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Defensive lessons learned from FSU football’s win at Miami

A massive bounce-back effort from the ‘Noles.

Florida State v Miami
Ermon Lane and Levonta Taylor
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It’s often said about rivalries: throw out the records, and disregard rankings. In Florida State’s game against Miami on Saturday night, ignoring defensive numbers was key— although I’ll trot out some impressive ones later. But whether or not the No. 23 ‘Noles could compete in this one against an untested but nevertheless top-ten team would be determined from the jump, simply by observing the execution and effort of the defense.

The Seminoles addressed those questions well to begin what would become a 20-19 FSU victory over the Hurricanes. And the maligned ‘Nole defense continually answered the bell early and often. Against every other FBS opponent the Seminoles faced this year, they’d conceded an opening-drive touchdown. Versus the ‘Canes, Florida State posted two straight three-and-outs against Brad Kaaya and the UM offense. Considering how slowly FSU started on offense, the D really saved the garnet and gold, and as is often the case in defensive success, it started up front.

Derrick Nnadi led an impressive defensive line performance that got the best of Miami all night, aided by some nice plays from Wally Aime. The Hurricanes looked hesitant to test the ‘Nole DL early, opting for a pass attempt on their first five plays. The message was clear— the ‘Canes smelled blood in the beleaguered Seminole secondary, and were set to exploit it, but to little success.

When UM did turn to the run, it didn’t find much real estate at all, as the FSU DL dominance established itself against a talented Miami backfield. It gave up very little push and controlled gaps well, ultimately allowing a meager 62 rushing yards on 28 attempts, a 2.2 YPC average. Again, Nnadi was the unquestionable anchor, totaling a game-high seven tackles, with 2.5 for loss and one sack.

But holding Miami to just 276 total yards doesn’t happen without improved linebacker play as well. Matthew Thomas, who took some plays off against both North Carolina and South Florida, played energized, if not to a fault. He hustled in both coverage and run pursuit, and was ejected for targeting in the third quarter for a hit on Kaaya.

You’d prefer not to lose players, sure, and Thomas will remain suspended for the first half of FSU’s next game against Wake Forest, but given how listless this unit has looked in prior games, if you’re going to take a penalty and/or ejection, you don’t mind it happening because of a player showing some fight— and knocking an opposing QB’s tooth out, which Thomas did to Kaaya.

Not only did Thomas look better while he was in there, but his replacement, true freshman Dontavious Jackson, looks like he could really be something special for the ‘Noles. He’s not easily moved, and doesn’t overreact, as many inexperienced LBs are prone to do. Assuming he gets the start in place of Thomas against Wake, FSU fans should have more reason for excitement than trepidation. Don’t look now, but the ‘Noles may have a hint of capable, scholarship depth at the linebacker spot.

But on to the defensive backs, who really needed a comeback game after being torched for much of the first-half of the season. We saw some shuffling with regard to personnel, as freshmen Levonta Taylor and Kyle Meyers got more run as opposed to Marcus Lewis and Nate Andrews, the latter of whom gamely tried to play through injury. For the most part, they rookies acquitted themselves quite well. Taylor was inexcusably beat deep on a third and 19 touchdown pass to Stacy Coley in the first half, but otherwise showed encouraging competitiveness. Meyers would be tested on the same throw later, and played it perfectly, right through Coley’s hands for the deflection. He also helped blow up a reciever screen before it even got started— frankly, it’s as good as FSU has looked against that play this season.

Speaking of new faces in the secondary, they weren’t all freshmen. Junior Ermon Lane, who was a receiver a few weeks ago, got the call at safety when Andrews was injured. Lane looked surprisingly at home at the position, breaking down expertly to make a tackle at the line of scrimmage, as well as taking a good angle to get on top of a seam route in the end zone. Lane did pick up a personal foul for shoving Mark Walton out of bounds in the third quarter, but again, with a defense criticized for a lack of caring, I think FSU fans will take that kind of fight all day long.

Don’t get me wrong. Everything is not fixed. While Kaaya was sacked three times, he was largely untouched for much of the middle of this game. And after making a nice interception on an end-zone pass to erase any Miami momentum in the second half, McFadden did surrender a fourth-down TD catch that would have tied the game, barring DeMarcus Walker’s extra-point block, in the game’s waning moments. Still, McFadden was in great position, turned in plenty of time to find the ball, but admitted: “I lost it in the lights.” And moreover, FSU DBs still surrender an inside release to receivers on far too many occasions.

However, excepting one play on which Nnadi sprinted onto the field late, the ‘Noles were typically lined up correctly, including DBs allowing much less cushion to Miami receivers. FSU, playing a simplified coverage, was also very good on third down against a QB who many feel is a top-tier talent: the Seminoles allowed the ‘Canes to convert on just four of 13 chances. And when Miami did sustain drives, Florida State was not as boom-or-bust as it has been at times this season, forcing a pair of field goals that may have resulted in touchdowns against previous versions of the FSU defense.

But while this reinvention of the defense was certainly refreshing for Florida State fans, it’s still an aberration, perhaps spurred by the prospect of being humiliated by a rival, until its repeated. A yawn-worthy home matchup against Wake Forest, ahead of a bye week and a game against Clemson, will tell us more about if this is the new FSU defense or an isolated incident. Maybe the Miami game brought out the best in this unit. Or, perhaps, it finally caught up, and woke up, for good.