Florida State V. Clemson: Game Preview & Prediction

TALLAHASSEE, FL - SEPTEMBER 15: Chief Osceola, mascot of the Florida State Seminoles plants a spear at midfield prior to a game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Doak Campbell Stadium on September 15, 2012 in Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Florida State welcomes rival Clemson to Tallahassee this Saturday for a game that could decide the ACC Atlantic title. It's a top-ten match up and Tomahawk Nation has the keys to the game and a prediction for you.


Head on over to read Shakin' The Southland's preview. In many ways, I wish FSU played Clemson weekly because those guys are so good at what they do. And that's why we recruited them to the network.


What They Did Last Week: Clemson

Clemson bested Furman in a tune up game 41-7. Much like every game Florida State has played in this one was over by the half and the starters began to take their seats. While Furman was able to move the ball with some success in the first half, they struggled near the red zone and could not keep up with Clemson's high powered attack which scored on five of its six first half possessions.

What They Did Last Week: Florida State

Florida State began the 2012 revenge tour with a convincing win over Wake Forest. Florida State started slowly with two punts but turned up the heat with a rushing touchdown and punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter. Every other FSU first half possession would end in a score while the defense held Wake to zero or negative total yards on seven of their 15 possessions.

Defense

Clemson runs one of the most high powered offenses in the nation. In year two under Chad Morris, Taj Boyd has grown quite well into the quarterback role. That is not to say he was not successful last year but he has certainly improved in most every facet of the game. It helps that he's surronded by great skill position players in AP first-team All-American Sammy Watkins, DeAndre "Nuk" Hopkins, and Andre Ellington. Both Watkins and Hopkins would be Florida State's best receiver. They are true 1st-round NFL talents and are the No. 1 reason Clemson has a shot in this game. Ellington is the best back in the conference, when healthy, which he is.

Morris is a Gus Malzahn disciple and runs almost the same offense. The plays are not complicated and in some ways, you will see the same plays run from Clemson's offense that FSU runs. However, the pace these plays are run at causes teams problems. Clemson will get up to the line and force FSU to show their defense so Clemson can adjust accordingly. If FSU is standing around or trying to substitute, Clemson will quickly hike the ball and gash the defense. Stopping Clemson's drives early is key for teams that do not have the conditioning to keep up and most do not. The 'Noles do not have conditioning issues, however, due to their excellent defensive depth.

FSU will not be able to completely shut down Hopkins and Watkins. Morris does a great job of getting them the ball in space and they are too dynamic to be shut out of the game. Last year, Boyd connected with Watkins deep multiple times to sink FSU. Most teams combat that by dropping their corners deeper before the snap but Boyd and his WRs will recognize that and kill teams with short passes. Thankfully, this year FSU has an upgrade at safety in Terrence Brooks which should help limit the deep plays. Expect Clemson to test Brooks but more specifically Tyler Hunter, Nick Waisome and Ronald Darby early. They will throw at Rhodes and Joyner but that has not proven to be a winning prospect for many teams. FSU should rotate their DBs late to try and confuse Boyd by initially playing off the WRs but walking up before the snap or vice-versa. One major difference in this game compared to last year's version is that the Seminoles have enough healthy defensive backs to play nickel (last year Greg Reid missed the game with a knee injury).

One major advantage Florida State has in defending the Tigers is the range at safety. Clemson likes to score on big plays. And Boys has shown a tendency to get impatient and press when big plays are denied. Florida State is one of the best defenses in the country at denying big plays. And perhaps no defense in the country has two safeties capable of covering as much ground as the 'Noles pair. Looking at 2011, we see that Wake Forest did not allow a play of more than 25 yards in almost beating Clemson. N.C. State crushed the Tigers, and in doing so, allowed only two plays of more than 20 yards.

So far this season, not many teams have even dared to test FSU in the back end, both because they haven't had time to do so, and because the safeties have had excellent coverage. Clemson will test that, though, and Joyner and Brooks must play up to their talent level. Tackle the short stuff and send Clemson back and living to play another down is the goal.

The best way to disrupt the Clemson offense is to never let it get going. Clemson has four new faces on the offensive line and FSU can certainly attack the Clemson offense there. Both Giff Timothy and David Beasley missed the Furman game and Tyler Shatley was injured during it. All three are expected to be back to full strength for the FSU game but it is certainly something to keep an eye on. Even if they are all 100%, they will have their hands full with the Blitzkrieg unit of FSU's deep defensive line. Expect Morris to try and slow the line down early with orbit motion combined with zone reads, inside and outside zones and power O running plays, before taking shots over the top.

While Clemson has put up some nice rushing numbers (most notably against Auburn) they could struggle with FSU's defensive tackles. Dalton Freeman is Clemson's most experienced lineman and he starts at center, and was the preseason All-ACC choice. Can Freeman block players like Anthony McCloud, Timmy Jernigan, and Everett Dawkins without any help? This will be a tall task and the question is not whether he can block them on any given play but rather can he consistently block allowing for double teams elsewhere along the line. Clemson's running game is predicated on runs through the A-gaps, and FSU has an excellent set of nose guard in McCloud and Jernigan who are tasked with controlling them. If the Noles can control those gaps, they'll really disrupt Clemson's offense, force adjustments, and most importantly, take away a large part of the play action game.

Expect Clemson to keep running backs and/or tight ends in during pass plays especially if the line has trouble with FSU's front four.

The third key for the 'Noles (along with shutting down the A-gaps and limiting big plays) really plays off the first two: win in the red zone. Clemson is likely to move the football on the Seminoles, and that's OK. FSU cannot be impatient that it gives up big plays at the expense of trying to stop the short stuff. And that means Clemson will likely enter the red zone a few times. Florida State needs to win in the tight area. It cannot allow Clemson to run between the tackles. It has to force Clemson wide in the red zone, and contest throws.

Oh, and Boyd is short. Florida State needs to get its hands up early and often. Clemson will look to throw quickly, and on many downs, FSU won't be able to get there with the rush. Getting the hands up, however, can result in balls being tipped up in the air and intercepted.

If this plan sounds familiar, it should. It's almost exactly what we wrote last year against Oklahoma. This is what we wrote, and it was dead on:

Align and Communicate: Oklahoma runs the highest-paced offense in the country, bar none. They can get off two plays in 10 seconds. It's blistering, dizzying, etc. Last year we profiled many instances in which FSU was not ready for this pace, and as a result, failed to properly line up by the time Oklahoma snapped the football. It's impossible to measure just how much impact this had on the game, but let's just say it was not insignificant. This year, with the defense not being so new, FSU has been able to rep this more in practice. Nobody can simulate OU's pace, but it is important to see something close before the game.

Fast and efficient communication is key. Not only must FSU be lined up and ready for the snap, but the 'Noles must be lined up in the correct place to play the called defense. If FSU doesn't get lined up in the correct spot, it can't hope to accomplish the next task:

Tackling & Fighting Off Blocks

Florida State is, on most plays, going to focus on taking away the run and not allowing the big play. That means the short stuff will be open for the Sooners. Repeatedly. The key here, is to get of the opposing block and tackle the short gainers consistently. FSU doesn't need to be perfect in tackling, just really good. Guys who catch a five-yard pass cannot be allowed to turn that five-yarder into a 10+ yard gain. Simple in theory, but it is not easy as Oklahoma likely has the best group of receivers in the country. If FSU's corners don't consistently get off blocks and tackle the short stuff, this will be another blowout.

Why focus on taking away big pass play and the run, while simply trying to slow the short pass game?

Running the ball is much safer than throwing. More turnovers occur on passing plays than on running plays, because the interception factor and the potential for a strip and fumble on a sack when the QB is not looking. Additionally, being run on is demoralizing for a defense and takes the crowd out of the game. FSU wants to leverage its electric crowd to the best of its ability, and allowing Oklahoma any measure of success on the ground is a recipe to get blown out.

Additionally, if Oklahoma gets the run game going, it opens up an excellent play-action passing game. Play-action passes lead to big plays, which is what FSU is trying to avoid here. Big plays are confidence builders for an opponent and change the course of the game.

It just makes sense to take away the deep stuff and the run game, while trying to limit the short passing game. This is no easy task, but FSU must accept that OU is going to move the ball just as the Sooners do on everyone. The key is to remain composed, focused and disciplined. If FSU can do that, it has a chance. If, however, FSU's defensive backs become frustrated and start to gamble, take chances, and desert their assignments, Oklahoma will immediately capitalize. If FSU can do that, however, there's a chance the Noles can force the Sooners into taking unnecessary risks, potentially creating a turnover. The mantra needs to be:

No touchdowns for Oklahoma coming from outside the red zone.

I am not proposing that FSU invite or escort Oklahoma inside the twenty-yard line. I am saying, however, that if FSU can accomplish this goal, it will have a shot to win this game. Make Oklahoma earn its touchdowns by denying big plays. Oklahoma's offense is not as good inside the 20 because its run game is not great, it doesn't have a mobile quarterback, and there is simply less space for the spread attack to use.

We've talked a lot about how much bigger and stronger this FSU defense has become under Jimbo's reign. Where does that really pay off? In the red zone.

The other reason FSU needs to be of the mindset that scores are allowed, if at all, only in the red zone, is that Oklahoma's situation at kicker is quite suspect. The Sooners will be bringing a total of five punter/kickers to Tallahassee. Unsettled is the word that comes to mind.

And for all the talk here about being patient, giving up the short stuff as long as the guys catching the short stuff are quickly tackled and hit, FSU can't make it real simple. No, the 'Noles will give the short stuff to OU if the Sooners realize it is open:

This current trend of defenses gleaning the best attributes of schemes into some quasi-natural selection process creates a deadly and effective method for accounting for fundamental principles of good football. Defenses, with the usage of proper coverage support, pattern-matching principles, and multi-talented linemen (ability to drop to cover receiving threats), are able to open a maelstrom of disguised looks. Defenses can present one look at presnap and morph its use to fit any and all offensive threats after the snap. No longer are defenses limited by walking out on displaced receivers (in man) or staying cemented within the box to stop the run. With these principles of adaptation, the chalk can be held by defensive coordinator.

Mixing up pre-snap looks will be key. Is FSU in man? Zone? Cover 1? Cover 4? If Oklahoma can consistently identify the coverage pre-snap, it will be a long day for Seminole fans. Oklahoma does a lot of looking to the coaches on the sideline for a play adjustment. Expect FSU to move after that adjustment a good bit of the time. I'll admit there is a certain factor of luck in this. In large part, Oklahoma will be guessing what look FSU will really be in. But luck pays into every football game (like fumble recoveries, which are 100% random).

FSU will need to bring some pressures and occasionally press, but it must do so when Oklahoma is not expecting the 'Noles to do so.

If FSU can do all of that, it will then have a chance to use its defensive line to its advantage. Last season, Oklahoma had such success throwing the short stuff, that it never had to go deep and the defensive line didn't have time to get to the passer. FSU must scheme to allow the defensive line to get to the passer by mixing up looks and not allowing short plays to become long plays.

FSU has a very difficult task on its hands here. Dealing with Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills is a nightmare for any defensive coordinator. Jones is accurate and smart. But FSU has had all summer to come up with a defensive game plan. Will we see a lot of 4-2-5 looks from FSU to combat the spread attack? I'd think so. The 'Noles defense is healthy and should be focused.

Oklahoma has a good offensive line, to be sure, but it has not yet shown to be dominant.The 'Noles will need excellent games from defensive ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. The key may be Werner destroying whichever new starter OU runs out at right tackle (Daryl Williams or Lane Johnson). The 'Noles say they have three NFL corners. They'll need to show that NFL ability. The defensive tackles need to get push up the middle so that Landry Jones is flushed from the pocket, as he does not throw all that well on the run. This could be a coming out party for a defense that was so awful two years ago and so new last season. But they'll need to do the little things first.

That's basically Mark Stoops' gameplan against the HUNHS (Hurry Up No Huddle Spread Offense). And it's very sound. Only this year, his defense is even better (we think).

Last year, Florida State held Oklahoma well under its desired number of plays. The 'Noles will have to do the same to beat Clemson. The Tigers offense probes and tries different things throughout the game. If FSU doesn't let Clemson get to play 75, 80 or 75, perhaps the Tigers don't find the one weakness they want to exploit or come back to.

Goals:

  • less than 5 yards/play allowed
  • no more than three rushing plays of over 15 yards
  • no more than three passing plays over 25 yards
  • no more than 50% touchdown rate on red zone opportunities

Offense

After the Orange Bowl, Clemson parted ways with defensive coordinator and one time FSU linebackers' coach Kevin Steele. Dabo then brought in former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables to breathe new life into the Clemson defense. Clemson is keeping the 4-3 front they used with Steele but changing the secondary to show more cover-3 than the cover-1 or cover-4 they ran under Steele. Venables expects his linebackers to attack down hill which is unlike Steele's more read and react based defense. The large complaint with Steele's defense is that it was too complex and players were not able to pick it up. While the defense has rid itself of some of that complexity, they still struggle to understand their individual roles, which isn't unexpected in the early going.

Much like FSU's defense under Stoops in his first year (2010), Clemson's defense is suffereing some growing pains. Linebackers consistently find themselves over pursuing running backs and leaving cut back lanes open. This is great news for FSU as Chris Thompson and James Wilder Jr. have shown very good vision and patience this year and should be able to take advantage of this. The issues with the linebackers is only compounded by the struggle of the defensive ends to set the edge (much like the struggles Wake Forest had). Expect FSU to attack the Clemson line with inside and outside zones (the stretch) early as they did against Wake. If Tre Jackson is consistently found five to ten yards down field like he was against Wake, Clemson will be in big trouble.

Behind the front seven, Clemson's secondary has also had a rough start. Clemson gave up over eight yards per pass attempt against the Furman Paladins and over seven against the Tigers (that's the Kiehl Frazier run Auburn Tigers, one of the worst passing attacks in the BCS). Once again, this just looks like an issue of a defense not having enough time in its scheme to play without thinking. As with any new defensive coordinator, the first year is a learning experience. Clemson's defense may improve over last year, but will have its fair share of mistakes.

Expect Venables to load the box and try to take away FSU's running game. While the passing game looked crisp in the first two games for FSU, it struggled at times against Wake. Thankfully the drops, missed assignments, and poor throws are all correctable (and really, every team struggled with this to an extent. FSU fans are more cognizant of it because coach Fisher takes the time to explain it, and because we at TN break it down every Tuesday). EJ Manuel needs to revert to the first two games and take off if his first two reads are not there. When EJ runs, the Seminole offense becomes much tougher to stop.

And if Clemson does load the box against the run, it will leave 1-on-1 match-ups. FSU's receivers need to win those match-ups more often than not.

And while Manuel likes to think of himself as a pro-style QB, he needs to run Saturday night. There is plenty of time for him to show his passing wares in games against weaklings down the stretch. Venables' defenses at Oklahoma often struggled to stop mobile quarterbacks, and Manuel is a very good runner. Options, reads, qb sweeps, rollouts, etc. all need to be in the plan for Manuel.

Where FSU might have a problem is with blitz pickup. Watch to see if the line, tight ends, running backs, and EJ adjust to where pressure is coming from. If they can, FSU will have plenty of opportunities for big plays. It is possible Clemson could go the other way and force FSU to execute its way down the field but giving any quarterback the amount of time EJ would see in that situation will make FSU tough to stop. FSU has not shown they can consistently drive down the field, but that is because of all the explosive plays. The good news is that the big plays have come as part of the offensive flow as opposed to forcing the ball long or some great individual effort. Still offensive consistency is a question for FSU that Clemson could exploit.

Also, against the blitz, look for more of tight end Nick O'Leary. FSU targeted O'Leary a lot last week, but a confluence of factors caused him to only end up with two catches. He could triple that against Clemson if certain coverages are played.

When healthy, Wake Forest's defense might be as good or better than Clemson's. But Wake's defense was missing key pieces last week, and this game represents a much more formidable test.

Manuel hasn't thrown an interception for which he was responsible in almost 200 passes (the INT against Murray State was a triple bobble by the receiver). Taking care of the football and not giving Clemson a short field via turnovers will be key.

And in that vein, FSU's offense really can play off its defense. The defense should give it a short field or two, and in turn, the offense needs to be able to get first downs, grind the clock, and now allow Clemson's defense to get into a rhythm. That's not to say that I'll turn my nose down at explosive plays, but rather that converting third downs will be of utmost importance.

Goals:

  • At least 6.25 yards/play
  • At least four rushes of 15+ yards
  • At least four passes of 25+ yards
  • greater than 65% touchdown conversion in red zone
  • No more than one turnover

Special Teams

Both teams have very good kickers. Dustin Hopkins is 3/3 on field goals this year but has yet to show he can hit the game winner (0-2 on do-or-die kicks, but 1-1 on do-or-tie kicks). Clemson kicker Chandler Catanzaro is 6/6 with two kicks over 40 yards and Spencer Benton is 1/2 with an ACC record 61 yard field goal this year (Benton's other attempt was over 50 yards). Where the two teams' kickers differ is in how they are utilized during kickoffs. Clemson will boot the ball out of the end zone and make FSU take it at the 25. While teams have not given Clemson many opportunities to return the ball, they could see a few this week. FSU is holding opponents to a 15 yard kick return average and Hopkins routinely puts the ball inside the 10, with a hang time of over 4 seconds and crazy athletes on FSU's kickoff team. All those attempts were against vastly inferior competition to the one FSU faces this Saturday. Expect FSU to force Clemson to return the ball early and then boot it out of the end zone if they break one or two for a big gain.

Senior punter Spencer Benton is averaging almost 43 yards per punt and Clemson has given up 23 yards on three returns. While Florida State punter Cason Beatty does not boast the same average, he has pinned 6 of his 8 punts inside the 20 with one touchback. He also has a kick of over 50 yards so he certainly can boot it. Florida State has yeilded one punt return for two yards. FSU has shown to be explosive in the punt return game with two Rashad Greene TDs against undermanned teams while little is known on Clemson's return game(one return for 13 yards).

The special teams look like mostly a wash.

Goals:

  • Convert on more than 80% of field goals inside 40 yards
  • No special teams turnovers
  • No special teams penalties that extend Clemson drives

Miscellaneous

FSU fans are in for a long day with Gameday coming to Tallahassee. Thankfully, FSU is playing Clemson and you can enjoy their awesome SBNation site Shakin The Southland. Here are some choice links and one from MGoBlog concerning running QBs and injuries. Make sure you maintain and have a good time. Go Noles!

In its simplest form the game looks like this. Clemson's offense and Florida State's defense are both excellent, the special teams seem pretty close, and FSU's offense looks to be a good bit better than Clemson's defense.

Score Prediction: FSU 38 Clemson 23

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