Florida State came into the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl as the only team in America not to have surrendered a 25-point game all season. That impressive claim is no longer true, following a 38-24 defeat to the Houston Cougars. Some fans, far too eager to react -- or, perhaps, overreact is the more appropriate term -- will take a look at the scoreboard and place the lion's share of this loss squarely on the FSU defense. And they'll do so incorrectly.
Yes, per Derwin James himself, the Florida State defense came out a little flat, and that's why the 'Noles surrendered a touchdown on the Cougars' second possession of the game to take a 7-0 lead. More specifically put, FSU struggled when UH went at top speed for the first time, and QB Greg Ward, Jr. made accurate calls on the zone read, whille the reciever screen also worked well for Houston. James, somewhat predictably, was used a bit more conservatively than usual early on, as he often spied the mobile Ward when he would normally blitz. FSU was obviously hoping to contain Ward and make him beat the 'Noles with his arm.
It was the right strategy before the game, during the game, and it's the right strategy now, even with the FSU loss in the books. Consider this: largely due to the Florida State offense's inability to stay on the field following the ankle injury to QB Sean Maguire at the end of the first quarter, the Cougars were able to run a staggering 99 offensive plays. On those, the Florida State defense surrendered just 4.525 yards per play, the lowest UH has averaged all season (some perspective? FSU averaged 5.816 YPP in this one).
But that second quarter was just too much to overcome. The FSU offense actually went backward on three straight possessions, but it improved on the next two by gaining zero yards. With the offense beyond inept, the defense had to try to make scoring plays, and thus, deviated from the sound strategy discussed earlier. Over-pursuing was the result, which Houston coaches recognized and used against FSU quite well in the form of reverses and the play that accounted for the second UH score, the reverse pass from receiver Demarcus Ayers to Chance Allen.
Still, it was the gritty Florida State defense, down 21-3 shortly before the half, that resurrected the 'Nole hopes, seemingly out of nowhere. With Houston fans beginning to celebrate already by mocking the warchant, a memorable sequence ignited the FSU sideline and its crowd. A big tackle for loss by Rick Leonard, a violent Javien Elliott (who otherwise had a rather disappointing day) hit to breakup a pass, followed by a batted pass by Marquez White.
Florida State had a pulse-- it just needed a breath, which it caught during the half before authoring another impressive three-and-out to begin the third quarter, after which the 'Noles made it 21-10. On the Cougars next possession, Derwin James made another signature tackle on a fourth-and-two to stuff Ward and again get the ball back for the offense (James had a game and career-high 14 tackles, along with two tackles for loss, the aforemementioned sack, and a pass breakup).
FSU had all the momentum-- but almost all the turnovers, too, producing five, and three in the second half. And while missed opportunities on offense characterized Florida State's first loss in Atlanta this year, it's missed execution that doomed it the second time around. Did the defense make mistakes in each letdown? Sure. But in neither was the defense the reason the Seminoles came up short.
So just like last season, FSU suffers a disappointing defeat on a big stage to conclude the campaign. But unlike last year, when questions defined what would become of the defense after several key players left for the NFL, the present outlook for 2016 could be more appropriately described as hopeful-- if not downright giddy. Jalen Ramsey and DeMarcus Walker gave no indication as to their professional intentions after the game (although the former is most certainly gone), but the future is bright: James and Sweat have at least two more years in garnet and gold. Up front, Derrick Nnadi, Demarcus Christmas, Jacob Pugh, and Leonard all return, as will Ro'Derrick Hoskins, Sh'Mar Kilby-Lane, and, in all likelihood, White and Nate Andrews.
It wasn't the finish FSU fans wanted, granted. But considering many of those fans were calling for defensive coordinator Charles Kelly's head early in the year before lauding him for cultivating this top-ten unit, perhaps Seminoles everywhere would do wise to take a beat-- and take this result in proper stride.