Florida State fought off a talented Louisville team today, pulling away in the second half en route to a 41-21 victory in Tallahassee. As the FSU offense sputtered out of the gate, the defense was tasked with keeping the 'Noles in this one and did so admirably, as the Seminoles trailed 7-6 at halftime before exploding for 35 in the second half.
Once again, the loss of Trey Marshall largely defined the day, defensively, for the 'Noles. Last week, Marshall was ejected early for targeting; but the injury he sustained against the Cards could keep him out longer. He hurt his left arm in the first quarter on the defense's third series and was walked straight to the locker room without even heading to the sideline first (not a good sign). After the game, Fisher said FSU was waiting on a diagnosis, but that "it don't look good."
Tyler Hunter again replaced Marshall at the star position, and on the next two plays, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson found slot receiver James Quick behind the middle of the defense on what FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said were safety mistakes by Derwin James (making his first career start) and Lamarcus Brutus. On the first catch, Quick fell down, mercifully, at the FSU 18. On the next, he found pay dirt.
Quick didn't touch the ball often, notching just five catches all day, but was extremely efficient. In fact, he accounted for all the UL scoring, posting three touchdown catches. So, just as they had against Miami, the Seminoles again struggled to cover the slot with Marshall absent. Hunter was torched badly on his second score and replaced by former walk-on Javien Elliott, who acquitted himself quite well in the spotlight, registering a third-quarter interception. And it's hard to fault the defense on Quick's final TD grab, a wonderful diving catch made on a perfect throw to the corner of the end zone. Still, the possible loss of Marshall looms as a huge defensive issue to address.
Especially considering Florida State's continued struggle to get off the field on third down. Miami converted on 8-16 third-down attempts vs. the 'Noles, and Louisville was even better, going 9-15. These included some long conversions as well, when the Seminoles squandered solid work getting UL behind schedule on earlier downs. A third and 12 on the game's opening series. A third and seven to open the second half, along with Louisville conversions on third and nine (on a rush), third and 13, third and 19, and third and ten.
Part of these struggles were a product of FSU playing back, rushing four and sometimes three, comfortable to contain the lightning-fast Jackson, whom the 'Noles actually recruited as a receiver. They did get home a handful of times, collecting a season-high five sacks (they could have had seven, but Jackson used his athleticism to break away from a couple would-be sacks).
So while the defense could have spent less time on the field, it did a superb job of keeping Jackson, who'd entered the game with a rushing touchdown in every game in which he'd substantially contributed, out of the end zone. Jackson's legs are really the UL offense's lone deep threat, and Florida State neutralized that threat: he rushed for just 32 yards on 19 carries, with a long run of 10 yards. Defensive end DeMarcus Walker spoke to this priority: "Our coach made a big emphasis all week, that he was on my mind all week. Keep him controlled because he is a great athlete and very fast, so we wanted to collapse the pocket on him."
Mission accomplished. Leading the way were Nile Lawrence-Stample, who had a nice game, with four tackles including a sack and a pass breakup, and Jacob Pugh, who was exceptional, accounting for team highs in tackles (seven) and sacks (two). Said Pugh after the win: "I feel like we're the best defense in the country and nobody can stop what we do or what we bring. We're going to keep on bringing it every week and every Saturday in and out the game."
The 'Noles did dial up some pressure, and it helped account for Florida State's biggest defensive play of the day in the third quarter. In a nice little combination of defenders who will be making plays for the Seminoles for a while, James blitzed off the edge and absolutely destroyed Jackson, forcing a fumble that Josh Sweat recovered. It was the big turnover that Seminoles fans had been waiting for, and firmly captured momentum for the 'Noles. Three plays later, Dalvin Cook secured FSU's first multi-possession lead of the day, at 27-14. The Elliott pick followed on the next play from scrimmage, and 34-14 followed.
Put this game in the same category as FSU's wins over Boston College and Wake Forest: on yet another day when the Seminoles' young offense struggled to gel -- at least early on -- the defense again stepped up. It's certainly got its question marks, but it's also an undeniably important constant on which the 'Noles have relied time and again this season.