On the first day of October, Florida State’s College Football Playoff hopes suffered a fatal blow.
The Seminoles’ 37-35 home loss to North Carolina is their second loss of the 2016, matching their regular-season loss total from 2015 in week five of the season.
But how much of this is the defense’s fault? After all, UNC’s offense is widely regarded as the better of its two units, far surpassing the defense. The Tar Heels have a few future NFL wide receivers in Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins, a potential NFL QB in Mitch Trubisky, and a very talented running back duo in Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan.
The answer of which unit is to blame is the obvious one. Both.
Although some blame should deservedly be placed on a Florida State offense that came up with 595 yards of offense and only 35 points, that’s not my article to write.
On defense, we saw a lot of the same issues that have plagued Florida State all season long. Pre-snap confusions, consistent miscommunication, and missed assignments, all of which resulted in Tar Heel receivers running free throughout the entire game.
As stated above, these woes are nothing new for the ‘Noles. However, they ran into an opposing quarterback in Trubisky on Saturday who was able to take advantage of these errors all the way to the closing seconds. Trubisky finished the game going 31-38 (81.6% completion percentage) for 405 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, picking apart the Florida State back seven all afternoon to the tune of a 197.2 passer rating.
Not to take away from an impressive offensive performance from North Carolina but Florida State’s secondary is far too talented to consistently allow the busts which have become a weekly tradition this season. The active scholarship players in FSU’s secondary include two former five-star recruits, five four-star recruits, and two three-star recruits, not including injured safety Derwin James, whose absence assuredly plays a role in the defense’s woes.
But still, these issues have lingered and five weeks into the season, it’s hard to believe that a quick fix will be found anytime this year.
After the game, Jimbo Fisher was asked if the defensive scheme is the cause for confusion and issues in the secondary. He was quick to state that its the same scheme Florida State used in the 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons and also refused to place the blame on his players. Instead, Fisher took the blame on his coaching staff, stating that they have to do a better job of teaching the scheme. With many calling for the head of Charles Kelly after the underwhelming performance, Fisher’s words serve as little comfort to the Florida State defensive coordinator.
UNC’s star receiver Switzer emerged as the difference maker in North Carolina’s win. Whoever the Seminoles threw at him, be it Marcus Lewis, Kyle Meyers, or another defensive back, no one was able to shut Switzer down. He finished the game with 14 catches on 17 targets with 158 receiving yards.
However, the secondary is not the only unit worthy of blame after FSU’s loss. The defensive line proved incapable of creating a consistent pass rush, struggling mightily with UNC’s protection schemes. It’s true that the Seminoles finished with three sacks in the loss but, on the whole, Trubisky had all the time in the world to throw, further hindering a secondary that was struggling to begin with.
All of these factors led to what proved to be the difference in the game: third downs. UNC converted on nine of thirteen third downs in the win, a 69.2% conversion rate. FSU was unable to get off the field and put an end to drives, failing to force a three-and-out until the fourth quarter. This inability to get off the field on third down resulted in a general fatigue on the defense which was most evident in North Carolina’s third-quarter drive which saw the Tar Heels convert on third downs of seven, nine, and nine yards on the way to taking a 28-14 lead over the Seminoles.
However, this was not the case on the final drive of the game. Florida State’s offense controlled the ball for a large portion of the final 20 minutes due to a pair of methodical touchdown drives. The FSU defense came on to the field with 23 seconds left holding a one-point lead and just needing to avoid giving up a big play. Somehow, even with Florida State dropping eight men back into coverage, UNC still found a way to complete a 23-yard pass and then earn a pass interference penalty which set the Heels up for their game-winning field goal.
The bottom line of this game is that even after a mediocre showing as a unit, the Florida State defense was handed a simple, straightforward opportunity to preserve the game, failing to do even that and leading the team to a 3-2 record five weeks into the year.
From here, it gets no easier for the Seminoles’ defense. Next week, FSU travels to Miami for a rivalry matchup with the undefeated Hurricanes, facing off with UM’s quality quarterback Brad Kaaya who threw for over 400 yards against Florida State last year. FSU will likely be underdogs on the road in a game it needs to win to stay above .500 on the year.