Is Florida State's Young Defense Hitting A Wall? Thoughts on the 37-35 loss to North Carolina

This was a difficult loss for Florida State as it had the opportunity to take control of the division and it did not.  It was difficult because FSU had the opportunity to win the game with a routine field goal opportunity for its excellent kicker, and it did not.  But the reality is that the game should not have been heartbreaking.  UNC should have had more points as Florida State's defense gave up an astronomical 7.8 yards-per-play.  

I thought FSU would achieve about 5.75 yards-per-play.  The 'Noles gained  5.6 yards-per-play on 66 plays.  That is about what was expected of the offense against a very talented defense, and the 35 points is about 7 more than I expected.  It's comparable to what Miami (5.8) and LSU (5.5) did in victories over much lesser UNC defenses (the Tar Heels were without more key contributors in those games).  

Quarterback Christian Ponder was very sharp, going 24-34 for 264 yards.  Of the 10 incompletions there were three drops by Bert Reed, two drops by Willie Haulstead, three bad balls by Ponder, one tipped pass on a missed cut, and one beautiful deep ball that Bert Reed could not haul in while tapping his feet.  

I don't think Bert Reed should be starting and would not be opposed to him being told to graduate and leave this Spring.  I was impressed with Willie Haulstead today.  He was not perfect, but he played a quality game overall with 10 catches for 154 yards and I did not spot him getting chewed out on the sideline.  

I thought 4th-string guard Rhonne Sanderson played acceptably filling in.  He did miss a cut that cost FSU a third down in the first quarter (slant to visitor's sideline to Shaw).   

Florida State's offense was below-average in the second half, gaining only 100 yards on 25 plays (4 yards per play). That was a result of some nice plays by UNC and some mistakes made by Florida State.  Fisher was very angry with Bert Reed for blowing a route to open the half that resulted in a sack.  FSU should have scored 16-2nd half points, but I cannot put two easy field goal misses on the offense.  I can put poor receiver play and some penalties on the offense in the second half.  

FSU did try to run the ball more in the second half and abandoned the no-huddle somewhat as it realized the defense needed lots of time on the sidelines to work on things.  FSU rushed nine times and threw only three times on 12 neutral downs in the second half.  Here were the runs on 1st-10.  Lonnie rushed for 3 on 1st-10, Chris Thompson rushed for 2 on 1st-10, Thompson rushed for 8 on 1st-10, Thompson rushed for 3 on 1st-10 (penalty block in the back- Easterling), Thomas rushed for 5 yards on 1st-10.  FSU didn't abandon the run in the second half, it just was behind the chains due to some penalties, whether justified or not.  

As alluded to above, there were some questionable penalties called in the second half.  Willie Haulstead had blocked his butt off and I guess sometimes refs will view that as holding.  Five in-play (not alignment) offensive penalties were called against Florida State in the second half, compared to zero for North Carolina.  Those penalties were killer and kept FSU from establishing a rhythm, particularly the holding call against tight end Beau Reliford on 3rd-8 which killed a first down run and resulted in a field goal attempt which Hopkins missed.

Tailback Ty Jones did not play and was a coaching decision.  To me, that means the junior running back didn't handle his diabetes after causing the fumble on Thursday night, or had a very bad week of practice and did not get ready to play.  

Overall this was a quality offensive effort.  The offense had zero turnovers, never put the defense in a poor position, and moved the ball on UNC's defense.  The first half was excellent (6.6 per play) and the second half was below average (4 per play).  

Unc-_fsu_non_garbage

expected FSU to allow 5.25 yards play:

I think FSU can limit this run game, but not shut it down. Carolina's receivers will make some plays, but won't tear this defense up. I think UNC will run 64 plays for 336 yards (5.25) per play.

North Carolina gained 515 yards on 66 plays.  That is 7.8 yards per play, which is by far the most Florida State has allowed on the season and with the exception of the Tar Heels' shellacking of Virginia (8.3), the most Carolina had gained by far.

T.J. Yates completed 14 passes of more than 10 yards.  Here they are:  67, 56, 39, 38, 31, 27, 22, 19, 16, 14, 14, 12, 11, 10.  Some of those were great plays by surefire NFL talents at receiver, but many were inexcusable coverage busts.  Those were the type of busts that had been fixed so far this year and this was the first game in which FSU did not defend the deep ball.  We saw last week that FSU took away the deep ball and NC State ran on FSU and crisply executed the short passing game.  Today was a much worse defensive performance.  

It was telling that FSU was so focused on the run.  I believe that the gameplan was very much a reaction to the NC State game, in which everyone saw Florida State's young defensive line get manhandled in the second half.  The gameplan shows a (perhaps justified) lack of confidence in the defense up front.  FSU got very little pressure and I think the gameplan was very tellingI think the coaches were very concerned about the UNC run game, probably because of NC State, and that to me speaks of a lack of physical maturity from a dline that is Sr, So, So, So, So, Fr, Fr, Fr. I think our coaches have very little confidence in them right now.  I noticed that FSU often used both nose-guards at the same time.  That is highly unusual and signals a worry about stopping the run.  It could also mean that there is something physically wrong with defensive tackle Everett Dawkins.  

I do think this young defensive line is hitting a wall.  Florida State did notch five sacks but one was on the last play of the first half in a clear-pass situation and two more were on offensive line busts where a rusher was unblocked. One was on a rollout.  They lack the physical maturity to dominate games and this young group of defensive backs really needs this defensive line to generate more pressure.  This is a unit that has stayed healthy, but really might be starting to wear down.  

You have to wonder whether the defensive backs also got caught up in the need to stop the run.  Certainly the coaches didn't tell them to abandon deep responsibility to stop the run, and the mantra all year has been to not get beat deep, but at some point do the defensive backs sense that FSU is unlikely to be able to stop the run without extra help from the defensive backs.  That is not an excuse for them at all and priority number one for the defensive backs in a zone scheme must be to not allow receivers over the top.  

When senior middle linebacker Kendall Smith went out with an injury, Vince Williams came in and he was stiff in coverage.  I wasn't impressed with any of the linebackers yesterday, though my disappointment with them is more about coverage than tackling. 

I have to credit the North Carolina staff for exploiting some weaknesses in FSU's defense that weren't glaring before the game but that were potentially there.  Carolina called a great game and kept FSU's defense off balance all day. The screen pass against the corner blitz in the second quarter was perfectly timed and really well blocked.  Great use of formation to get leverage and numbers outside and a great job of being patient when required.  

And as disappointed as I was with the defense, I have to complain about the lack of holding calls.  Democrat writer Corey Clark noted that FSU's opponents have been flagged for holding only five times in six ACC games, and only a single time in the last three games.  I have long thought that FSU gets jobbed by ACC refs and yesterday was no different.  Meanwhile FSU has been flagged for 13 illegal blocks during that same span. Including 6 against UNC alone.  

Other Thoughts

 

  • I think that Carolina, without a doubt, would be legitimate national title contenders if it had its suspended players.  I think Butch Davis is one of the best talent evaluators and developers in the country, now showing it at both Miami and North Carolina.  It is no secret how Davis does this.  Saban does it as well as the other elite coaches.  I think FSU will soon be doing the same as the 'Noles expect to take 23+ players in this class despite having only nine seniors.  
  • The kick return game was better, the punt team was quite good, but the kickoff game was not very good and Hopkins got lucky on one of the touchbacks as well (the one that bounced over the returner's head). 
  • The official scorekeeper credited the punter with -40 yards rushing for the bad snap, but that is incredibly misleading 
  • End of Game Management.  It's tough to tell players to do this, but FSU should have let them score from outside the 10.  Once UNC got inside the 10, FSU should have called one timeout either after UNC gained the first down or after the first down run.  Unless I am missing something (please correct me if I am), that was about 35 seconds of wasted time and Jimbo Fisher has to be on top of that.  
  • Thinking that FSU is cursed or that these things only happen to Florida State is silly and I won't entertain those thoughts.
  • We caught a lot of heat for staying conservative in our predictions after the Miami game, when everyone was saying 10-2 or 11-1.  We said there would be a major step up in competition and that 5 of FSU's 7 toughest games were yet to be played.  We predicted 8-4 before the season, were widely criticized for it, and that looks to be the most likely scenario at this point.  FSU is still very much in contention to win the Division as well.  
  • It's hard to say that FSU isn't moving in the right direction when looking at the recruiting and player development.  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.  I honestly believe this defense will make another big stride next season, from above average to very good, just as it went from terrible to above average this year.  
  • FSU now sits at 6-3 (4-2 in conference) and plays Clemson at 8PM next week.  Clemson has many more problems than Florida State.
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