Although many felt that the Boston College game three weeks ago was Florida State's first real test of the season, the Miami game kicked off the stretch of the Seminoles' season where they will be exposed as either contenders or pretenders -- depending on how they respond to the adversity of a rivalry against a Miami team that was desperate to end their five-game losing streak at the hands of the Seminoles.
On the defensive side of the ball, it was a new challenge for FSU as they faced a true pocket passer in Brad Kaaya, the first quarterback of that style that they had encountered this season. They also had to deal with Miami tailback Joseph Yearby, who was good enough in high school to start ahead of Dalvin Cook at Miami Central and had accumulated 424 rushing yards through the Hurricanes' first four games. With the Seminoles' 29-24 win over the Hurricanes in the rear view mirror, here are some things we learned on defense.
Marshall and Andrews are essential to secondary success
The absences of Trey Marshall, who was ejected after a first quarter targeting call, and Nate Andrews, who played but only in a limited role after suffering a severe bone bruise against Wake Forest, were quite evident. Throughout the game, Miami exploited the depleted secondary, finding the soft spots in zone coverage and creating space in man coverage. Tyler Hunter, who played in the star spot normally occupied by Marshall, and Derwin James, who took over at strong safety after the ejection, had differing levels of success in their replacement roles. Hunter was exposed in man coverage on multiple occasions, getting beat off the line of scrimmage by his assignment and never quite catching up. James also had his negative moments but showcased a certain tenacity and poise in his play, racking up 7 tackles (6 solo), running all over the field, and often delivering big hits when he had the chance to make a play.
In the end, the Seminoles' defense often allowed Kaaya to have his way in the passing game. Kaaya set a new career high with 405 passing yards on 29-49 passes (14 yards per completion, 8 per attempt) with three touchdowns and no interceptions. At the end of the game, Miami had totaled 425 yards on 68 plays (6.2 yards per play, the highest allowed by FSU this season).
Struggling to get off the field on third down
Entering Saturday's game, it seemed that the Florida State defense would hold the advantage over the Miami offense in third down situations. After all, the Seminoles were 20th in the FBS in 3rd down defense, allowing conversions on only 28.5% of their opponents' 3rd-down opportunities. On the other hand, Miami entered Tallahassee second to last in the FBS, converting on a lowly 24.5% of their third down opportunities. Through the first thirty minutes, the results were as expected, with the Seminoles holding UM to 2-7 on 3rd down (28.5%).
However, there was a drastic change when the teams reemerged from the half. On Miami's first drive of the second half, Kaaya led the Hurricanes on a 17-play, 80 yard drive that included four third-down conversions, all on passes from Kaaya. This was a sign of things to come on third down for the UM offense in the second half as Miami converted on 6 of 9 third downs in the second half. For the game, the 'Canes moved the chains on 8 of 16 third downs, more than double the rate at which they had on the season entering Saturday.
The inability to get off the field proved costly and nearly vital as the Hurricanes dismantled and wore down the Florida State defensive front before the Seminoles were saved by heroic efforts from the defensive line on the final drive.
Defensive line getting more pressure
With five games of Florida State's 2015 season in the books and a larger sample size now available, it seems reasonable to say that this year's defensive line is doing a much better job of getting into the backfield and pressuring the quarterback than last year's defensive line unit. Despite only earning two total sacks, both by Demarcus Walker who now has 3.5 sacks on the year, the Seminoles seemed to be in Kaaya's face all night long, finishing with four QB hurries to go with the two sacks. The numbers back up the improved pressure that the Seminoles have accomplished so far this season. Through five games last season, Florida State had compiled seven sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. Through five games this season? 10 sacks and 14 quarterback hurries.
In spite of the constant pressure that Florida State was able to get, Kaaya remained calm, cool, and collected, making throws while getting pressured, hit, and tackled to keep the Hurricanes in the game. But when it mattered most, the defensive line made the adjustments necessary to preserve the FSU win. On Miami's final drive, Giorgio Newberry and Demarcus Walker combined for three batted down passes at the line, including one on 4th and 4 that sealed the game.
On top of a solid job pressuring Kaaya, the FSU defensive line rotation severely limited what Yearby, who was averaging over 100 rushing yards per game for the Hurricanes entering Saturday's game, could do. Yearby was held to 33 yards on 15 carries, calculating out to a pedestrian 2.2 yards per carry.
With Florida State's regular season nearly at the halfway point, this defensive unit is really beginning to develop an identity. Going forward, there will be strong challenges presented by opponents, including, but not limited to, Louisville's freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson's rapid development, Georgia Tech's hazardous triple option attack, a Clemson team that has climbed into the playoff conversation in recent weeks, and a surprisingly solid University of Florida offense that has impressed early this season behind QB Will Grier. Due to all these factors and more, this Florida State defense will need to become even more efficient if they hope to continue their massive ACC winning streak that dates all the way back to October 2012.