It's a vast understatement to say Oregon's offense is good. You don't nab the #3 offensive FEI rating without being great and you don't get to win the Heismen if you don't lead a great offense. FSU will not be able to stop Oregon's offense. The goal for FSU is to slow Oregon. If the defense can hold Oregon to under 35 points they'll have done their job. Only one team has done so (Arizona) and they were able to benefit from multiple injuries along the Oregon offensive line in the first meeting, but then gave up more points to the Ducks than any other FBS team in the second meeting.
The first thing to do against Oregon, or any team that depends on tempo, is to get lined up. This seems simple, but it's a huge thing. Oregon is really good at popping explosive plays when the opponent has not correctly lined up, usually due to the crazy pace at which it plays. When teams are not properly aligned, it creates tremendously favorable blocking angles for the offense, which lead to big runs, or guys running wide open. Oregon is already going to get some of those via scheme -- FSU's job is to make sure it doesn't give the Ducks a lot of extra freebies.
The next important thing for the defense is going to be mindset. They must realize that the Ducks are going to score. The defense cannot lose its focus on the next play or next drive when Oregon hits a big shot. The goal needs to be to limit Oregon. And one way to do that is by not allowing big plays.
Make Oregon win in the red zone
Florida State's red zone defense is excellent, thanks to length and physicality. Oregon's red zone offense is good, but not nearly as good as its overall offense. And that's truer now that tight end Pharoah Brown is out with a leg injury. Oregon is capable of scoring touchdowns on the Seminoles in the red zone, but FSU is much, much better off trying to force field goals than if it simply allows big plays and allows Oregon to bypass the red zone altogether.
So one key for the Seminoles, perhaps more so against Oregon than other offenses, will be to limit the big play. Oregon is a great team in space, so take away space when it comes time for the Ducks to try to score touchdowns.
Easier said than done, obviously, because the Ducks are great at scheming up vertical shots. They will get some open on Florida State. If FSU can limit the number, it will have a shot to win the game. If not, the Ducks will score in bunches and win.
Oregon pairs a deadly running attack based off of zone reads, draws and jet sweeps with a passing attacked designed to attack the holes LBs and DBs vacate in run responsibility with deeper shots meant to keep safeties at bay. The spread attack Oregon runs will always depend heavily on slants and WR screens as these keep LBs honest, but lately the Ducks have added more packaged plays and deeper passes off of play action in an attempt to be more reactive towards defenses and explosive.
Obviously Mariota is an excellent QB and fits what Oregon wants to run to a "T" but he's not perfect. Oregon's offense schemes to help by providing Mariota with many quick passing opportunities and shots in the seams. Mariota also throws the wheel route quite well. FSU cannot be so focused on the run and the quicks and the screens that it leaves wide open seam and wheel shots. It needs to be disciplined and tackle the short stuff and in turn not allow the deeper stuff to the extent that it can prevent such plays. Easier said than done.
Offensive Line v Defensive Line
As noted above, Oregon's only loss this season came with multiple injuries along the line. The Ducks attempted to protect Marcus Mariotta with a former walk on and a true freshmen at tackle. Things went as expected. Since then the Ducks got both Jake Fisher and Andre Yruetagoyena back but have lost center Hroniss Grasu. Grasu looks to return to the lineup against FSU but how healthy he'll be is anybody's guess.
FSU has also dealt with its fair share of injuries along their defensive front and looks to use the break to get healthier. Starting nose guard Nile Lawrence-Stample went out early in the season with a torn pectoral muscle but has been practice with pads as FSU preps for Oregon. While it's tough to imagine NLS playing a bunch of snaps against Oregon's fast-paced attack, just two or three series of competent play could help immensely in spelling other players like Derrick Mitchell and Derrick Nnadi. If FSU actually gets solid play from Stample, that's gravy, and the questions for him will not only be about rust, but also about strength lost. Three-technique Eddie Goldman might be the best in the country, but has also been dealing with an ankle sprain suffered against Georgia Tech. He has returned to the practice field, but any time a big man has a leg injury, questions about conditioning may emerge.
The month off from the ACC Championship game and the first round of the playoffs is a huge advantage for FSU. The Noles have had plenty of time to adjust to Oregon's speed, as much as can be done at least, along with healing up and working on fundamentals. While the bowl practices are great for the younger players as they prep for next year they also allow those who may have hit the freshman wall to reset themselves. Players like Derrick Nnadi will certainly have an opportunity to show what they've learned over the break.
If Florida State is to beat Oregon, it is going to need to win this trench battle. Look for FSU to two-gap in an attempt to slow the very athletic Oregon offensive line from climbing to the second level and sealing off linebackers. If healthy, and that's a legitimate if, FSU may be the best defensive line Oregon has faced.
But stopping the run isn't just about the interior players. Oregon runs inside zone a ton, but also a lot of outside zone, which will stress FSU's ends. Mario Edwards, Jr. is one of the finest edge run defenders in the country. His matchup against tackle Jake Fisher will be one of the best to watch in this ballgame. He needs to set the edge and keep his outside arm free, then pursue the ballcarrier. FSU's other ends in Chris Casher, Demarcus Walker are more suspect. Oregon may elect to read (leave unblocked) Mario Edwards, Jr., rather than blocking him, and simply go away from him.
Cohesion between the linebackers and the defensive ends has been an issue this year, and one for which Oregon will punish FSU if there are too many mistakes. That means that when the defensive rule says for an end to crash down and for the backer to flow over top, that needs to happen. And when it calls for backer to stay inside and end to stay outside, that needs to happen. The Ducks really punish teams that are undisciplined or overaggressive, and it's likely they'll put up points against an FSU defense. The goal, as you'll read throughout this preview, is to limit it. FSU will need to get some level of disciplined play from Walker and Casher.
But the defensive line will also have a major role to play against the pass. Mariota is an excellent passer to be sure, but he is much more dangerous outside the pocket. Arizona did sack Mariota a ton in the Ducks' lone loss, but that offensive line missing many key players and is not the one that FSU will face.
FSU's goal needs to be to force Mariota to beat them from within the pocket. That means playing with great rush lane integrity, being physical, and compressing the pocket around the Heisman Trophy winner. To be sure, he is absolutely capable of beating FSU from the pocket, but when playing an opponent of this caliber, there isn't a surefire "this will shut him down strategy." The alternative is to wildly go after him, risk opening up enormous rush lanes, and have him light up the Seminoles' defense like a Christmas tree. Mariota is a truly gifted runner who has had numerous gallops of 70+ yards.
Linebackers in a Bind
Much like any spread offense (or any offense really) the Oregon spread attack will attempt to put players in a bind and usually that player is a linebacker. Using packaged plays such as zone reads with a bubble screen on the outside, pop passes, play action passes the Duck offense attempts to keep LBs constantly guessing. Once the LB's head is spinning they'll come back with a power run and gash a defense. This is certainly a problem for FSU's defense as the LBs have not been a bright spot for the Noles.
Going to be breaking down Mariota + Winston by the numbers for @PFF tomorrow. One that sticks out: Mariota used play action 51% of attempts— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) December 31, 2014
Injuries and off the field incidents have wrecked this unit with FSU losing seven backers by the Louisville game. However, after a month to heal up this unit could see the most strides Both Matthew Thomas and Terrance Smith will likely be healthier than they have been all season, and it couldn't come at a better time. Smith especially will benefit from the rest as the JR LB has not looked as good as he should due to an ankle injury. If Smith cannot cut and attack the ball carrier FSU will have a tough time slowing down Oregon.
The weak link of the unit is the one who's been the healthiest all season. While Reggie Northrup can certainly hit a ball carrier in impressive fashion, but at times has been late on his reads putting him out of position to make a sure tackle and with Oregon's pace and speed, if that happens he's likely to not even be in the picture at all. While a month of preparation will not cure Northrup's indecisiveness, healthier players around him could help him play more down hill, where he's at his best.
I would expect FSU to play more 4-down than 3-4 against Oregon because that's the set FSU uses against 3- and 4- receiver sets.
Oh, and the primary runner Florida State will have to stop is Royce Freeman, a 230-pound freshman who is every bit as deserving of his five-star rating as Dalvin Cook was coming out of high school. Freeman is a load and Oregon will not hesitate to run him over and over again if necessary. And he has the ability to break long runs, too. Freeman is not simply a power back.
Matching Oregon's receivers
While Oregon's receivers are young they are certainly talented. Much like the Seminoles, the Ducks faced a host of questions entering the season concerning who would emerge to grab the starting spots and through a season's worth of games, some of the spots are not really claimed but the questions are answered. Oregon's receiving core has stepped up in a huge way and while none have necessarily separated themselves from the pack all have become quality receiving options for the Junior QB.
If healthy, expect FSU to be as physical as possible with the Duck receivers just as teams have done to FSU's younger receiving unit this year. The Noles must interrupt the timing routes, such as slants, to give the line time to get to Mariota. While Oregon will still make plays in the passing game limiting their number, with proper route reading principles and physicality, and damage, with sure tackling, must occur if FSU is to slow the Oregon attack.
Oregon may have a big time matchup advantage if it is able to get slot receiver Byron Marshall matched up on Florida State's safeties. Marshall is a dynamic playmaker and a target Mariota clearly trusts. FSU will likely try to keep Jalen Ramsey or Tyler Hunter on him, and not allow him to get singled up on safety Nate Andrews. We saw FSU take a timeout late in the Miami game to prevent such a matchup. Marshall is a former running back and is very dangerous with the ball in his hands.
Note: Jalen Ramsey might be the most important part of Florida State's defense, and he has had the flu this week. How well he plays will be crucial for this defense.
Oregon's receivers likely have a quickness advantage over FSU's defensive backs, and FSU's may have a size advantage, which plays well in the red zone, again meshing well with the strategy of making Oregon earn its touchdowns in the red zone.
The FSU secondary has not been the shut down unit fans were expecting entering the season but they also have not been bad. Whether it's been injury, learning a new position, or receivers making great plays the FSU defense has given up more deep balls than expected this year. The secondary has shown strides in the last few games but opponents of Boston College, Florida, and Georgia Tech present a vastly inferior problem than that which Oregon will. It's put up or shut up time for this unit.
There's no outright stopping this offense. Oregon recruits better to their system than most any other college team in the country and it shows. Whether it's Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly or Mark Helfrich the Oregon offense keeps on rolling and this might be their best unit yet. With as-expected play from players like Mariota and the emergence of key youngsters like Royce Freeman the sky's the limit for the Oregon offense.
Oregon creates mismatches not only with players and scheme but also with the speed at which they get lined up to snap the ball. This forces defenses to become more simple and prevents them to substitute resulting in big gains for the Ducks. If the Noles are to succeed they'll need to minimize the big gains and force Oregon to execute in the red zone without their top TE.
If FSU can hold Oregon to 3 or fewer points per possession, it will give Jameis and Co. a chance to win the game. Anything over that will put tremendous pressure on the offense.