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Lessons learned on defense in Florida State’s win over NC State

Did the FSU defense grow up before our very eyes?

NCAA Football: Florida State at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t always pretty for the Florida State defense but the Seminoles were able to overcome a poor showing from the offense, multiple crucial and questionable penalties, and injuries galore to steal a 24-20 road victory at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium.

Unsurprisingly, the Florida State secondary struggled in the opening 30 minutes without the presence of its three most-tenured safeties. With Derwin James and Nate Andrews still hurt and Trey Marshall serving the second half of his targeting suspension sustained against Clemson, the Seminoles allowed an NC State passing attack which entered Saturday averaging 255 passing yards to accumulate 208 passing yards in the opening 30 minutes.

The secondary, however, was hardly the only problem on Florida State’s defense in the first half. The FSU defensive line, which put heavy pressure on Clemson a week ago, was largely nullified in the first two quarters. At the half, Florida State had one sack and had done little to impact the passing game, allowing NC State quarterback Ryan Finley to take advantage of the busted coverage often created by the Seminoles’ back seven.

In spite of everything that went so wrong in the first half, the defense stepped up in the red zone, twice holding NC State to field goal attempts on their trips into the red zone, allowing only one touchdown in three NCSU red-zone trips over the course of the game. As it turned out, this proved to be essential down the stretch of the game.

All of Florida State’s defensive issues in the opening 30 minutes were supposed be made at least marginally better by Marshall’s return in the second half. But then, Marshall was not dressed for the second half while dealing with previously unannounced concussion-like symptoms sustained in last week’s loss to Clemson. So, with no personnel improvement after the half, would there be improvement in secondary play in the second half? In short, yes.

The same secondary that allowed 208 yards through the air in the first half would step up out of halftime. In the second half, the ‘Noles allowed 96 passing yards, a more than 50% reduction. Now, there are a number of attributable factors for this improvement. The same FSU defense that faced 48 first-half plays was only on the field for 34 in the second. This in turn led to Florida State narrowly winning the second-half time-of-possession battle after the Wolfpack possessed the ball for 18 minutes and 30 seconds in the first half.

Additionally, the Seminoles were much improved in getting off the field. FSU allowed NC State to convert on five of its nine third downs in the opening half (56%). However, in the second half, Florida State buckled down, holding NCSU to a 43% conversion rate and, even more impressively, a 25% conversion rate in the final quarter.

With each of the defensive backs, there were moments you can point to as problematic. As mentioned above, the FSU secondary seemed willing to make it easy for NC State at times, busting coverage and allowing big gains in the process. Ermon Lane played perhaps his worst game since flipping to the defensive side of the ball, senior cornerback Marquez White made mistakes, and the less-experienced Kyle Meyers and A.J. Westbrook, called upon simply out of necessity due to a lack of depth, looked overwhelmed at times.

However, with the game on the line, the defense rose to the occasion.

After the offense gave FSU its first lead of the game with 3:09 to play, all eyes focused on the FSU defense which has, over the course of the season, been unable to get what would be a game-winning stop on multiple occasions, most memorably in the losses to Clemson and North Carolina. Against the Wolfpack, the defense was up to the test.

The Seminoles didn’t make it easy on themselves as within four plays on the drive - and with the help of a highly questionable targeting penalty on Brian Burns - NC State was inside the FSU 30.

For Florida State’s defense though, it was bend but don’t break. FSU got NCSU behind the chains, forcing a third and 12. From there, Westbrook broke up the pass attempt on third, one of his three pass break-ups in the win, and true freshman Meyers showed spectacular coverage skills on the fourth-down incompletion. In the end, the same younger players who would likely have not been on the field had it not been for the injuries to the players above them in the depth chart preserved the victory.

Early in the win, the Florida State defense did well to limit the lead that NC State was able to mount in the opening half while the offense was struggling to move the ball. In the final minutes, the defense showed the killer instinct it has often lacked in being able to halt the Wolfpack’s progress and secure the win for FSU.

The secondary has been criticized at times throughout the 2016 season for its lackluster play (and rightfully so) but perhaps the defensive stand in the hostile road environment could be a turning point with three regular-season games remaining for the Seminoles.