Let me start off by saying that I am not a pessimist, but a pragmatist. Last night's loss was frustrating for all of us, but it doesn't mean the Seminoles are not a good football team. Remember, we were only a 3.5 point favorite and N.C. State has an experienced, talented offense. So without further ado, let's take a look at who's at fault for last night's defeat. I ranked them in the order that I think mattered the most. As always here on TN, feel free to agree or disagree below (just be nice please!)
1) Christian Ponder. Ponder had a pretty nice game overall. He threw it fairly well (more good than bad and certainly better than the last game), he took what was given, and he used his legs to score two TDs and pick up some key first downs. And even though a growing minority might be for seeing EJ Manuel play more, I don't think that's the right call (and I know Jimbo Fisher won't change quarterbacks so it's a moot point). But we have to blame Ponder for the fumble at the end of the game. Good play call, the receiver was open and Ponder saw him, but he failed to protect the football. Three inches closer to his body, maybe a tighter grip, a shorter step towards Ty Jones on the fake, any of these things would have resulted in us scoring a touchdown and taking the lead with :50 left on the clock. He also messed up on the third-and-three run earlier in the fourth quarter. Had he just tucked it up inside, or even slid forward, we have a first down in the red zone. But he tried to go outside for the extra couple of yards, the receiver missed a block and he gets tackled for a two yard gain. A senior QB should know better. The first down always comes first! I also think he held on to the football a split second too long on the
incomplete pass fumble. I know McMahon slipped and the blocking was poor as a result, which directly led to the hit, but Easterling was open a little earlier than the throw. I think Ponder hesitated just a hair too long instead of releasing the ball on time and that allowed the big hit to happen. Again, half a second difference between a big play for the 'Noles and a big play for the Wolfpack. Final point - Ponder's deep ball was awful again. It floated waaaay to long. I'm not sure I would call those anymore if I was Jimbo.
2) Lack of mental focus and concentration. False starts. Illegal shifts and motions. Missed blocks in the running game. Receivers running into each other. Haulstead dropping a wide open ball on a crucial 3rd down. The punter shanking a couple for short kicks that give up good field position. Defenders going for the big hit and failing to wrap up (Russel Wilson is only 5'10"! He's not Ben Rothlisberger! How can he escape being whacked while standing upright by a defensive lineman?? Ugh!). These issues plagued us especially in the first quarter, preventing the 'Noles from getting the offense going early. And they reared their ugly heads throughout the game. Fortunately these things can be fixed, and they need to be if we expect to win the division.
3) N.C. State. I have to give credit where credit is due. They game-planned to spread us out and run out of the shotgun. It worked. They were patient in the passing game, running lots of short slants and outs, and it worked. They executed at a high level almost all night. They had the guts to go for it on fourth and goal. They took advantage of good field position via poor punts and turnovers to generate touchdowns. Wilson made some incredible runs. The defense had some key stops and usually tackled FSU's skill guys in space. Whether intentional or not, all those bouncing kickoffs made it difficult on Reid to catch the ball, find the lane, and hit full speed. The Wolfpack played three quarters of solid football and it was enough to get the job done.
4) The FSU coaching staff. I think Coach Fisher called a better game than the one against Boston College. And our defense took away the vertical passing game that N.C. State does so well and forced them to consistently execute the short stuff. The Seminole defense isn't good enough to shut down good offenses, but they are good enough to slow them down, and that's exactly what they did. Still, there were plenty of questionable calls. There should have been a QB spy put on Wilson for much of the game, but I didn't see us using one until late in the game (I could be wrong on this, but I don't remember someone tracking him very often). There were too many twists and stunts by the front four that opened up the rushing lanes. Fisher should have gone for it on fourth and inches instead of kicking the field goal, knowing that a) we were blowing them off the ball that whole drive, and b) the only stop our defense had produced in the last few drives was via a turnover, so we needed the touchdown. And remember that old saying about fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me? Well, the FSU staff forgot about that one. It wasn't until the fourth QB sneak between the center and left guard that we finally filled the gap with a linebacker and stuffed that play. Three in a row, that all work, is two too many. And how about how well N.C. State stuffed the reverse in the fourth quarter? That was some smart coaching. They recognized the play from the tape of FSU vs. BC, and the linebackers (specifically Nate Irving) were flowing toward the correct spot to make the play before the pitch to the reversing receiver was even made! The misdirection didn't fool them at all. Color me impressed by that, and Jimbo had no business trying that play on key drives two games in a row.
All in all, I think it was the game the Seminoles should have, not just could have, won. But two turnovers, mental mistakes, and a patient and effective N.C State offense kept FSU from earning a huge ACC win. Thankfully FSU has a couple extra days to prepare for North Carolina to try and get the sloppy play fixed. If we want to claim the Atlantic division crown and finally beat those dirty lizards, we are going to need to.