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What we learned on defense from Florida State’s win over Ole Miss

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FSU bounced back from a rough first half to shut down the potent Rebels offense.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Florida State Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

What is there even to say about Florida State’s defensive performance in the Seminoles’ season-opening win over the No. 11 Ole Miss Rebels inside Orlando’s Camping World Stadium.

At times, mostly in the first half, the Seminoles looked completely out of place on defense, allowing Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly to have his way with them. Kelly finished the first half with 215 passing yards on 14-23 passing (15.35 yards per completion, 9.34 yards per attempt) and led the Rebels to 8.0 yards per play in the opening 30 minutes while staking them to a 28-13 halftime lead.

After the game, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher refused to share what he told his team in the locker room. Whatever he did say, it had a ridiculously positive effect. In the opening 5:43 of the second half, the Seminole defense forced a pair of turnovers, an interception and a strip sack, while FSU rattled off 16 points, taking over the lead which the ‘Noles would hold for the remainder of the game.

There are a number of Seminole defenders who should be acknowledged when discussing the players who stepped up to rally Florida State’s defensive effort in the second half.

Sophomore safety Derwin James is the first of those players. James plays football with a passion, energy, and aggressiveness that is truly unrivaled in the college game right now. He may let those traits get a smidge out of hands at times, most notably on a silly unnecessary roughness penalty which helped propel Ole Miss’ opening drive. However, Florida State is happy to deal with the rare overeagerness when he also shows his true knack for making plays. On the very next drive, James halted the Rebels’ progress with a well-timed interception, somehow the first of his career. He also showed the same rangy ability that was showcased each and every week last season, finishing the game with a team-leading eight tackles, six of which were unassisted.

Redshirt junior linebacker Matthew Thomas, regarded as the unicorn by some who follow the program due to his inconsistent presence around the program over his time at Florida State, went a long way towards ditching the mythical moniker on Monday with a spectacular showing in the middle of the FSU defense. Thomas, who has always been talented but never been able to put it all together, did exactly that in the opening game of the 2016 season. He finished with seven tackles, all unassisted, and one tackle-for-loss. That stat line, however, does not do his performance justice. He provided a calming veteran presence to the defense, capable of both physical run defense and serviceable pass coverage, albeit it with a few mishaps. In a year where Florida State desperately needed a second inside linebacker to go alongside Ro’Derrick Hoskins, Thomas backed up what the team has been saying all fall and showed he is finally ready to prove himself and realize his potential.

Even though the sudden shift in production from the first to the second half of the Seminoles’ win was clear on the entire Florida State defense, the position group most obviously improved out of the half was the defensive line. A line that tallied two hurries and zero sacks in the opening half came out with a new attitude in the second half. That attitude change was undoubtedly led by the unit’s leader, senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker. Walker responded from his dismal one-tackle showing in the first half with a second half performance for the ages. His 4.5 sacks, all of which came in the second half, is just 0.5 short of tying the Florida State single-game record. The Walker-led DL affected Kelly severely in the second half after causing little stress in the first. In turn, the increased output from the defensive front played a large role in holding an Ole Miss team that converted five of six third downs and racked up 312 yards of offense in the first half to 68 offensive yards in the final 30 minutes while preventing the Rebels from converting on any third downs after the half.

There are a number of possible explanations for what caused the drastic and immediate improvement from the defense after the intermission. Some cite a unit that settled in and got comfortable. Others look to a passionate halftime speech from Fisher. Fisher himself points to a better job of defensive alignment in the second half while James chocks it up to an increased usage of man coverage. Overall, it would seem that FSU came out in the second half and tried not to over-complicate matters, simply allowing the Seminoles’ superior athletes to do what they have been working on all offseason.

Whatever the reason may be, Florida State’s spectacular showing on defense in the second half is perhaps just a sample of what this insanely talented unit can do. The defense was far from perfect, showing its youth at certain positions early in Monday’s win and looking utterly lost at times. However, the response shown by the Seminole defense in aiding the offense, doing so with three second-half turnovers while surrendering a mere five first downs in the final 30 minutes, is incredible proof of what this year’s defense is capable of. If Florida State’s defense is able to maintain anything close to the level of play shown in that second half, the Seminoles will be very difficult to knock off and could be on their way to another historic season.