For the first time in almost a year, Florida State hosted a night game in the Doak and the Seminoles pulled out a win over Clemson, 16-13.
I always feel that fans of one team fail to credit or criticize the opponent, so that is where I will start. Over the Summer I looked at the talent level of both Clemson and FSU, and concluded that Clemson had much more veteran talent while FSU's young players were better. I stand by that. Clemson has one of the best defensive lines in the country. Da'Quan Bowers, Jarvis Jenkins, and Brandon Thompson are grown men who will all be paid very well next season. They are very well coached on the defensive side. Clemson had a window to really dominate the Atlantic Division from 2005-2010. That has now slammed shut.
I will evaluate the performance against my pre-game expectations.
I expect FSU to run 70 plays for 368 yards (5.25 per play) in a battle of an excellent defense and an excellent offense.
Excluding the pre-half kneeldown, FSU ran 54 plays for 308 yards, an average of 5.74 per play. That was about 9% better on a per-play basis than expected and I am pleased with the effort. FSU's offense had only one turnover (Greg Reid had another). If you expected much more against Clemson's defense you haven't been paying attention. I will address the disappointing part when I talk defense.
I thought EJ Manuel played well filling in for Christian Ponder. He managed the game and made few costly errors. Fisher commented that he missed some checks that would have put FSU into a more favorable play, and after a bit of a shaky start Fisher put the cuffs on him and really reeled in anything that would require him to read the middle of Clemson's complex defense. As a runner I thought he was quite good. I said in the preview that Manuel is a better designed runner than Ponder, but not the scrambler that Ponder is. He really did a nice job on the option, knowing when to keep and when to pitch. I liked his balance on the designed runs as well. One time he really waited for his blockers to work, but on another he was impatient and left about 20 yards out on the field. Manuel showed good composure, was not asked to do things he was not ready to do, and importantly, did not attempt to play outside himself.
I also think people screaming to run the ball more are misguided. FSU's "great" running game is merely a decent run game. It was largely built against poor teams like BYU, Wake, and Virginia. Yes, FSU did run all over Miami, but it's not likely that another elite defense of Miami's caliber would get completely out-schemed like that again. Clemson's defensive line was tremendous all night, as expected, and that defense was not going to be run on in the traditional sense.
I was mildly disappointed in the play of the offensive line. I expected FSU to have a little more success run blocking the non-option plays, but Andrew Datko has no left arm and Rhonne Sanderson is a 4th-stringer, which won't get it done right now against 3 NFL defensive linemen. The pass protection was good, however, considering the opponent.
None of the backs really stood out and none of them are special. There is a reason FSU is taking three backs in this recruiting cycle. I feel terrible for Jermaine Thomas, but if his leg injury is as bad as expected, he will have a hard time ever seeing the field again with the talent FSU is now bringing in and the long rehab process he will face.
FSU's receivers played better than they had in the last two weeks. They weren't great, but Rodney Smith did make two nice catches and should have had two more. Kenny Shaw saw some playing time, as did Greg Dent, though Dent was ripped by the coaches on the sideline. Kudos to Beau Reliford for taking advantage of some very average linebackers for Clemson.
I thought the offensive coaching was good. Fisher tried a little bit of everything until he found some areas to exploit, and FSU did not ask its young QB to do things he could not do. Coach Fisher said Ponder should be back next week and that the rest will be good for him. That's great news because FSU is going to need its offense to carry this defensive front that looks to be toast.
While I was happy with the yards per play of the offense, the total number of plays was disappointing. That is on the defense. I wrote two weeks ago that FSU's young defense is hitting a wall. Make that smashing into a wall. The young defensive line has now been dominated for 10 straight quarters and there is nothing FSU can do about it. Without Markus White, this is a group of four sophomores and three freshmen who are getting blown off the ball on almost every play. We discussed this all off-season. These guys are not ready to play the number of snaps they are being forced to play and they are pretty much toast at this point. Losing Moses McCray (torn ACL in Fall camp) really does hurt here when he was penciled in for a projected 400 snaps this year.
I see Clemson running 65 plays for 315 yards (4.8 per play).
Clemson ran for 4.9 per play, so I missed on my prediction by 0.1 yards-per-play. What I didn't foresee, however, was Clemson physically dominating FSU's defensive line to the extent that it did, running 79 plays. That's 22% more plays than I expected.
Clemson ran an astounding 79 plays, including 47 in the first half (FSU ran only 18). That's more than Oregon runs in a half. Clemson kept FSU's offense off the field all day. And really, the Tigers gave this game to the 'Noles. Clemson should have won by 7+, but as our friends at STS explain, their idiot offense coaching staff went full-retard again. Why on earth Clemson threw 44 passes when its veteran offensive line is dominating the game via the run is lost on me and everyone else who knows ball. Nole fans owe a big thank you to Clemson for taking what should have been a Tiger win and turning it into an opportunity for an FSU victory.
The tackling was poor on the night, but it is difficult to take good angles when the guys up front are getting blown out of their gaps. At first glance the coverage on the night was very average. Xavier Rhodes is a talented corner, but Greg Reid is not playing well right now.
I really have trouble analyzing this defense right now and find it to be a pointless endeavor because nothing will change until the young pups up front get more physically mature via another off-season of lifting. It's not coaching.
FSU's strategy here is pretty clear. It is going to sit back in soft zone and make opponents execute down the field, perhaps hoping for coaching mistakes by the opposition as well (as Clemson did). FSU fans saw another potential response to the problem in the UNC game and FSU will not go back to that. It is better to die a slow death on each drive than it is to return to the defense of 2009. Most college offenses will make mistakes when forced to drive the field in multi-play drives. Depending on another team's mental mistakes isn't fun defensive strategy, but at this point it is the best one for FSU.
I give FSU's special teams an average grade. Dustin Hopkins made the three field goals, including the amazing 55-yarder to win the game. He also had four excellent kickoffs, which placed Clemson at the 20, 20, 18, and 16 yard-lines. Powell had a very average day punting, with one decent punt and a few poor boots. Greg Reid was terrible on the night and made the worst play of the game, fumbling in his own end on a return. With a mix of great and awful, I will give the special teams an average rating. Clemson's were terrible, however, missing two field goals and punting from FSU's 34 (punt went for a touchback).
FSU now has a winning conference record for the first time since 2008. It has eclipsed last season's performance and there are two games to go. Florida State has a solid chance to win the division. The 'Noles are currently tied with NC State, but the Wolfpack hold the tiebreaker. FSU has one remaining ACC game (at Maryland, 8 PM, ABC next week), while NC State has two: at UNC and at Maryland.
FSU is now 2-2 in its last four games, which is about what should be expected considering how it has played against a major step-up in competition compared to the earlier part of the year. FSU has now lost games in which it out-played its opponent and won games in which it was out-played by the opponent. Such is life for the 'Noles as this good but not great team will continue to play close games.