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What we learned on offense from FSU football’s win over Ole Miss

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The good, the bad, and the first half.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Florida State
Deondre Francois
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Seminole offense didn’t get off to the start it wanted in its opener against Ole Miss on Labor Day, but it certainly rebounded in style to pull the ‘Noles back from a 28-6 deficit to a 45-34 victory, the biggest comeback win in program history. And while that final point total against an SEC defense might seem quite exceptional, FSU has numerous issues to address— and did so as the game wore on.

We said it repeatedly last season: whether Jimbo Fisher wants to admit it or not, 2015 was a rebuilding year. 2016, we reasoned, would be a year for the ‘Noles to make some noise. After all, Florida State returned all 11 starters from last year. But against Ole Miss, the offense also returned some unproductive habits from last season as well. And they all showed early.

Those issues began up front, and even before the whistle, as the offensive line’s penchant for penalties continued. They were flagged six times— in the first half (and wound up with nine across the OL). When the offensive line wasn’t moving the ‘Noles backward, they didn’t do much to move them forward early on. Specifically, Derrick Kelly, filling in for Kareem Are at left guard, was repeatedly late to assignments, and new right tackle Rick Leonard was bested numerous times in pass protection.

The Seminoles were also atrocious in the red zone in the early going. On their first two possessions within the Ole Miss 20, the ‘Noles totaled -1 yard from scrimmage and settled for field goals each time. Noticeably absent from the FSU red-zone attack was a significant contribution from a tall receiver: no Florida State wideout over 6-1 registered a catch all night.

This all sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

I was asked before the game about what FSU’s doomsday scenario would look like for the offense and responded that it involved the ‘Noles falling behind by multiple scores early with a QB playing in his first career game. How about a 28-6 Rebel lead in the second quarter?

Nothing was going right for the Florida State offense early. And if the early going was about the bad aspects of the 2015 offense that returned for 2016, the Seminoles also were unable to do what they did best the previous year: cash in with Dalvin Cook. Most of that is on the offensive line, but Cook himself cost the ‘Noles points in the second quarter.

Francois found Cook, wide open, on a backside release in the second-half, and he had what should have been a waltz into the end zone. Seemingly inexplicably though, he fumbled approaching the end zone, and the typically dependable Travis Rudolph dropped a pair of potential TD passes, resulting in FSU settling for another field goal.

Let’s talk about that extremely odd play with Cook. I’ve heard some hypothesize that Cook was attempting to switch the ball to his outside arm, which running backs are coached to do from a very young age. There are two reasons that this theory is bunk. First, Cook already had the ball in his outside arm. Second, RBs are always told that, when you have a clear lane to the end zone, which Cook did, you don’t mess with transferring the ball and risking a fumble. Cook was bringing the ball into both hands, preparing for a celebration and an early Heisman clip. And it went dribbling out of bounds. Frankly, FSU was fortunate that it didn’t roll out in the end zone, which would have given Ole Miss the ball.

It was the unquestionable nadir of the Florida State opener. But that says something. Once you’ve reached your lowest point, there’s only one way to go: up. And that’s precisely what FSU did. But how did they turn the corner?

Francois hung tough and found Rudolph in the end zone just seconds before the half— I consider this to be a massive turning point for the offense— but more on this later in the week. Big picture: Florida State grabbed some momentum heading into halftime, knowing it would have the ball back to commence the second half.

And that second stanza was much kinder to the ‘Noles, due to some key adjustments. FSU went with more two-back sets to increase protection, while the OL improved dramatically as well. The Seminoles also upped their tempo to attack the Reb defense— although being down multiple scores can rather force your hand there.

They also brought out the first designed runs for Francois, a definite running threat whom I’m surprised wasn’t utilized further to that end at an earlier stage. FSU also brought in more play-action passes, forcing the Ole Miss defense to respect Cook. And some key creativity was employed as well. When Kermit Whitfield scored on a jet sweep in the third, Florida State went with an unbalanced line, to which the Rebels responded— and the ‘Noles simply used their fastest player to run away from the vast majority of the defense.

Furthermore, it’s also often said that a young quarterback’s best friend is a reliable tight end. FSU’s Ryan Izzo is one of the country’s best, but he wasn’t involved enough in the offensive execution in the beginning of this game. His first touch of the game came in one of Florida State’s third-quarter scoring drives. So did his second. And third-- which resulted in the TD that gave the Seminoles the lead for good. Translation: when Izzo is more involved, the FSU offense is more effective. What remains to be seen is how the ‘Noles incorporate TE Mavin Saunders, who played significant snaps on Monday but did not register a catch.

Still, Francois connected with eight different pass catchers last night, and it’s always a nice sign when a young QB isn’t concentrating too much on a favorite target or two. That’s how you go about posting 419 passing yards in your first college game, along with 85 yards rushing. And regarding those receivers, it appears that Nyqwan Murray, and even Da’Vante Phillips, have moved ahead of Ermon Lane in the WR rotation, at least for the time being.

But admit it, folks: if someone had told you that the ‘Noles offense would put up 45 points on Ole Miss behind a first-time starter, you’d assume that meant Cook having a huge game, right? But how many points did Cook score? Zero. Yes, he had a career-high 101 receiving yards and 95 more on the ground. Fisher himself told us, after the game, “He had 200 yards of offense, and it felt like he wasn’t there.” That speaks to how sneakily good Cook is, and how effective you can expect him to be later this season when he is housing those scoring chances.

So FSU put up almost half of a hundred, and their best offensive player didn’t account for a single one of them. Do with that what you will.

Before I close, there’s one more component that helped the Florida State offense: the Ole Miss offense, which was the definition of a feast-or-famine attack. Get this: the Rebels did not have a single real drive that ended in anything other than a touchdown, turnover, or three-and-out. And when the Rebs did score, it happened very quickly. That meant that the Ole Miss defense spent a lot of time on the field. FSU’s time of possession: 42:39; the Rebels’: 17:21.

That’s extremely scarce for Ole Miss, much like the time the ‘Noles will have to prepare for Charleston Southern on Saturday. But the prospects on the offensive end are certainly looking better after a full game than they did about halfway through, and, overall, Seminole fans should feel quite optimistic about that.