clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Lessons learned from the FSU defense’s performance against Clemson

Secondary depth tested yet again.

Clemson v Florida State Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

There’s always a tendency to blame the defense when your opponent scores 37 and you lose by three, but in a game that many feared could be a blowout due to the Seminoles’ struggles against mobile quarterbacks this year, the ‘Nole defense actually acquitted itself quite well for the better part of this game. Let’s take a look at where the ‘Noles looked good, as well as where they continue to struggle.

We knew Florida State was going to have to play some zone in this one, due to the threat of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson running the ball. And that was an issue early on, as the Tigers went up 7-0 after it looked like Ro’Derrick Hoskins didn’t achieve proper depth on a post pass over the middle that resulted in a 41-yard catch and run by Jordan Leggett down to the FSU 1, which would be punched in by Wayne Gallman a play later.

Clemson continued to move the ball on FSU during their second drive, again for a score to make it 14-0. On the one hand, the ‘Noles were a little unlucky, as a pass batted at the line would have probably been a Seminole interception, had it gotten through, and an uncalled block in the back that pinned Tarvarus McFadden didn’t stall the Clemson drive like it should have. But more on the officiating later. On the other hand, Deshaun Watson simply started on fire, making a number of fantastic throws— something Florida State has seen plenty of given the outstanding caliber of QBs they’ve played this year, easily the best in the country. Watson hit his first 9 of 10 passes for 98 yards and a passer rating of 205.3.

But after allowing touchdowns on the first two drives, the ‘Noles allowed just two field goals on the next nine, while taking the ball away twice via the interception. And believe it or not, those picks came in zone coverage, and were basically the same play, the former executed by Marquez White for his second pick of the year, and the latter by McFadden for his FBS-leading sixth.

Both INTs came on a similar baiting play when the corner had coverage responsibilities in the flat. Instead of honoring the short receiver therein, they sagged back, while Watson’s eyes were concerned more with the safety on that side, to make easy picks. FSU did mix in some man coverage, typically using either Jacob Pugh, Brian Burns, or Hoskins to spy Watson when they did.

Regarding the defensive line, DT Derrick Nnadi had a whale of a game, registering 8 total tackles, two for loss, a sack, and a batted pass. The entire front was stout in getting limbs into passing lanes, batting four passes total, with two more coming from Demarcus Walker (who posted 10 tackles) and another from Demarcus Christmas. FSU did well recognizing when they were not going to get home on Watson and making themselves big when he took his off-hand away from the ball to throw a pass. But Florida State did get to Watson a number of times. Josh Sweat notched two QB hurries and a TFL, while, in addition to Nnadi’s sack, Christmas, Burns, and Hoskins all got home as well. Nnadi told me that he thought the DL “did really well,” and I feel that to be a very fair assessment.

FSU often created pressure from the outside in, on numerous occasions bringing DBs on blitzes off the edge in an effort to force quick throws they could keep in front of their coverage while also hemming in Watson and curtailing his effectiveness as a runner. And they were quite successful in doing so. Yes, the number includes sacks, but Watson ran for just 52 yards on 17 attempts, a paltry 3.1 YPR average, and Clemson as a team averaged just 3.5 yards per carry.

Unfortunately for the ‘Noles, this one ended a lot like it began. Clemson erased an eight-point fourth-quarter Seminole lead by finishing TD, FG, TD before taking a knee to seal the deal. That series of scores began on a drive when FSU safety Trey Marshall was ejected for targeting, a call against which Florida State Head Coach Jimbo Fisher ranted after the game. With Marshall out, FSU had to juggle personal. Kyle Meyers, typically used at star only in dime coverage, covered for Marshall there in FSU’s nickel package, while Marshall’s safety spot on the dime squad was manned by the severely inexperienced Calvin Brewton. Marcus Lewis also saw the field briefly and was immediately exploited.

Just as things started, a blown coverage on Leggett led to his game-winning TD reception, and he torched the ‘Noles for 5 catches, 122 yards, and that score. And yes, Meyers was a part of that bust, but really, the Marshall ejection was the beginning of the end for the FSU defense in this close loss, especially with fellow safeties Derwin James and Nate Andrews out due to injury. Despite missing almost the entirety of the final quarter of play, Marshall still finished with a game-high 11 tackles and one pass breakup.

Yes, 378 passing yards for Watson is a lot— but it also took him 47 attempts to get there. And allowing 6.3 YPP to this Tiger offense is something this FSU defense can live with, even if the final result is difficult for ‘Nole fans to accept right now. Fisher was even more complimentary of what he saw in Florida State’s effort to stem the Tigers’ attack: “Our defense played great.”