The Florida State defense did what it said it would do coming off an emotional win over Miami. It carried forward the newfound intensity it found against the Hurricanes
Yes, it did so against a Wake Forest offense which is likely the worst FBS offense it has faced to this point in the season. Still, progress is progress.
The increased intensity started up front. Senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker finished with two sacks, bumping his season total up to 8.5 sacks, and Josh Sweat added 1.5 more. In all, Florida State finished with five sacks for the second time this season. On the year, FSU now has 24 sacks, putting the Seminoles firmly in the top ten nationally.
But, the performance of the defensive line extends far beyond sacks. The defensive front affected the line of scrimmage throughout the game, constantly getting a middling Wake Forest offense behind the chains. The Demon Deacons faced an average third-down distance of 9.1 yards. The Deacs were held to 31.3% on third downs (5-16) and when facing third and long, that dropped significantly to 11.1% (1-9).
In the linebacker corps, true freshman Dontavious Jackson made the most of his first career start. Jackson was only needed to start for the first half while Matthew Thomas served the second half of his suspension for a targeting penalty. However, Jackson stayed in the game for long stretches of the second half, playing for Thomas on the first series of the second half and for Ro’Derrick Hoskins on the second. It would seem that Jackson has inserted himself as a regular rotation player along with Thomas and Hoskins in the middle of the defense.
“[Jackson] is gonna be a really good player. He gets it,” Jimbo Fisher said after the game. “He knows the calls, he’s a smart guy, he studies the game. You know he’s a physical guy but he’s a really cerebral player.”
The surprise star of the game, though, might have been the same player for the second straight week: new defensive back Ermon Lane.
Lane dismissed any possibility that his impressive defensive debut against Miami was a fluke with his showing against Wake Forest. He showed the tackling skills, coverage ability, and ball-hawking presence of a veteran safety in his second collegiate start in the secondary. He finished with seven tackles, leading the team for a large portion of the game, four solo tackles, a tackle for loss, and a pass break-up. He also put himself into a situation with the potential for an interception on multiple occasions.
Lane may not have come away with an interception but two other Seminoles did. Senior cornerback Marquez White snagged his first pick of the 2016 season by perfectly playing a slant route, an issue which plagued the FSU defense last week. Meanwhile, another week meant it was time for another interception for sophomore Tarvarus McFadden. McFadden recorded his fifth interception of the year by taking advantage of an underthrown ball on a go route. McFadden’s five interceptions is the most ever recorded by a Florida State player in a single season in the Fisher era and, crazily enough, he has five more regular-season games plus a bowl to pad his total.
It wasn’t all good for McFadden though. His one interception is countered by a pair of plays in which he let his assigned receiver streak by him on the field and make big downfield catches. On one of these occasions, he was behind by a half-step before getting tripped up, taking away some fault, but on the other, he was beat off the line and simply didn’t get his hands up to defend the pass, even after running back into the play due to an underthrown ball. McFadden’s knack for creating turnovers is promising but his tendency to be a feast-or-famine player is troubling, to say the least.
Overall, there’s a lot to like from Florida State’s defensive performance in Saturday’s win. The hype around holding an opponent to 3.8 yards per play must be subdued by acknowledging the fact that this Wake Forest team entered the game ranked 109th in total offense. Regardless, this defense did what it is supposed to do against an inferior offense and overcame some tough situations, including four Florida State turnovers, to keep the Demon Deacons out of the endzone for the fifth straight time in Tallahassee.
That’s right. Wake has not scored a touchdown in Tallahassee since 2006. And with today’s performance, that streak will extend until at least 2018.
Next up for the Florida State defense is quite possibly the toughest test in a season chock full of exceptional offenses: the No. 3 Clemson Tigers, who return all of their starters on offense along with their Heisman finalist quarterback Deshaun Watson. Suffice it to say, Florida State’s recent steps in intensity and passion will be put to the test in two weeks.
But first, the Seminoles get a perfectly-timed bye week to heal up and prepare for the challenge presented by one of the top offenses in the nation.