Florida State again bounced back nicely at home following a disappointing road loss, topping the North Carolina State Wolfpack by a 34-17 score today in Tallahassee. FSU once again looked to its defense to keep it in the game early, and despite what the scoreboard may have said, it really stepped up and did so.
The Florida State defense's ostensible opposition was the NC State offense-- but the FSU offense served as an equally effective foe. After giving the ball away just four times this season prior to today, the Seminole offense coughed it up five times on the afternoon, which put the defense in some tough spots, particularly early. Like, really early.
Everett Golson fumbled on the game's first play from scrimmage, and the 'Nole defense found itself in the shadow of its own goalpost, as NCSU took over with a jolt of momentum on the FSU 10. The Wolfpack went backwards though, and its four-play drive for -4 yards resulted in just a field goal. The next possession saw NC State string together its only scoring drive of the day against the 'Noles that didn't begin at or inside the Seminole 30, as Wolfpack quarterback Jacoby Brissett made some very nice throws and guided NCSU to a 10-7 lead. Following the first of two Golson interceptions, the 'Pack got the ball at the Florida State 30, and used a face-mask call and a designed QB run to extend to a 17-7 lead.
With the Seminole offense on the ropes in the first quarter, the FSU defense simply took it upon itself to turn the tide. And it did just that, shutting the Wolfpack out for the game's final three quarters.
It was evident early on that the Seminole bigs were having their way with the 'Pack up front, a trend that would continue throughout the afternoon. NCSU, which came in averaging 194.89 yards per game on the ground (an average better than FSU's rushing attack that features Dalvin Cook), managed just 79 yards on 31 carries for a paltry 2.5 YPC average. Shutting down the 'Pack run on early downs payed impressive dividends: 7 of 15 NCSU first-down runs were stopped for two yards or less, which helped precipitate 18 third downs, 12 of which were third and long. And although NC State hit on some early, they were successful on just one of eight third-downs to finish the game.
Forcing predictable passing downs helped the 'Noles get home on the pass rush, too. Brissett came in being sacked 2.56 times per game, yet Florida State dropped him four times. DeMarcus Walker got to him twice and now leads the Seminoles with eight sacks-- twice as many as last year's FSU sacks leader, Eddie Goldman, totaled in the entire season (four). Giorgio Newberry and Demarcus Christmas split another sack, and James registered one as well.
In addition to his sack, James led FSU with 10 tackles, a QB hurry, and a fumble recovery. And they weren't just ho-hum tackles. On one, James upended a player and effectively flipped him, a la P.J. Williams vs. Oklahoma State. On another, he simply picked a guy up and body slammed him.
It's time to stop talking about how good James can be-- because he's already pretty much there. He's arguably the second-best player on the defense, and that's really saying something, considering he may only be behind probable top-five pick Jalen Ramsey. And speaking of James and Ramsey, who are frequently mentioned in the same sentence, a frightening prospect for opponents in its own right, they often blitzed together on third downs, wreaking havoc in the Wolfpack backfield.
Another key for the 'Noles on Saturday was limiting NCSU's explosive plays, and they did just that. NC State didn't have a run longer than 14 yards or a catch for more than 16 yards. FSU excelled in allowing mostly benign gains to NCSU, keeping things in front and taking away the deep shot. To wit: North Carolina State threw the ball 49 times for just 218 yards, an average of 4.44 yards per passing attempt. Some perspective: Kent State has the worst YPA in the country, at 4.9.
So while the 'Noles haven't forced a lot of turnovers this year and got just one tonight, they've nevertheless been very effective on defense, as teams had put up just 17.4 points per game on FSU coming into this one, good enough for 12th-best in the country. And maybe not being so dependent on turnover luck is a good thing. Perhaps the Seminole defensive approach, which is much more certain, is just the steadying influence this team needs.