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What we learned on defense from Florida State's win vs. Syracuse

Gauging the performance of the FSU defenders against the Orange.

FSU's Derrick Nnadi
FSU's Derrick Nnadi
Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

The 'Noles got back in the win column Saturday, topping the Syracuse Orange by a final score of 45-21. The defense played a key role in the victory, allowing just a pair of first-half scores-- even if it showed up a little late.

Before the Marching Chiefs took the field as zombies at halftime, the Seminoles did their own walking dead impression early. On just its fourth offensive play, the Orange hooked up on a screen pass that went for 62 yards down to the FSU four and set up the game's first score two plays later. The 'Noles were slow in reacting on the screen, as the sluggishness Florida State has shown getting going at noon was on display again.

However, that early ineptitude was effectively remedied, as the 'Noles excelled against the screen the rest of the game, primarily due to fine defensive end play from DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat, who read their keys well and diagnosed developing screens adeptly. While fellow DEs Giorgio Newberry and Chris Casher struggled some in this one, Walker and Sweat appear to become more imposing each week; against 'Cuse, they combined for eight tackles, a sack, another tackle for loss, a QB hurry, and a fumble recovery.

Derrick Nnadi led things in the trenches-- he's really coming into his own, as he can simply physically dominate his opposition at an increasingly consistent clip. He was regularly in the SU backfield today, accounting for nine tackles (a ridiculous number for a DT), including a sack.

FSU did a nice job containing mobile Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey, who was always going to make plays with his legs; none of those plays exceeded 12 yards, though, and his pair of touchdowns should be kept in perspective, as each came from just one-yard out. This seems to be an FSU defense that prefers to sit back, keep everything in front of it, and bend but not break.

The 'Noles allowed 14 first downs, but got off the field more effectively than they have; Syracuse converted on third down on just 5-16 opportunities (a 31.25% success rate, compared to the 37.14% FSU was conceding coming in). Nnadi said the defense challenged itself with getting off the field: "Before the game even started we talked about getting our O-line and offense great field position. We said, let's keep track of how many times we can make them punt, just for fun. Honestly, we were just having fun." For the record: there were nine Syracuse punts.

A big part of that was the excellent play of the secondary, a unit led by Jalen Ramsey, whose name wasn't called too often vs. the Orange-- never a bad thing for a DB. Ramsey's assignment today was usually Steve Ishmael, who torched the 'Noles for 93 yards and two scores last season. Ramsey conceded just a lone catch to Ishmael today, on a back-shoulder third-down play that required superb effort from the latter.

But it's becoming apparent that Ramsey isn't the lone star in the FSU defensive backfield-- or even in his own position group, for that matter. Fellow junior Marquez White was tested several times, and he remains unshakeable in coverage. A pair of lockdown corners allows Florida State the ability to employ a cover-one philosophy and bring other DBs near the line of scrimmage often, and the 'Noles did so with Derwin James and Javien Elliott.

This facilitated the defensive play of the game by James, who's not too far from stardom himself. In the third quarter, James came off the edge on a blitz, but Syracuse had a QB run called. This would result in most players being effectively taken out of the play. Key word: "most."

James was somehow able to change direction, track Dungey down across the line of scrimmage, and strip the ball to create the game's only turnover. Three plays later, FSU extended to a three-score lead and effectively claimed the victory. James' day? How about co-leading FSU in tackles with 12 (Reggie Northrup also had a dozen), two for loss, and the forced fumble. He also batted a 'Cuse pass while rushing, a skill he's quickly picked up from Ramsey, but the ball was caught by Dungey.

And it's worth noting that, although his play is less flashy than the aforementioned DBs, Elliott continues to acquit himself very well. FSU coaches had enough confidence to return to the base 4-2-5 featuring Elliott at star. He covered very well once again and plays bigger than his 176-pound frame.

On the day, the Orange threw for just 130 yards on 12-25 passing. Gaps at the second level are really the only soft spot in the FSU passing defense, and getting Terrance Smith back will help out significantly with this.

Overall, you have to be very pleased with the FSU defense's play over the last couple weeks and moving forward. It has the look of a unit that can keep the 'Noles in just about any game, if not make a play to win one.