautifully balanced drives. Ty Jones had some excellent runs and finished with 100+ yards on 10 carries. If FSU hadn't shot itself in the foot with the receiver and offensive line penalties in the first four drives, I suspect Jones would have been able to get going even earlier.
On the first drive of the second half, however, Florida State had a really nice play set up to receiver Taiwan Easterling. It might have been a touchdown. There's no doubt it was a big play. But Senior Center Ryan McMahon slipped down as NC State's defensive tackle charged into the backfield and hit Ponder's arm as he was throwing. The refs ruled it a fumble, despite the ball moving forward after the hit. It should have been an incomplete pass, but the officials said they lacked conclusive evidence to overturn the call. I don't think McMahon makes a great block there if the turf was dry, but it's doubtful he does the splits either. NC State scored on the ensuing drive.
Florida State moved the ball well on the next three drives, netting 158 yards on 24 plays (6.8 per play). But FSU could come away with only three points. On a drive starting from its own 11, FSU moved the ball to the N.C. State 47 yardline. On a crucial third-and-sixteen play, the offensive line gave Christian Ponder protection, Ponder delivered a strike to Willie Haulstead for 20 yards. Haulstead could have even scored on the play if he could have made one additional move, but he already had the first down. But there was one problem-- Haulstead dropped the ball. It was a ridiculously costly play. There was nobody around Haulstead. It's completely unacceptable to drop wide open, perfectly thrown strikes on third-and-16 in a conference road game. Shawn Powell followed up with an uncharacteristic shanked punt.
On the next drive Florida State took the ball at its own 28 and drove to the N.C. State 15. On a crucial third and three, Christian Ponder ran left and had the first down but inexplicably did not cut the ball up, instead electing to go wide. He was tackled for only a two yard gain. I don't think Ponder was being greedy on the play. Watching it again it is clear that he has a lot more yards if receiver Rodney Smith, who was in position to block, actually throws the block. Smith did not throw the block. He whiffed. But I do think Ponder needs to cut that up anyway. That's unacceptable from Ponder because FSU needed the first down a lot more than it needed 5-7 extra yards. He ran very well tonight, including a great touchdown run, but that mistake by him and Smith was costly.
Jimbo Fisher did a poor job after that as well. He elected to go for the field goal on 4th-and-1, which shows a total lack of understanding of the concept of field position value. Florida State was overwhelmingly likely to pick up 4th-and-1, and even if it didn't, NC State would be pinned inside its own 15 with 9 minutes left in the tie game. Going for the lead was not the correct call there and it cost Florida State. Credit to N.C. State's Tom O'Brien for understanding fourth-down value and going for the game winning touchdown on FSU's 1.
After N.C. State drove the field and scored to go ahead 28-24, Florida State took the ball on its own 29 with three timeouts. Incomplete (pass rush pressure), then Willie Haulstead made a nice catch over the middle for 16 to bail out Ponder, then Ponder scrambled for five, then hit Taiwan Easterling on a well thrown skinny post for 29, then a pass for 5 to Rodney Smith, then an incomplete, then on third down, Ponder had a great scramble for 8 yards to pick up the first down. At the N.C. State 8 with 1:07 on the clock, Ty Jones rushed left for 5 yards. It set up second-and-goal from the three with three timeouts left and ~54 seconds left.
Then for whatever reason, Florida State called timeout. Coach Fisher will say this was to set up the next play, but it was a stupid use of the timeout. Even though it didn't play into the ultimate result, it was a dumb use of the timeout because it would have allowed the 'Pack to drive for the tying field goal if Florida state had scored the winning touchdown. Whether it played into the ultimate result is irrelevant. It was still a mistake.
While the timeout was idiotic, the ensuing play was a good call. Christian Ponder faked the ball to Ty Jones, and scanned the field to see his tight end Beau Reliford (who played a poor game) wide open in the end zone. But Ty Jones was about a yard too tight and there was no way Ponder could have seen him. On a play like the fumble play, somebody has to account for the defensive end. The fake was to Lonnie Pryor and Lonnie went out in a route so clearly its Ty Jones. Ty's going to try and wall him (outside position) instead of turning him out as its an easier block for him to just cut. He was too tight and needed to be wider to get the proper angle. Ty ran up the tackles ass and needed to be outside leg. You don't think these little things will hurt you but the quarterback can't stare at the damn running back to make sure he's in the right place on the fake. Christian Ponder hardly extended the ball. Ponder can't be worrying about the backs doing something as simple as taking the right track. He's got his eyes downfield ready to come off and throw the touchdown. I like that he took some blame but its not hard to see how this really went down in replay. Ponder fumbled and N.C. State recovered. There's no excuse for that. It was a freak play, but it was all too indicative of the sloppy play of Florida State's offense tonight.
Florida State should have scored a touchdown on that play. But it should have done a lot of things tonight. From early receiver and offensive line penalties, to poor pass protection negating a 50-yard touchdown and causing a fumble, to easy passes dropped, to the quarterback not being aware of the first down marker, to gutless 4th-down decisions, and finally a poor fake leading a fumble, Florida State's offense beat itself tonight.
Florida State also failed to win the battle of special teams tonight in all phases.
Give N.C. State's offense a lot of credit for winning this game.
But there were some positives as well. The defense won't see another offense as good as this the rest of the year, and N.C. State's success is more of a credit to the 'Pack than a criticism of Florida State's defense. The offense moved the ball quite well, at 6.1 yards per play. Florida State can fix some of the uncharacteristic sloppiness on offense and this is still a very good offense. Additionally, the offense really moved the ball well once the penalties stopped. The only major play in which N.C. State's defense beat Florida State's offense (as opposed to the 'Noles beating themselves) was the fumble on which Ponder was throwing to a wide open Easterling and McMahon gets bulldozed and falls down, causing the fumble. It's easier to address self-inflicted wounds than it is to come to the realization that a team does not have talent. Florida State has good talent. It's not great talent at this point, but it's good. This was a very solid day throwing the ball for the offense, as Ponder was 17-28 for 198 with a touchdown and no interceptions. That's a quality 132 passer rating which is quite good. Jimbo Fisher and Andrew Carter both said it was the best game Ponder has played all year. Obviously, however, the play-fake issue has to be fixed immediately as that fumble was ridiculous. Florida State also has a quality running game that works well when dumb penalties aren't creating first-and-fifteen situations.
If each offensive unit gets slightly better in the ten days leading up to Carolina, this offense can be really good. And that'll help the team quite a bit as another encouraging sign from the loss was the continued string of good health for the thin Florida State defense. I believe FSU came out unscathed on that side of the ball.
Florida State and N.C. State each have one ACC loss. For Florida State to accomplish its goal of winning the Atlantic Division it will need N.C. State to drop a game down the stretch. If the 'Pack plays the way it did tonight, it won't lose. But for the 'Pack to play as well as it did tonight, in the self-described "biggest game of the last decade" is extremely unlikely. In fact, N.C. State will be underdogs in two remaining ACC games: next week at Clemson, and in three weeks at North Carolina. Florida State is still the favorite to win the Atlantic Division. Yes, it does need help, but FSU will be favored in all of its remaining conference games (UNC, Clemson, and at Maryland), while N.C. State will be underdogs in two of its remaining four: at Clemson (underdog), Wake Forest, at UNC (underdog), and at Maryland.
At this point, the 9-3 record that many optimists predicted before the season is in reach. Florida State sits at 6-2, 4-1 in the conference. Remember that FSU has a 16-16 conference record over the last 4 years, it has lost 20 games in the last 4 years, had the 7th worst major-conference defense last season, and hasn't even won its own division in the ACC in the last 4.