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Offensive observations from FSU football’s loss to North Carolina

Two points short, but more than a couple of issues to address.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Florida State
Deondre Francois
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

A 35-point offensive performance is rarely one deserving of too much criticism. And to be sure, the Florida State offense is certainly not the side of the ball on which the ‘Noles need to address the most questions. But while the offense scored touchdowns on half of its possessions, and every one in the second half, the Seminoles still left plenty of points on the field in their 37-35 loss to UNC on Saturday.

FSU had no problem moving the ball against the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday afternoon, amassing 595 yards of total offense. Its first four drives ventured into UNC territory, yet on those possessions, Florida State came away with a final sum of zero points. Yes, kicker Ricky Aguayo missed two 45-yard field-goal attempts and had another blocked, in just the first quarter. Our Bud Elliott has discussed why opting for those FG tries instead of going for it on fourth down in hopes of TDs was a mistake— and you can read more about that here.

But why was an FSU offense that averaged 7.9 yards per play repeatedly faced with those fourth down decisions? After all, we’ve seen this ‘Nole offense evolve nicely since week one, including the use of Deondre Francois’ legs and the emergence of running back Jacques Patrick to complement Dalvin Cook, all behind a cohering offensive line.

The early returns were promising. FSU came out running on its first seven plays, and rather creatively at the onset. Presumably aware that the Heels had probably watched last week’s opening-play touchdown from Dalvin Cook, the ‘Noles began with the same look, and went to Cook again on what appeared to be the same play. When UNC over pursued, as if they were expecting just such a call, Cook flipped the ball to Kermit Whitfield on a reverse for a gain of 21 yards.

However, that kind of creativity was largely absent for the remainder of the play-calling, which somewhat resembled the first half game plan against Ole Miss: Francois passed primarily from the pocket, where he’s struggled with accuracy throughout the year, instead of being rolled out, which is where he has excelled and given the option to tuck the ball and run.

Francois eventually wound up with a pedestrian 10 rushes for 32 yards, none of which came off zone-read or read-pass option plays to which he’d seemingly be well suited and that most other college offenses incorporate. FSU did a better job of using play-action and getting Francois outside the pocket later, and he finished with 372 yards on 20-32 passing, which equates to a passer rating of 160.2. Francois also did not turn the ball over and had a touchdown dropped by Travis Rudolph.

That said, Francois needs to develop a better internal clock, as he was sacked twice, each of which were on him, and one of which nearly went for a safety. But in all fairness, the FSU offense was frequently off schedule, due to 13 ‘Nole penalties for 120 yards. The OL shot itself in the foot on plenty of these, but when it did not, it was serviceable.

As far as the receiving corps goes, it struggled with downfield blocking after having a nice day doing so against USF. Bobo Wilson had a nice day, though, adjusting on a couple of passes behind him to make plays and finish with a team-high 120 yards.

Cook was actually the Seminole’s second-leading receiver, with 106 yards through the air, and he equaled a career-high three rushing touchdowns while running for 140 yards. The good news is that the Cook of last year appeared to be back for the second-straight week. However, those yards came on 29 attempts— Cook has only seen more work twice in his FSU career.

And that brings about the question: what happened to Patrick? He was allotted just a pair of carries, despite them going for a combined 22 yards and a touchdown. He also blocked quite nicely for Cook in some pony sets. While I understand the need to lean on your best offensive weapon late in a close game, why not involve Patrick some earlier as a change-of-pace look against the UNC defense?

One backup who did contribute nicely was tight end Mavin Saunders, who was third for the garnet and gold with 74 reception yards. The ‘Noles flexed Saunders and Ryan Izzo (four grabs for 63 yards) out wide on occasion, which helped to free them up and also provide beneficial leverage in the running game.

As I began, 35 points is nothing to sneeze at, and it should certainly be enough at home against an unranked team. And yes, it took a crazy flourish from UNC to pull off the upset. But if the ‘Noles had converted on some early chances, they may not have even needed Francois’ heroic touchdown rush with 23 seconds to go— on a play that Francois himself said, “I feel like they [the UNC defense] knew it was coming.” And moreover, they may not have needed to depend upon a defense that can’t seem to get out of its own way, even if it seems to excel at getting out of the way of its opponents. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and while the defense may deserve the lion’s share for the way this one ended, points matter just as much in the first half as they do in the last few seconds, and that’s where the offense should be held accountable as well.