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What we learned on defense from FSU's loss to Georgia Tech

Some observations of what went well -- and not so well -- on defense in FSU's first ACC loss in three years.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

One game short of tying the mark set by FSU from 1992-1995 for most consecutive ACC games won, Florida State finally stumbled and was unable to recover after numerous near-falls over the past season and a half. There are many things on both sides of the ball that can be pointed to as a portion of why the Seminoles fell short on Saturday night against Georgia Tech but I will be focusing on the defensive side of the ball.

Inability to step on throat

The defense jumped out to a good start, corralling two first half interceptions and allowing the Seminoles to build up a 13-3 lead. Georgia Tech started the ensuing drive on their own six yard line after an illegal block penalty on the kickoff and you could feel in the stadium that Florida State was on the brink of breaking the game wide open and taking complete control. The Florida State defense was unable to deliver on this as they allowed a 33 yard completion by GT QB Justin Thomas out of his own endzone with Giorgio Newberry narrowly missing a sack that would have resulted in a safety. Two plays later, Thomas broke off a 60 yard touchdown run and what could have been a 15-3 game with the Seminoles receiving a safety punt became a 13-10 game. From there, FSU never held a lead larger than six points.

Young players stepping up

With an injury to Trey Marshall that put him out for the season, Terrance Smith still out, and Nate Andrews not quite back to 100%, multiple first-year contributors were called upon to take on enlarged roles in a tough road environment. Throughout the vast majority of the game, the younger players rose to the occasion in a big way.

Josh Sweat, who made an impact through Florida State's first six games despite it not showing up in the box score, finally made his breakthrough Saturday against the Yellow Jackets. On GT's very first possession, Sweat single-handedly brought the drive to a screeching halt as he tipped Thomas' pass into the air and then had the awareness to intercept his own tip, giving the Seminoles the ball at the GT 19 yard line. Sweat continued his big game with a sack early in the fourth quarter that stopped another Georgia Tech drive. In the end, Sweat collected 6 tackles (4 solo) as well as the aforementioned sack and interception.

Derwin James is another freshman who was asked to have a larger role against the Ramblin' Wreck, as he was in the weeks leading up against Miami and Louisville. James played the entirety of the game with a physicality and tenacity that was unmatched by any other Florida State player, including Jalen Ramsey. With so many Seminole defenders focusing in on stripping the ball, James was one of the few defenders who ensured that he brought his assigned player down, often aggressively tackling the player and evoking a reaction from the sizable group of Seminole fans in attendance.

However, with the game on the line and FSU on the verge of burying the Yellow Jackets, James showed his freshman side at the worst possible moment. He was burned off the line on his man coverage assignment and it led to a 36-yard completion down the sideline on a fourth down and six. Later that drive, the Jackets tied the game at 16 and we all know what happened from there.

There were additional big plays made by first-year players, including multiple stops by Ro'Derrick Hoskins and a  momentous tackle for loss by Javien Elliott at a huge moment in the game. When it was all said and done, the first-year contributors were all atop the list of tacklers. Hoskins led all Florida State defenders with seven tackles (4 solo), James and Sweat both had six tackles (4 solo for each), and Elliott was one of four Seminoles with 5 tackles, all of which were solo tackles.

Failures to get off the field

With the triple option offense, it is essential to get them behind schedule, allowing a minimal gain on first down. In the first half, FSU succeeded in this aspect allowing an average of 3 yards per first down play.This set up long third downs for the Yellow Jackets, who converted only 2 of 6 (33.3%) third downs in the first half.

Despite similar numbers in the second half, FSU was unable to get stops when they most needed them. The Seminoles remained decent on getting Georgia Tech behind schedule, allowing an average of 3.5 yards per first down play in the second half. On third downs, the difference in conversion percentage was minimal as the Jackets converted on 3 of 8 (37.5%) third downs. 2 of those 3 second half conversions came on the Ramblin' Wreck's opening drive that lasted 6 minutes and 33 seconds.

On that drive, the Seminole defense faced third downs of 2 and 4 but were unable to get off the field. A face mask penalty by Hoskins on what would have been a loss of two yards and set up a third and six also went a long way towards extending the drive. It almost seemed that the FSU defense never fully recovered from the exhaustively long drive that Tech went on to kick off the second half.

Although a large portion of the loss can be attributed to the offense failing to take full advantage of their numerous red zone opportunities, the defense is deserving of some blame as well. They controlled the option for the majority of the game, allowing 4.2 yards per rush if Thomas' 60 yard run is ignored. However, we cannot ignore that run and that one play bumps the yards per carry total all the way to 5.9 against a depleted Georgia Tech offense that averaged 5.6 yards per carry entering Saturday.

With the 28-game ACC winning streak snapped and the pressure off the shoulders of the Seminoles, it will be intriguing to see how Florida State bounces back when they welcome Syracuse next weekend. Jimbo Fisher was quick to say in his postgame that it was only one loss and that the sky is not falling, a mantra that I am sure will be repeated ad nauseum to this team in the coming week. However, how well that message resonates with this young team and how well they bounce back against the Orange will be very telling of what this team is capable of.