Florida State Working On Passing Game While Run Game Stays Constant

After watching Florida State play BYU both in person and on replay, I think it is safe to say FSU has some concerns about its offense and some unanswered questions about its defense.  

Those offensive concerns are primarily over the passing game.  FSU is moving the ball via the passing game, but it just doesn't look right.  I'm willing to concede that Florida State's passing game in 2009 was pretty unique in that it consistently had at least four receivers who Christian Ponder trusted.  FSU44 covered the potential issues FSU could have in losing Rod Owens, Jarmon Fortson, Richard Goodman, and Caz Piurowski.

Right now FSU's passing game isn't where coach Fisher wants it to be because of a few issues.  Christian Ponder doesn't yet have the level of trust in his new wideouts, Willie Haulstead and Rodney Smith, as he did in Owens and Goodman.  Some believe FSU misses Fortson, but I think it really misses Owens the most.  Neither Haulstead nor Smith played much last season because FSU never got to garbage time, which would have allowed some more playing time.  Ponder has always been very good at "throwing his receivers open", that is, throwing the ball before they come open with the trust that they will be open and get to the spot where the ball is.  It's clear he doesn't completely trust these new guys enough to consistently do that yet.  

Ponder is also battling a deep triceps bruise suffered against Oklahoma.  It looks like he is holding the ball a little lower, which could be because of the bruise.  He has had a few more passes batted down of late.  If you'll do a throwing motion while sitting at your desk (I know, it looks silly), you'll feel the pull in your triceps if you really extend your arm.  FSU is lucky it's not structural, and this will certainly heal up.  Ponder needs to be healthy for Miami and has had a decreased workload of late.  Florida State has to balance the need to get Ponder live reps to build confidence in the receivers and minimizing hits that could potentially cause a setback.  He's been a bit off this year and doesn't look as comfortable in the pocket as he did last year.  That's another problem that needs to be solved via reps and the play of others.I expect Ponder to see action in the next two games against Wake Forest and Virginia, but I do not expect him to play more than 100 snaps in the two games.  

Should Ponder already have trust in the young wideouts?  I'm not sure.  In football a team can have a great passing game if it has one great receiver, one decent receiver, and one average receiver.  Absent that great receiver, however, a team really needs three "goods" to have a great attack.  It's all about what a defense can account for. FSU has lost six games three times in the last four years and it has not been in position to land one of the top receivers in the country.  Right now FSU has two good college receivers in Bert Reed and Taiwan Easterling. Ponder absolutely trusts these two guys.  But Haulstead and Smith, despite having more talent than Reed and Easterling, are still fairly raw and haven't had the experience with Ponder.  I could argue that the ball Haulstead caught last week helped build Ponder's confidence more than it did Haulstead's.  These two aren't yet great route runners.  Fisher recently discussed the receivers, stating "It's routes, not steps. It is different v. cover 2, cover 3, quarters, man, inside or outside leverage." "We lost a lot of experience at receiver."

But there are also protection issues.  Privately, Fisher was really angry about the pass protection against BYU. Some of it is understandable as BYU presents a lot of different fronts and looks, but some of the protection was not acceptable last weekend.  With pass-protector extraordinare Andrew Datko out, red-shirt freshman Henry Orelus filled in at left tackle and did an average job.  It was a good first start considering he is a red-shirt freshman.  On the other side, however, David Spurlock got beat several times.  He is a Junior and needs to play better.  One has to wonder if he was hurt by the time he missed from Fall practice with the medical issue.  The BYU player he lined up against was a good player, but Spurlock had poor technique a few times.  That needs to get cleaned up pronto.   

The other issue that made the passing game less effective against BYU was how the Cougars were playing.  BYU repeatedly showed only five or six men in the box.  Florida State knew it could run against BYU, but it decided to work on its passing game.  BYU matched FSU's routes very well and often dropped eight men into coverage.  No team is going to consistently throw into eight men zone defenses.  Ponder also looked deep a lot in the game and because of the 8-man coverages and some protection issues, some of the deep balls didn't get completed.  I covered this in the play-by-play review.  It was a bit like a Spring-training game in baseball in which a pitcher with a great fastball throws slider after slider to work on his pitch.

Can these passing issues get fixed?  It depends on your definition of "fixed."  FSU's passing game has a chance to be as good as last year's but I'll say it has no chance to eclipse last year's.  Datko's shoulder issue is especially troublesome.  There's just no telling what will happen with his shoulder.  If he's not healthy for Miami and on, FSU's passing game will not be elite.  Datko is one of the best pass protectors in the country as FSU fans saw last year. The young receivers will continue to improve, but remember that big receivers typically take a little while longer to develop than the smaller, quick guys.  I'm not worried about Ponder's triceps bruise unless there's something going on that the coaching staff hasn't revealed.  

The run game looked good upon review.  Florida State's running backs had 15 carries in non-garbage time.  10 went for 3 or more yards.  Remember the goal is to stay out of 2nd and 8+ or 3rd and 5+.  Fisher stresses the need to stay in favorable down and distance and FSU did that well, winning first down 14 of 24 times in non-garbage time.

Jimbo Fisher said that Jermaine Thomas injured his hip early on, but as I covered in the film review, I think Thomas was pulled for not running tough.  Ty Jones and Chris Thompson both ran well in his absence.  I don't want to say they ran great because BYU didn't tackle very well on some of the plays and that had more to do with BYU than it did the backs.  It's important to be able to differentiate between an opponent's issue and your own.  As to who the back will be going forward, Coach Fisher shrugged off any speculation that Thompson's performance earned him any more time, pointing to his entire corps of backs:

"I've said that all the time," said Fisher. "We've got three quality guys and we feel good about them."

Still, I really like what Jones is doing.  If healthy and if his diabetes is under control, he's a good back.  The questions have never been about talent.

FSU's young wideouts did block much better in this game, however, and that was extremely encouraging.  Willie Haulstead blocked so well that FSU was even running him between the guard and tackle to seal a backside linebacker.  That's impressive stuff from #82.  

Here's a fun look at a new way to measure offense "% of potential yards gained".  Essentially, this looks at where a team started and where it finished:

QRTR Start End Result Plays-Yards Time Potential Gained %
1st  F20  F25  Punt  3-5  2:05  80 5 6%
1st  F34  B12  Fumble  6-54  2:34  66 54 82%
1st  F30  B08  FIELD GOAL  10-62  4:44  70 62 89%
2nd  F48  F46  Punt  3--2  1:37  52 -2 -4%
2nd  B20  B29  FIELD GOAL  4--9  1:24  20 -9 -45%
2nd  F17  B00  TOUCHDOWN  1-83  0:14  83 83 100%
2nd  F20  F29  Punt  3-9  2:10  80 9 11%
3rd  F37  B00  TOUCHDOWN  14-63  6:53  63 63 100%
3rd  F14  B00  TOUCHDOWN  4-86  1:37  86 86 100%
            600 351 59%

That 59% is a nice figure and much higher the 24% gained at Oklahoma in non-garbage time.  

3&Outs:  

 

  • FSU has gone 3&out on 8 of 18 drives this season against D1 competition in non-garbage time
  • FSU has forced a 3&out on 5 of opponent's 19 drives this year.  

 

Explosion:

 

  • FSU has had 2 of 18 drives go for more than 10/yards a play (designated as explosive)
  • FSU has allowed 2 of 19 drives to go for more than 10/yards a play.  That is an enormous improvement.

 

Credit to FO for their excellent work here.

Finally, it was great to see FSU with a head coach who will get on the refs and understand what is going on.  In previous years FSU's coach was left wondering what happened on a play.  

Also, there was tremendous student support.  Young alumni just aren't coming.  It is understandable after 7 graduating classes of awful football.  Less than 65,0000 and the missing 22K comes almost all from the young people who aren't coming.  Most of those with whom I graduated do not bother coming because their experience with FSU football was awful.  FSU is a new program that lacks tradition of the big programs for the most part.  Also, BYU brought very few fans, and that hurt some of the attendance.  

Beware the Fundamental Attribution Error. Every fan base in the history of America is guilty of saying "We won/lost because we did _" rather than attributing at least 50 percent of the game's outcome to what was done by the opponents.

In the first quarter, when FSU was [doing something well], [opponent] was [running a scheme that made FSU's strategy advantageous]. Doing so did two things: 1) It allowed FSU to [the good thing]. Then in the second half, [Opposing coach] switched up his [strategy] to [different strategy], helping take away the FSU [previously working strategy] and forcing FSU to more [new strategy]

"Yes, FSU has a lot to work on. Yes, there are injury concerns, a new defense, and an out-of-sync passing game. Yes, people want to see adjustments. But in all of these things, let us not forget that there are adjustments being made on both sidelines in the grand game of chess we call college football."  -RockMNation


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