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Florida State Football at South Florida: Game Preview & Prediction

FSU travels south to Tampa to take on it’s in-state little brother. Ha! Headline snark!

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What They Did Last Week: South Florida

South Florida lost a close game to Ball State. BSU scored the go ahead touchdown with just over a minute to play. At one point in the third quarter the Bulls fell behind 24-12 but rallied to take a three point lead with 4:12 left. Alas, it wasn't to be as BSU drove the field to take the lead for good. This wasn't shocking, as a road game in Muncie Indiana the week before the biggest home game in program history sets up as a huge lookahead trap scenario.

What They Did Last Week: Florida State

In a battle of top ten teams Florida State came out as the victor. Florida State got down early but was able to weather the Tigers' early barrage and punch back with authority in the second half. E.J. Manuel and the Seminole offense was all but unstoppable by Clemson on the day and while Clemson showed why they have one of the best offensive coordinators in the nation they just didn't have the horses to keep up.

V. USF's Defense

USF will not beat Florida State unless the 'Noles turn the football over a lot. That means run the football (lower risk of turnover than passing) and execute low-risk passes.

The last time these two teams played USF had two NFL caliber defensive ends and an All-American type linebacker. In fact seven players on that defense are currently in the NFL. FSU was still in the struggles of the lost era and the talent gap was the closest it has ever been between the two teams. Since then the teams have gone in opposite directions as FSU began correctly leveraging its advantages while USF struggled with off the field issues and higher expectations.

In their last meeting FSU struggled to get anything going USF offensively, especially the running game but expect this year to be different. The Noles are averaging 7.5 yards/carry this year and while the competition has been suspect the process has not. FSU’s offensive linemen are genuinely dominating their defensive counter parts and allowing the running backs to have a clear look at the blocking without having to dance around in the backfield. That should continue against USF, who has given up 4.6 yards/carry to FBS opponents. As another note USF has zero stuffs or tackles for a loss against Rutgers. That does not happen very often to even the worst of defenses. Still, USF's defensive line does have talent, which makes its under-performance even more puzzling.

Expect FSU to run the ball early and often with Chris Thompson and James Wilder Jr. with the later getting more carries if the game gets out of hand. It would not surprise to see Wilder get 20 carries. The Noles should be able to stay ahead of the sticks with a steady dose of inside and outside zone plays and then hit the big gain on play action.

The Bulls’ defensive backs will cheat up on play action and get burned over the top. Manuel has shown some good touch on the ball his whole career on the long ball and there is little reason to think this game will be any different. USF defensive backs have not played the ball well this year, and there are opportunities for big plays downfield off of play action.

When Florida State does throw the ball, the throws need to be safe passes. That means deep balls v. 1-on-1, and easy reads when USF is spread out. Max protection in play-action is advisable, given that USF may send the house quite often in an effort to force the issue.

Do not expect Manuel to run the ball much. He will get a few runs but Fisher generally holds off on running him much when FSU is favored as much as they are against the Bulls. FSU fans can expect to see a few zone reads and options but it is difficult to see Manuel get anymore than 5 carries unless the game is close near the end. The season is a marathon, not a sprint, and keeping Manuel healthy is important.

Offenses often struggle in their first road game of the season. The Seminoles need to come out focused, execute and establish the lead early. But will they?

Goals: at least 6.75 yards/play before garbage time (roughly 500 yards on 75 plays) and no more than one turnover. FSU will not lose this game unless it turns the football over multiple times, giving USF short fields.

V. USF's Offense

USF will not beat Florida State without big plays. Keep that in mind.

Three main defensive goals:

  1. Stop the run so play-action passes are not a factor.
  2. Deny the deep ball at the expense of allowing short and intermediate throws. Then, tackle the short stuff.
  3. Keep Daniels in the pocket. Maintain rush-lane integrity and be in control. Sacks are not the goal. Keeping him in the pocket is.

How will FSU go about doing that?

The key to USF is forcing them to work their way down the field. BJ Daniels is an impressive QB physically speaking but struggles with the mental part of the game. He likes to chuck it long with his huge arm, and chuck it he will. But, he is horribly erratic and inaccurate on the short and intermediate game. He is not capable of moving his team on long drives by completing short and intermediate passes. He can run well and throw it deep.

To that end, expect FSU to play a cover-3 and force Daniels to make accurate short passes. Daniels will likely get flustered and force some passes, which is why he is completing only 56.6% of his passes.

In that vein FSU needs to stomp out the run. Early in the game expect FSU to stack the box. FSU's cover-3 is great against the run as the one safety starts the play closer to the line. It denies the deep pass, and will keep a lot of eyes on Daniels. If the Noles get up big they might back off the run as USF will be more likely to try and pass the ball.

The other option is to play man with a zone defender behind it and a spy specifically on Daniels. Daniels seems to play a lot better against man than zone, but this is possible.

Florida State had a good deal of success jamming Clemson's receivers at the line. They could do the same here and either spy Daniels with either Christian Jones, Telvin Smith or Terrence Brooks. There is not too much difference between cover-3 and cover-1 spy and the same personnel can be used so FSU can switch it up on the fly. If FSU does play zone against USF, and they might since USF's WRs are fast but do not seem to sit down in zones particularly well, expect the Noles to mix in some delayed blitzes.

Daniels' main weapon is his legs, so expect FSU to depend on its defensive tackles to push the pocket and its ends to contain Daniels. Getting sacks against Daniels is not as important as keeping him in the pocket and making him throw the football on short and intermediate patterns. The goal is to keep Daniels in the pocket and defend the deep pass. The defensive line will be in trouble if it is trying for sacks and not focusing on keeping rush-lane integrity and keeping Daniels in the pocket.

Stoops has shown a predilection for mixing up his defenses a lot, since he has quite a few toys with which to play, but that fun needs to be had within the framework of the goals.

This game is a great opportunity for reserve players like Gergio Newberry, Toshmon Stevens and Mario Edwards Jr. to get some much needed reps. Bjeorn Werner and Cornelius Carradine played most every snap for FSU against Clemson which means the coaching staff is not trusting enough of the younger DEs. FSU should have ample opportunity to insert them into this game and force them to play their assignment. They need to rotate more in this game, and the young players need to be focused on playing assignment football and not on sacks.

USF will not likely be able to run up the middle consistently against FSU so expect them to try and run outside. Expect USF to try and out flank the FSU defense with quick passes outside and sweeps along with QB runs. Clemson saw some success in getting outside on hand offs to Sammy Watkins but USF does not have the same caliber of athlete. FSU will have to show it learned from last week they can defend those plays but USF will not likely be able to sustain rives against FSU this way. FSU has also been great defending screens and the quick slants teams try to throw to combat the rush. USF will certainly try these plays but do not expect much success.

Goals: allow less than 5 yards/play before garbage time, and no more than 3 plays over 25 yards.

Special Teams

Against Clemson Florida State began the game by kicking to Watkins but quickly changed tact and booted the ball out of the end zone. Expect FSU to go back to its previous strategy of making a mockery of the new NCAA kick off rules and try to pin USF inside the 20 as USF is only averaging 15.1 yards/return on the year. Hopkins’ kick offs have been great this year but his field goals have been shaky. While he should not get too many opportunities he needs to take advantage of the ones he gets.

On the other side expect USF to kick the ball out of the end zone as often as they are able to. FSU’s return men have shown a desire to bring the ball out of the end zone and will likely continue to do so against USF if the ball is not kicked deep enough. Maikon Bonani has been good on field goals hitting all four of his attempts with a long from 46 but has missed two of his 10 PATs.

Caeson Beatty has been having a very good year. He is averaging just below 40 yards a kick (38.5) and putting enough hang time on each kick so that FSU is only allowing two yards/kick return. Part of the reason for those stats is that Beatty has put seven of his 11 kicks inside the opponent’s 20. Beatty has done a very good job of not getting greedy with his kicks. A punter’s goal should be to drop the ball inside the 15 and let his coverage team do the rest. While Beatty has not dropped many kicks inside the five he has done an excellent job of getting what he can and making the defense’s job that much easier.

Justin Brockhaus-Kann looks to be an excellent punter averaging 41.9 yards on 16 kicks. Add to it the fact that only 5 of those kicks have been returned for 12 yards total and there is a good chance FSU will not have much of an opportunity to return any kicks. However, the key for FSU is not fumbling those kicks. Rashad Green had what could have been a very costly fumble against Clemson and has been quite shaky in his punt returns. Once he gets ahold of the ball he can be very good but he needs to do a better job holding on.


Hopefully you have heard of Chris Brown. If you have not please follow him on Twitter at @smartfootball and buy his book. Chris does a fantastic job of breaking down complex football concepts and making them available for the average viewer. His latest article concerns zone blitzes, something all college teams employ, but more specifically pattern matching. Long time TN readers will note that FSU expected to employ this strategy under Stoops and we are starting to see it play a more prominent role in FSU's normal defense. Look for defenders to play straight up against receivers and then hedge on their first break. Specifically look for the middle linebacker to make a post-snap call on FSU's defensive secondary assignments. It is tough to see on TV because producers do a bad job of showing a football play but it is possible.

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Yes, this does sound like a simplistic plan to approaching this game but that is all FSU needs. Get in, get your points, get out without injury.

While this is a trap game for FSU, coming off the emotional Clemson win, and USF's biggest home game in its history, do not expect the Noles to be too rattled. This is a veteran team with many strong personalities all working towards one goal. During the Clemson game FSU took the Tigers best shot and even though some were flustered, the team rallied and punched back. Still, we do want to see how they come out.

And, because this is more like a neutral site contest with the crowd roughly split 50-50, it is a nice way to ease into the stretch of road games FSU will play in the coming months.

Like the last game these two teams played against each other USF needs help in beating FSU. If FSU does come out sluggish, USF will be capable of putting up points through big plays, just do not expect that to last long. Nole fans should see at least a quarter’s worth of time from the reserves if not more.

Prediction: Florida State 41, USF 17... with one of USF's touchdowns coming in garbage time.