I had the chance to watch the tape of Florida State's 31-7 drubbing of the Florida Gators. This won't be the traditional film review where I go play-by-play, but rather some general thoughts on each position.
That sound you hear? That's the sound of all the other coaches in the Atlantic Division coming to the full realization that Jimbo Fisher is building a monster down in Tallahassee. For at least the next two years it will be a shock if any other Atlantic team wins the division. With the way Jimbo and staff are bringing talent to Tallahassee, FSU's recruiting class is literally better than an All-Star team comprised of the recruiting classes of the five other schools in division. And the 31-7 stomping of the Gators won't hurt those recruiting efforts.
I think the reason I had trouble realizing just how big this beatdown was is that FSU can only take care of what it controls. I knew FSU was doing exactly what it needed to do to get back-- in time. But it cannot cause Urban Meyer to make horrible coaching hires, to fake retire, or to become a shell of his former self. And I just didn't believe that had happened until I saw the utter confusion on Florida's sideline. The Gators could have made this a lot closer with a little bit of discipline. A running back making the protection calls because the tight end playing quarterback only knows ten plays and zero audibles/ protections? At UF? Wow. All the penalties and disorganization from them looked like something you'd see from a Dennis Erickson team. FSU's players are not 24 points better than Florida's, but the product on the field comprised of coaches, players, and home field sure were.
I'll start with the coaching. This group gets a perfect grade for an excellent job of preparing the 'Noles to blow out the Gators. The utilization of talent was great. Jimbo Fisher said that FSU's goals were to win field position through special teams and turnovers, win short yardage, red zone, make big plays, and limit big plays on defense. Mission accomplished.
FSU amassed 282 yards on 44 plays before garbage time. 282 yards doesn't sound like much, but it was 6.4 per play and that is great. Zero turnovers and 31 points doesn't hurt either. FSU had 7 drives: 4 TDs, 1 FG, 2 Punts. The 'Noles gained 71% of possible yards.
Coach Fisher had a great gameplan. Perhaps he slept in his office like he did for the Miami game? In the preview I said that FSU would not run the ball all over UF and that it would have to throw. I also noted that UF's defensive ends were not special and that the Gators had to blitz to get pressure on the passer. That means the offensive line and backs must be sound in their protections. Big credit here to OL Coach Rick Trickett and RB Coach Eddie Gran. Ponder was never sacked and was only pressured a handful of times. It was tremendous effort from a group on its fifth right guard of the season and missing its best pass-protecting back (Thomas). I thought this would be a major problem and FSU dealt with it masterfully.
From left to right, Andrew Datko played a good game. UF doesn't have a great end right now, but Datko easily handled everything in pass pro with flawless technique and he wasn't awful in the run game (remember he has only one arm right now). Rodney Hudson is one of the best offensive linemen in conference history and he played like it. He was excellent in the run game and literally perfect in pass protection. Ryan McMahon was much better than he was against NC State or Clemson. The real key was Bryan Stork not making huge mistakes. He had a few mental lapses but played much better than expected. And at Right Tackle Zebrie Sanders was good in the run game and had active feet in the passing game.
I'll talk more about Christian Ponder below, but huge credit to him here. Ponder calls all of the protections and he is really mentally special. It's stuff like this that people do not see when watching the game. When Fisher says Ponder has played better this year than last and that the immature receivers and injured line are the cause for his depressed season numbers, believe him. Ponder made it easy for the offensive line. He was literally calling out the blitzes UF ran. Florida players admitted this. It's demoralizing when the other team calls out what play you are about to run.
The other thing about blitzing is that it creates one-on-one matchups for the receivers. I discussed this in the preview as well and had my doubts that this unit, labeled "immature" by Jimbo Fisher, could step up and beat some very talented defensive backs for Florida. But they did. The routes were perhaps the best all season. The receivers created some separation and caught the football. Was it an amazing or special performance by these receivers? No, but it was this group performing up to the level of its talent. Almost everyone, including myself, made the mistake of underestimating how long it would take this group to come together. Also important was UF didn't have its #2 corner (Brown), and instead had to go with Moses Jenkins, at whom Fisher repeatedly attacked via route and formation. Willie Haulstead and Rodney Smith are really starting to emerge and that helps to relegate Bert Reed and Taiwan Easterling to slot roles in which they can excel. Cannot ask for much more from this group.
I'll save the best for last with Christian. FSU is so lucky to have Ponder. He's had to deal with multiple elbow procedures this season, shoulder surgery over the offseason, poor receiver play, and a noncohesive group up front due to injury. But with those other two groups doing their job, Ponder did what he's done for just about every game this year- play well. Really well. When Fisher says Ponder is an NFL QB playing college, believe it. You rarely see FSU checked into a wrong protection or flip the play to the side without the numerical advantage. You don't realize that advantage until you have a quarterback who makes those mistakes. Ask Clemson or Miami how poor QB play can really wreck a season. Ponder wasn't perfect on the day, but he was excellent. 16-24 (70%) for 221, 3 TD, 0 INTs. He was very accurate and smart with the football and didn't care who was open as he found seven different receivers. In his last four games he is 73-112 for 851, 8 TD, 1 INT, all while not being 100%.
Florida had 8 drives before garbage time. 43 plays for 206 yards is a solid defensive performance of 4.8 yards-per-play. Add in the four turnovers and it becomes a very nice defensive day. UF gained only 34% of possible yards.
What a gutty effort by the defensive line! For four weeks I have told you these guys are shot. Done. Gassed. I said in the preview if FSU is to win it must somehow reach for something it could not find over the last few weeks. And credit these guys, especially coach Haggins and coach Eliot for getting these kids right.
Anthony McCloud (AMP) is FSU's top defensive tackle right now and is primed for a monster 2011 season. He held the point of attack well. Has to find the ball better. Jacobbi McDaniel gave some decent snaps and he hates UF like all Madison Co. kids do. Gutty effort from him to fight through the elbow stuff. Everett Dawkins is really a good kid and a team leader but being his size and banged up is not a good combination. But he does a good job with penetration and almost always hustles. Demonte McAllister came in and offered fresh legs despite the knee and elbow issues.
At end, FSU had some quality play. Brandon Jenkins is a 1st-team ALL-ACC kid and is very athletic. White did an ok job with contain overall and he has to get backer flow help over the top. Werner is a special freshman who contributed, and Hicks offered some quality snaps. The defensive line wasn't objectively special, but subjectively, given how beat up this group is, they were.
The backers and defensive backs had an excellent day. I group these two together because they were all playing run as UF had very little passing threat. With a few exceptions, the backers took on their blocks and forced the ball to the outside. Corners turned it back inside. And the safeties ran the alley and delivered the killshot. They were never duped by play-action passes and caught out of position deep. A few times UF did pull and confuse the backers who were pinned inside, but after previous years FSU was clearly focused on being disciplined and not allowing stuff up the middle. Thought UF should have run the counter play more as the Gators had success with that. They got away from it and that helped FSU. Coverage was very good on almost everything, with the exception of the touchdown where Nigel overruns the route and then slips down as he (looks like) steps on the referree's foot.
Special teams were truly special as well. Hopkins had four nice kickoffs and one mistake (opening kickoff). Powell had tremendous punts, including three inside the five. The return game was fine, and FSU even keyed on UF's fake punt and stopped it early.