It was evident that this Florida State defense, that had seen great success through eight games this season, holding opposing offenses to an average of 16 points per game would face their toughest test of the season by a wide margin when they entered Death Valley to take on the undefeated and top-ranked Clemson Tigers. And although there is always room for improvement, this Seminole defense rose to the occasion and did everything in their power to keep Florida State in the game despite some offensive issues. Until the final Clemson touchdown that put the game out of reach, they had held a very talented Clemson offense that came into this game averaging 40.6 points per game to under half of that. Here are some takeaways from the Seminoles' loss to the Tigers:
Inability to limit dual-threat nature of Deshaun Watson
Florida State has faced a quarterback that could be considered mobile in eight of their nine games played this season with Miami's Brad Kaaya as the sole pocket passer the Seminoles have encountered this season. Despite, or possibly due to the extended exposure, quarterback mobility had not been a problem for FSU entering Saturday, as they had kept the opposing quarterback below their current season average for rushing yards in five of their seven games before Clemson. However, the script was different on Saturday as Watson took advantage of his speed and agility to rack up 107 yards on the ground, his career-high and the most that the Seminoles has allowed to a QB this season.
When asked about Deshaun Watson after the game, Jimbo Fisher praised him, saying "He's a great player. He battled. He's a competitor and a very good player."
Clemson running back Wayne Gallman had 103 yards as well, making this the first time that FSU has allowed two 100-yard rushers in a single game since 2009 against Georgia Tech.
Terrance Smith is a crucial part of this defense
Smith, who has been out of action since injuring his ankle against Wake Forest on October 3rd, chose the ideal time to make his return to the field when he was announced as a starter for Florida State against Clemson. Smith showcased how important he is to this defensive unit early and often, handling the run and pass coverage duties of the linebacker position to great success. By games' end, he had totaled 12 tackles (5 solo), second only to fellow senior linebacker Reggie Northrup in both categories.
Inability to force turnovers
For the first time this season, Florida State lost the turnover battle in the loss to Clemson, by a 2-0 margin. However, no turnovers forced doesn't mean that there were no opportunities. Throughout the game, the Seminole defenders got their hands on passes, with five pass breakups in total. Two of those five were tipped by Demarcus Walker at the line and fell harmlessly to the ground with no defenders in the right place at the right time. In addition to the tipped balls, Watson had a number of passes that he floated over his receivers but, once again, there were no Seminoles in the right place at the right time to make a play that could have changed the momentum of the game. Florida State's biggest turnover opportunity came late in the second quarter when Clemson muffed a punt at their own 21-yard line. However, Cason Beatty's punt, measured at 54 yards, was too far for his coverage team and the returner was able to fall on it just moments before the gunners arrived.
Although time of possession was relatively even with Clemson holding the ball for 31 minutes and 51 seconds, the Florida State defense was on the field for 85 plays while the Clemson defense only faced 59 plays. This significant difference showed in the fourth quarter as the fatigued Seminoles allowed Clemson to convert on three of their five third down attempts (60%). Compare that to the Tigers' first three quarters, where they converted on four of twelve third downs (33%).
Despite the aforementioned defensive issues, this Clemson offense, far and away the most dangerous that Florida State will play in the regular season, was going to get their plays and the Seminole defense did everything in their power to keep the game close and give the offense a chance to win it. In the end, the better team won, which is fine for FSU considering this was always a rebuilding year for the Seminoles. Despite losing the chance to win their fourth straight ACC Championship, Florida State has plenty left to play for and that kicks off next Saturday against NC State.