Two weeks ago, I was in Atlanta, writing this same piece after Florida State's loss to Georgia Tech. And I don't just mean evaluating FSU's offensive performance, as the 'Noles dropped this contest at Clemson for a lot of the same reasons that they took a loss to GT.
Just as in ATL, the Seminoles had a legitimate chance to grab an early multiple-score lead. After Dalvin Cook torched the Tigers for a 75-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage to put Florida State up 7-0 and stun the Clemson crowd, the 'Nole defense, which was simply exceptional, quickly delivered the ball back to the offense. CU was scrambling, and conceded another big run, of 36 yards, to Cook. But after the Seminoles got the ball into the red zone, quarterback Sean Maguire made a poor third-down decision, lobbing a ball that was intercepted.
If he simply eats it and lets Roberto Aguayo put FSU up 10-0, the Tigers may have very well gotten into their own heads a bit and started to press, especially considering their last matchup with the 'Noles on their home field, a 51-14 drubbing in 2013. People tend to look back at that FSU victory in Death Valley, given the national title the 'Noles would up winning, as some sort of preordained result. But remember, Clemson was actually ranked higher than FSU coming into that one, a game that was supposed to be Tajh Boyd's, not Jameis Winston's, coronation as Heisman frontrunner.
Instead, Florida State's offense allowed the Clemson defense to collect its wits, regroup, and revise its approach-- one that made rendering Cook ineffective its primary goal, which it accomplished by loading the box and daring Maguire to throw over the top. After those first two carries for 111 yards, Cook averaged a more pedestrian 4.36 YPC, finishing with 21 totes for 194 yards on the ground. So, discounting his first pair of runs, Cook was held to his lowest YPC average since facing Boston College's top-ranked rush defense, when he went for 3.6.
I was a little surprised FSU didn't test the Clemson linebackers more by getting the ball to running backs via the pass-- Cook had just one reception for four yards, and Jacques Patrick, Florida State's best receiving option out of the backfield, did not register a reception. To continue that thread, the tight ends could have been used more as well. The lone FSU TE reception came on a fantastic catch by Ryan Izzo, settling in behind the Clemson 'backers, and went for 17 yards.
Maguire did well punishing the Syracuse defense over the top last week, but unlike 'Cuse's bottom-ranked ACC passing defense, the Tigers were up to the challenge-- and Maguire was not, finishing 16-29 for just 164 yards and a final passer rating of 95.8; FSU would finish a paltry 2-12 on third down. While some were clamoring for the return of Everett Golson, history suggests such a move wouldn't have necessarily fixed the issues the 'Nole offense was having: he's been atrocious delivering the ball downfield, and misses many of the same reads that Maguire did in Death Valley.
In all fairness, Maguire didn't get much help from his wide receiving corps, which has a very disjointed feel at this point in the season. Throwing 9-routes to the fast but diminutive Kermit Whitfield against athletic corners isn't the answer, Bobo Wilson has to learn how to draw a pass interference call, and Travis Rudolph's inconsistency continues-- although I'll take issue with anyone criticizing his fumble late in the game while fighting to make a big play; it's the same effort for which he was lauded against Syracuse.
Still, FSU had a great shot to achieve that two-score lead when its penultimate first-half possession started at its own 42. What followed was yet another horrifically ugly, error-ridden "drive" that included an intentional grounding call, a delay of game, a false start, and saw the Seminoles punt from their own 25.
Most of the ugliness up front for Florida State came in the second half, as Maguire was sacked on FSU's first possession (he absolutely missed on a chance to throw the ball away out of the pocket and instead took a loss of three), which included a another delay penalty. The second possession included another false start and what should have been a pick-six by Clemson's Travis Blanks; instead, the 'Noles mustered a 41-yard Aguayo field goal to tie it up, 13-13.
The next possession, which FSU began in prime position at its own 49, saw another false start, followed by another delay of game, and a Cason Beatty punt. Seminole guard Chad Mavety was asked about the offensive line miscues after the game, and he conceded that the 'Noles let the crowd noise get to them and cause miscommunication issues: "At first it wasn't, but I think towards the end it started to get overbearing. It just got louder and louder."
Florida State was on the doorstep several times in the second half-- not of the end zone, mind you, as its aforementioned two first-half red-zone chances were all it got all night. But in the second half, FSU had three straight drives into Clemson territory on which the 'Noles just couldn't get a few more yards to push into Aguayo's range. Nobody likes settling for field goals, but when your defense is playing as well as the Seminoles' did tonight, throwing up some points every now and then can help to buoy their spirits, as well as erase the notion that it's all on the defense.
But once again, FSU was sloppy and simply inept, offensively, in the second half. And it doesn't just go back to Atlanta. No offensive points after halftime at Boston College. 10 at Wake Forest. None at Georgia Tech. And a field goal at Clemson. That's eight quarters of second-half road offense resulting in two field goals and one touchdown.
Yet head coach Jimbo Fisher isn't looking backward. In fact, during his post-game presser, Fisher referenced the future multiple times. For him, this isn't about FSU's streak of three-straight ACC titles coming to a close: "I think it's beginning something else . . . It's been a heck of a run. Time to start over."
That may sound like mere coach-speak, but it'll be interesting to see how it affects Florida State's offensive game plan throughout the rest of the season. Knowing that Golson is gone after this year, does he continue to be an option at QB, or do you stick with Maguire, who still has a another year of eligibility remaining? Or do you, perhaps, give younger players like J.J. Cosentino and Deondre Francois a look? Also, do FSU's talented group of freshman wide receivers see the field with more regularity moving forward? We'll get answers to these questions next Saturday in Tallahassee, when the 'Nole offense lines up against the NC State Wolfpack.