I'll be entirely honest. I wasn't entirely thrilled about writing the analysis of the FSU offense heading into this game. After all, I'd broken down Florida State's offensive performance in the Georgia Tech game and figured doing so again for the Seminoles' season-ending tilt against the Gators may prove equally grueling.
After all, the 'Noles had struggled on the road against the No. 11 scoring defense of Clemson, posting just 13. Against the nation's No. 5 scoring D, Boston College, FSU generated just 14 points -- and only seven came from the offense. Even against Wake Forest and GT, Florida State mustered only 16 points per game. So surely, against Florida's fourth-ranked scoring defense, in the uber-hyped Swamp, the 'Noles would fall apart. Right? Wrong.
This one started slowly, sure--as most expected it would. And for FSU, the same road sloppiness set in from the onset. Florida State began with a Dalvin Cook fumble (recovered by the 'Noles), miscommunication between Sean Maguire and multiple recievers, a handful of FSU drops through the early third quarter, and some off-target throws.
FSU gained one yard on its first two drives. The line provided decent protection for Maguire, including more pulling schemes than usual, but 'Nole recievers struggled early to gain any separation from a talented UF secondary. When they did, the ball wasn't where it was supposed to be. And when it was, it was often dropped.
Jimbo Fisher showed some new wrinkles on the third series, including a reverse and the game's most successful early play, a well-designed drag scheme that saw Izzo release late and run a flag route to the backside, where Cook was streaking down the field to block for him.
The first quarter ended with a zero on the scoreboard for both teams, and a zero in the rushing column for FSU. A neutralized Cook did not bode well for the 'Noles. Nor did the kicking disparity for UF, and it showed itself early, getting the 'Noles the early lead on Aguayo's 45-yard field goal. But this was more due to a couple of penalties on Florida that set the Seminoles up with their best field position of the night at the Florida 41. It was just three points-- but it was important to draw first blood, and, ultimately, it would be all FSU needed.
Breaking on Through
Of course, in the second quarter, few suspected that three points would be enough. There was a palpable feeling in The Swamp that the first team to prove it could reach pay dirt would gain the inside track. And Florida State seemed primed to do just that in the second quarter.
Then FSU's red-zone issues appeared to resurface, after the 'Noles came up short on a third-and-goal run from the one. But Fisher said he planned on going for it all along, and rolled Maguire out to the right on fourth down. With nearly all of Maguire's options exhausted, and defenders, the sideline, and a turnover on downs rapidly approaching, Maguire threw, on the run, side-armed, across his body, to his final read on the play, his tight end.
Ryan Izzo? Nope. Enter Jeremey Kerr, who made an excellent play of coming back to the ball in traffic to snag the TD for his first career catch. You can't overstate the plays made by both Maguire and Kerr on this single, pivotal, snap. The positive result of registering the game's first touchdown is obvious.
But if Maguire doesn't place that ball perfectly, and if Kerr doesn't remember his coaching and come back to the ball, it's likely intercepted. When you go for the score on fourth-and-goal from the one, you have a built-in contingency of your opponent having to take over in the shadow of its own goalpost, but a pick in this spot would have given UF the ball at the 20 and with a ton of momentum. Instead: 10-0, 'Noles.
The Explosive Edge
Before this season began, we talked a lot about how young-yet-talented offenses, like the one Florida State trotted out all season, would struggle with inconsistency issues. There would be "lost drives"-- just like there were Saturday against Florida (FSU went three-and-out six times). To combat this, we insisted, big plays would need to occur; especially against premier defenses, which UF most certainly has. Simply put, young teams are rarely going to grind out possessions of double-digit plays, especially against the toughest opposition.
And against the Gators, those big plays came. FSU had seven plays of 20+ yards, compared to just three for Florida.
I'm not in the habit of celebrating FSU's offensive failures. But "failure" can be a very relative term. With the 'Noles leading 13-0 in the fourth quarter, UF's CeCe Jefferson forced a fumble from Maguire that looked for the world to be the break on which the Gators had been waiting. If you've paid even a little attention to Florida this season, you know it's played a number of close games from which it's escaped victorious, usually on the strength of fortuitous field position acquired from an opponent's gaff.
Though the play started at the FSU 25, the ball was quickly knocked backward, as bodies flailed in attempts to secure possession. The farther back it was batted, the more likely the scenario seemed likely: UF will get this at the two and punch it in for a touchdown a play later. 13-7. Momentum. And with half a quarter to go. Instead, Florida State players, especially Chad Mavety, who was beaten by Jefferson, battled vigorously to contest the possession, even as the ball bounded into the FSU end zone. Finally, Maguire dove on the ball, which gave the Gators their only points on a safety.
Were the Gators on the board? Sure. But FSU remained up 11 in a game that no longer had enough time left for UF to come back unless it could score a touchdown.
And Cook would make sure Florida needed even more than that. Though they'd bottled him up quite effectively through most of the game, the Gators simply had no answer for Cook late. In the fourth quarter, he posted 150 of his 183 rushing yards, including runs of 32, 12, 10, 15, 20, 16, and 29 yards, with a pair of touchdowns. I'm not ready to say that UF quit, though it definitely appeared that way, but Cook certainly demoralized them late. Give the FSU offensive line huge credit for his fourth-quarter success, as the 'Noles appeared to lean on a UF defense tired of carrying the load once again.
Maguire summed it up well when discussing Cook's late dominance after the game: "Other teams wear down. He doesn't."
Was it always pretty? Hardly. But FSU dropped the hammer late to not only beat but blowout the Gators, 27-2, in a game in which the 'Noles were only favored by 2.5 points. And while the defense certainly deserved the lion's share of the praise, the Florida State offense more than held its own, putting up better than 10 points more than it had against any other road foe this year-- and doing so before a record-setting crowd of 90,916 fans, the vast majority of whom were Gators who filed out quietly while the Seminoles partied and took yet another piece of sod back to Tallahassee.