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Lessons learned from the FSU defense’s play vs. USF

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When giving up 35 is an improvement.

NCAA Football: Florida State at South Florida
Tarvarus McFadden makes a pick against USF
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Cheers. Florida State is back in the win column following a 55-35 road trouncing of the South Florida Bulls in Tampa. But to what are we toasting? How about the hope that you weren’t standing by any ledges or holding anything too sharp during USF’s first two drives. Just kidding— if you were, you probably wouldn’t be reading this now.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I’m warranted in using the term “drive” when referring to the first South Florida possession. One snap. One throw. One catch. Six points. Bulls receiver Rodney Adams simply ran past FSU cornerback Tarvarus McFadden to haul in an 84-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Quinton Flowers. McFadden didn’t try to explain it away after the game: “I just got beat. . . . I’m not gonna lie. He was fast.”

Now ‘Nole fans didn’t like seeing that kind of beginning, and they probably don’t care to hear that from McFadden either. But I’m going to tell why, even though McFadden was a step slow, this is a step in the right direction for the Seminole secondary: Adams was not open due to a coverage bust. Sure, McFadden underestimating his man is suboptimal— but ego, and film review, tend to take care of such hubris.

The next drive didn’t inspire much confidence, though, as the Bulls this time took nine plays to go 72 yards in under three minutes for the TD. The read-option continues to vex FSU, especially when the quarterback keeps the ball. The ‘Noles tightened up against the dive, allowing talented RB Marlon Mack just 42 yards on 12 carries, but Flowers torched them for 159 yards on 18 totes, an 8.8 YPC average.

The ‘Noles looked tired early— numerous players had their hands on their hips on just that second drive. But some fresh blood in the lineup helped the ‘Noles bounce back against a USF team that entered as a top-10 FBS scoring offense stoked to play the biggest game on its schedule.

Defensive tackle Fred Jones was a force in the trenches, taking advantage of clownish USF splits to gain leverage and blow up plays before they could really begin. Due to fellow DT Derrick Nnadi being quite limited in practice this week, Jones played most of the time along starter Demarcus Christmas, while Nnadi got some time with Christmas and Wally Aime.

The rotation served to provide the ‘Noles with an effective four-deep DT rotation, the importance of which cannot be overstated for a noon kickoff on a sweltering day in Central Florida. The official temperature at the game’s onset was 89 degrees, but I was on the field prior to kick, and it was much closer to the surface of the sun.

With Josh Sweat out, Brian Burns saw increased time on the edge. He’s a work in progress, certainly, but when he’s able to pin his ears back and go after the QB, he’s more explosive than Sweat had been prior to injury. Sweat remains superior against the run, though, and, of course, DeMarcus Walker can do it all, along with having the ability to slide inside when the ‘Noles go 3-4. Add in Jacob Pugh, who’s had a nice year despite losing contain a few times Saturday, and FSU will soon have, as is the case at DT, a versatile four-deep group on the edge. Walker and Burns each picked up a sack against the Bulls, and Jones should have been given one, too.

The linebackers are progressing at a more incremental pace, but they still looked better than they did at Louisville (not a difficult task). While Ro’Derrick Hoskins again appeared uncomfortable against a mobile QB, Matthew Thomas took better pursuit angles. Still, the two of them combining for three tackles is less than ideal.

It’s also worth noting that when Thomas limped off for a spell in the second half, walk-on Nick Patti, routinely — and effectively — targeted by opposing offenses, was in for just a play before being replaced by Emmett Rice. Fellow freshman Dontavious Jackson got some burn as well. This duo’s continued development inside is promising, especially since neither saw any time against Ole Miss to open the season.

Continuing up the middle, safety play looked better at times with Nate Andrews getting the start beside Trey Marshall instead of A.J. Westbrook. Listen, Andrews is certainly not the athlete that injured safety Derwin James is. To be fair, very few players are. But unlike Westbrook and Calvin Brewton, who saw time when Marshall left with a lower-body injury, Andrews recognizes this about himself, and takes far better angles than the younger duo. That’s how you wind up leading your team with twice as many tackles (six) as any other ‘Nole. The senior also chipped in an interception on the afternoon, when he played a fine centerfield and picked off Flowers in the end zone.

Speaking of DBs and picks, remember that point about Tarvarus McFadden learning from his early mistake? Well it didn't take a game. It didn’t even take a half. McFadden bounced back in the second quarter, again displaying superb man coverage skills by using his impressive frame to squeeze his man to the sideline and also showing great instincts for when to look for the ball and make the interception. That’s three picks for McFadden already this year, as many as Lamarcus Brutus had to lead the ‘Noles last season.

Although Marcus Lewis registered a pass breakup, he could stand to pickup a thing or two from McFadden in man coverage, as his anticipation needs some work. Still, the FSU defense held Flowers to 5-13 passing for just 160 yards, one score, and two picks. Remove that first big play, which I already addressed, and that’s 4-12 for 76 yards and a pair of interceptions. That’ll more than work for the ‘Noles. So I’m not going to spend too much time looking for negative criticism of the secondary.

Overall, the defense benefited from a simplified scheme that allowed superior talent to showcase itself. Yes, after keeping USF off the scoreboard for the entirety of the second quarter, the ‘Noles allowed touchdowns on each of the Bulls’ final three possessions. But again, I think there’s a silver lining here.

Those scores began near the end of the third quarter, with FSU up 45-14. McFadden admitted after the game that the defense’s intensity diminished as the gap grew: “I definitely feel like we relaxed.” I’m not saying that’s optimal— but I think it’s understandable. After conceding the most points in program history, the entire unit had been roasted all week. And if that hadn’t sown the seeds of self doubt well enough, the beginning of this one most likely did just that.

So when they followed up those USF scoring drives to force four straight three-and-outs, get McFadden’s pick, force another three-and-out, hold the USF offense scoreless on a drive to end the fist half, get the Andrews pick, and then force another three-and-out, the FSU defense was probably exhaling more than anything else. They needed that run. They needed to know that they could still do this. Now they know they can. And they just have to do it far more consistently.

All you need to know, you can learn from Jimbo Fisher’s postgame remarks. Fisher praises young teams who don’t have a realistic shots at lofty goals, while he’s critical of those capable of greatness. What was his reaction after this one? A hoarse Fisher spoke for just about four minutes, offering the fewest words I’ve ever heard him provide after a game— especially a 20-point win. Fisher’s mantra was clear: “Got a lot of work to do . . . Gotta learn to play 60 minutes and finish football games.”

Fisher was far from pleased— just as this FSU defense remains far from its immense potential, despite some assuring signs today.