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Lessons learned on defense from Florida State’s win over Syracuse

For the second straight week, the FSU defense did exactly what it was supposed to do against an inferior offense.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, it was Syracuse. Just like it was Boston College last week. But don’t act like you weren’t at least a little bit impressed.

For the second time in as many weeks, FSU took advantage of an inferior offense, this time a Syracuse team without its starting quarterback, to put together an impressive performance from beginning to end with only a few minor lapses. The Seminoles outgained the Orange 654-233 on the way to their dominant 45-14 victory on the road.

The Florida State defensive line shined early and often in the win over Syracuse. By the end of the first quarter, FSU had racked up four sacks of ‘Cuse’s backup quarterback Zack Mahoney, with two coming from Brian Burns, who got his first career start on Saturday. It didn’t slow down from there though, as the Seminoles finished the win with eight sacks, the most in program history since 2010.

Speaking of Burns, he is having a freshman season for the ages. After the Syracuse game, the true freshman defensive end has eight sacks this year, the most by an FSU freshman since Ron Simmons had 12 in 1977, adding a blocked punt on the Orange’s opening drive to his impressive stat-line as well. He has specialized in third-down situations this season but with DeMarcus Walker graduating after the season, expect him to fill that spot to great effect next season.

The defensive line’s domination extends far beyond a glance at sack numbers, though. The FSU defensive front also shut down Syracuse’s rushing game, holding the opposing running backs to 46 yards on 20 carries (2.3 yards per carry) forcing the Orange to be heavily one-dimensional in doing so.

That one dimension, as it turned out, was not defended particularly well in the opening minutes of the game. For as good as the FSU offense was early in the game in opening up a quick 14-0 lead, the game could have very well been tied. Mahoney missed a pair of wide-open downfield receivers on different drives thanks to FSU defensive backs getting burned in coverage.

However, as Florida State saw, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Both passes were overthrown and ‘Cuse was unable to take advantage of the opportunities handed to them by a depleted secondary.

For as questionable as the early play from the secondary was, a familiar face in the defensive backfield came up with the play which turned the momentum of the game for good.

With Florida State leading 14-0 in the second quarter, Syracuse put together a lengthy drive which was aided by a pair of defensive-line penalties. However, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden came up with a highly momentous endzone interception, his eighth of the season. FSU turned the ensuing drive into a quick seven points and the Seminoles were in full control the rest of the way.

Unfortunately for the Seminoles, their depleted secondary took a few more hits in the win over Syracuse. Junior safety Trey Marshall stayed down on the field after making a touchdown-saving tackle on a long SU punt return in the first quarter and did not return to the game. This was followed by a fourth-quarter collision which saw injuries to two more safeties, A.J. Westbrook and Calvin Brewton.

With five (yes, five) safeties out of action with injuries, the Seminoles turned to true freshman Carlos Becker, who entered FSU this summer as a cornerback, to play at safety along with Ermon Lane. Becker looked impressive in his limited garbage time reps. However, with a matchup with Florida looming, the health of those three players could be the biggest storyline in practice this week leading up to the rivalry matchup.

By game’s end, Florida State had held Syracuse to a pitiful 3.24 yards per play, a mark that would have been a good bit lower if the Seminoles had stopped the Orange’s Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the first half which, admittedly, was due to lackluster coverage. However, it’s hard to hammer too hard on this second straight strong performance from the D, especially when considering the level of play from the unit earlier in the season.

That being said, next week presents a similar and yet different task for the FSU defense. Like last year’s matchup against Florida, the FSU defense will be looked to keep the Gators off the board in what could be a low-scoring game, with the strength of this UF team in its defense. The further challenge of that task is keeping grounded through the emotions of going up against a major rival. All of this considered, the progress that the Seminoles’ defense has shown over the last few weeks is promising heading into the season finale next weekend at Doak Campbell Stadium.