I'll start out by noting that Florida State came into this game overconfident. Both the coaches and the players were cocky coming in and this has been a humbling experience for the team.
A lot of credit needs to go to Oklahoma. Back in July, I wrote that Oklahoma might very well be the best team in the country. I'm not sure they are the best but that looks like a very good or elite team. Further, the matchup was absolutely awful stylistically for Florida State to play in its second game with the new defense.
I was not impressed with the defensive ends, but they weren't the worst group in the world. I would argue that Bjoern Werner needs to start over Markus White, but he is fairly raw and would likely make many freshman mistakes. White is a very average college end (and that evaluation is kind). Brandon Jenkins held up against a very talented tackle in Donald Stephenson and played runs to his side at an acceptable level given the quality of the competition. Oklahoma did an excellent job to get the ball out quickly in its screen game. Don't look for pass rush against those little short throws. Even the double-move TD to go up 14-7 took just under 3 seconds. Fisher said only 7 true dropback plays faced. Oklahoma also did 5 or 6 rollouts which are designed to avoid pressure and ran more play-action as the game wore on.
The tackles played the run pretty well. Everett Dawkins impressed me a few times going against OU's guard Stephen Good. McDaniel did get too high a few times and was blasted. He needs to become more consistent on a down-to-down basis. They did get pressure on two or three of the seven actual drop-backs OU ran. I give credit to Anthony McCloud (AMP # 92) as well for holding the point of attack and stringing out some of those zone runs. FSU will do a much better job against the run this year.
I was disappointed with the linebackers group as a whole. It might be time to consider this group merely average. Mister Alexander was blocked by a receiver at least twice. That cannot happen and he must improve or sit in favor of Christian Jones. Though the freshman Jones also had errors and failed to get off blocks. Nigel Bradham was very average and didn't make any standout plays. His lack of depth on his drop and no jam on OU's 4th touchdown was a joke. Bradham played as if he had a cramp on that play. FSU fans need to hope his talent wasn't wasted by two years of Chuck Amato. On the upside, however, it seems very unlikely he will leave early for the draft based on his early-season performance. Kendal Smith has made major improvements against the run but is still awkward in pass coverage.
Inside, I'll break down the defensive backs and other issues.
The defensive backs played poorly almost to a man. The main culprit was obviously Greg Reid, who shyed away from contact unless he was hitting a receiver who wasn't looking. Reid also really struggled to get off blocks. While he showed a lot of improvement in the Spring, he really reverted to his bad habits of old. That's a bad sign and it might take a bit to correct. If he cannot become more fundamentally sound he might need to move to nickel corner on a more permanent basis. Greg also did a poor job playing the ball on the long touchdown pass. That touchdown pass should not occur. FSU had 7 players to cover 4 and Reid had the guy squeezed tight against the sideline, but he for whatever reason he got turned around and didn't make a play on the ball. A corner with his size and lack of physicality must play the ball better. Xavier Rhodes showed why Fisher speaks highly of his talent, but also had some plays that remind everyone that the red-shirt freshman is playing in only his second career game. Parks and Jenije didn't make any plays and were often late into the action. Parks also didn't do much of a job fighting off blocks when he had the flat responsibility. FSU fans were hoping that Jenije could be average while Nick Moody fights back from his groin injury, but so far Jenije has been below average at best. Granted, he is playing a new position and is a backup playing because of injury. Moody should play more this week and if he can get in a week of healthy practice I expect him to overtake Jenije.
This was a defense that was clearly flustered with the no huddle. As I said in the preview, this was an awful matchup for this defense. OU did a masterful job with formation and motion, knowing that FSU's new defense would not have the experience to adjust to it all. FSU's zone defenders are clearly not reading as they drop. They are "spot dropping" and not reading patterns or the QB's steps. This shows me just how raw they really are. An elite team like Oklahoma that faces a great zone defense in practice was licking its chops at the prospects of playing a raw defense like FSU's. Oklahoma did a great job of using subtle motion to gain a numerical or positional advantage on some plays. Bob knew about how much Mark could install and he knew what would give a new defense problems.
Coach Fisher said it yesterday, but pressure will reveal bad habits. This group clearly still has many bad habits. Oklahoma's guys do not have those bad habits, probably because they have been coached in the system for multiple years not to make those mistakes. There were plays in which a corner was playing with inside leverage when he needed to play with outside. There were plays in which a corner actually played a man look when the defense was clearly a zone call. There were linebackers who didn't even bother to get guys out of the seam! I have to think the pressure and tempo of the game caused a decent bit of this because the defense didn't do this in the Spring game or the game against Samford. Playing the correct technique and aligning correctly is something that FSU fans should expect almost immediately. Playing that technique well is something that will take longer.
The alignment stuff needs to be fixed immediately. Some mistakes can be tolerated, but not lining up correctly on a disturbing number of plays is the type of error that must not be permitted. FSU doesn't play any other legitimate no-huddle teams from here on out (though Miami has worked on it some, per reports), and the Noles had better hope the alignment problems were due to the incredible pace (90 plays!) at which OU operates. Here are two examples during which the defense was not even close to being aligned correctly.
In the second image capture, FSU is very lucky Jones was in such a hurry to snap the ball on the run play that he missed the opportunity to check it to a quick flare for an easy touchdown. Other examples were more subtle.
FSU could have easily shaved 25% off the scoreboard and the yardage total if it was sound in its alignment. Not beating yourself is a key to winning football and FSU made it too easy for the Sooners to pick up easy yards over and over again.
There is also the matter of trust, understanding, and experience. It didn't appear that the defenders trusted each other in the zone. As Nick Saban constantly yells "do your job!" The defensive backs must concentrate on doing their own task and not worrying about the responsibilities of the other players. Switching from a man scheme, we worried about this concept and wrote about the growing pains that FSU was going to experience in the piece "FSU Fans Must Be Patient With The 'Noles' New Zone Defense"
Another observation consistent with the notion that these guys are still very much learning the defense and not yet playing within it is the slow reaction times exhibited by FSU's fast-twitch athletes. There were several plays during which the OU receiver caught the ball before the corner even took a step in his direction. That's a comfort, familiarity, and recognition issue. The solution is continued reps, continued film work, and time.
For all of the defensive backs except arguably Rhodes and Joyner, the tackling needs some serious work. FSU does tackle in practice, it just doesn't tackle when it goes 1-on-1s because it lacks depth and cannot afford to get anyone hurt. FSU tackles in drills and against the scout team. That's the way almost every team in the country does it (including Alabama). FSU is working on tackling more this week, as it should.
The coaches clearly do not trust the safeties on this team. The players commented that the number of screens surprised them. I bet FSU's coaches would have been shocked if told that OU would throw 20+ screens, but if you had told them that Greg Reid would forget how to tackle and nobody would fight off a receiver's block, they would have said "why did OU throw anything else?" The gameplan was clearly to take away the run and the deep ball (hide the safeties), and make Oklahoma execute the short stuff. FSU's DBs really played the short stuff poorly and the coaches need to fix that quickly.
I did hear that there is more teaching going on this season as to the mistakes being made. Stoops is really focusing on the details and alignment issues, as he should. No more of the "just play better, try harder" refrain so often heard from last year's group. As I wrote in the season prediction piece:
Anything between 7-5 and 9-3 is really pretty predictable. But we think an 8-4 record (6-2 in conference) and a trip to Charlotte for the ACC Championship is the most likely scenario. The real key to the season isn't measured in wins and losses or a division championship, it's in playing better football and showing improvement on a down-to-down basis. That's much more important than wins and losses.
The future for this program is really bright. In a way, I wish I could fast-forward to 2011 when we can really see the fruits of this new staff's labor. But part of enjoying the successes is having been there for the growing pains. This is Christian Ponder's final year. Coach Fisher's first year. For most FSU fans, this will be the first time in their adult lives that FSU has a new coach. Let's enjoy the process. FSU will blow a few teams out this year and will itself get blown out in at least one game. It will win a close game and it will lose a close game. It's all part of the growing process. FSU simply needs to survive 2010. Just survive.
I stand by that. FSU now must learn and grow from its mistakes.
I should give credit to Oklahoma. That's a very good team. Its receivers were excellent at blocking. Credit Jones for making some nice throws, though it probably seemed like practice for him since the defense was so raw. Kid was highly touted for a reason.
Remember, "competency before proficiency." The defensive coaches on staff have all been successful before and are recruiting top-rated talent. They are working long hours and there's not any reason to believe it won't eventually come together. Additionally, the unit is staying healthy, which is huge.
Kickoff return blocking was poor. OU controlled field position pretty well.