Looking back at Florida State’s game against Clemson is tough. After all, it is the third loss in a row to the Tigers, who are rightfully recognized as the premier team in the conference.
We knew that James Blackman would be tested in his first road trip to Death Valley, especially given the talent on defense that Clemson possesses. The true freshman completed 13/32 passes for 208 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, but was constantly harassed by Clemson’s defense throughout the game. The Tigers racked up five sacks and four quarterback hits on the day.
Defensively, the Seminoles performed admirably, despite being put in poor situations by the offense. FSU forced three fumbles and totaled nine tackles for loss. Brian Burns played the best game of his career, totaling two forced fumbles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks.
While the game against Clemson was Florida State’s sixth loss of the season, the most for the Seminoles since 2009, there are still some key takeaways from this game. Here are a few plays that made major impacts in the contest.
The play: FEASTER rush for loss of 2 yards to the FSU3, fumble forced by Burns, B, fumble by FEASTER recovered by FSU Christmas, D at FSU3.
Backed up at their own goal line, FSU’s defense needs to make a stop to prevent Clemson going up by two scores. Clemson is playing with a tight formation and two tight ends are lined up on the left side of the ball. Two receivers are flexed out wide, and FSU has man coverage with Tarvarus McFadden and Levonta Taylor on them.
The Tigers run a read option, with the right tackle leaving Brian Burns unblocked as the read that Kelly Bryant needs to make. The left guard is also pulling and Clemson actually has a fairly decent hole opened up here for the running back.
Florida State defends the read option well. Burns crashes down as the force defender and his quickness off the snap means he gets a hand on the ball at the mesh point. This results in the football on the ground and an easy recovery from Demarcus Christmas.
Defending the option is a difficult task, especially for a player like Burns whom the defense is reading. In a 2013 article for Grantland, Chris B. Brown discusses why the backside defender is given a difficult task.
Backside defenders — usually the very player the quarterback is reading — have an especially difficult job. “The defensive end gets the shaft because he has to play two aspects: the dive, the bend of the dive to the inside out to the QB,” says Aranda, the Wisconsin defensive coordinator.
Burns’ quickness is the deciding factor here. The ball is vulnerable when it is at the mesh point, or between the handoff between quarterback and running back. Burns’ ability to get a hand on the ball prevented Clemson from scoring and kept Florida State in this game for a good bit.
The play: ETIENNE rush for 28 yards to the FSU0, 1ST DOWN CU, TOUCHDOWN, clock 06:34.
Later in the second quarter, Clemson gets a big punt return from Ray-Ray McCloud and is in position to score. The Tigers are in 11 personnel, meaning three wide receivers, one running back, and one tight end are on the field. Because of this, FSU is in its 4-2-5 (or nickel) package, with four down lineman, two linebackers, and five defensive backs.
Because of FSU’s inability to drive the ball on offense, the defense is forced to come back on the field after a short break. As such, all four linemen are backups in Joshua Kaindoh, Walvenski Aime, Marvin Wilson, and Jalen Wilkerson.
After pre-snap motion from the tight end to move from the left to right side, Clemson calls an inside run with the right guard as a pulling blocker. With the offensive line down blocking, the tight end cuts across the formation to get a block on Thomas. The pulling blocker actually takes out two defenders on the play, both Ro’Derrick Hoskins and Trey Marshall. From there, Travis Etienne has the speed to score on the play.
So where did FSU go wrong on this play?
First, Hoskins takes a bad angle to this run fill. To have a pair of senior linebackers both removed from this run play is not something you’d like to see.
Although it’s hard to tell from the television angle, freshman safety Hamsah Nasirildeen has his eyes on the receiver at the snap, not in the backfield. Because Marshall is playing in the box, Derwin James likely has man responsibilities on Hunter Renfrow here, and when he bites down on the short route that leaves no one in the middle of the field.
The play: Blackman, J pass complete to Murray, N for 39 yards to the CU3, 1ST DOWN FSU (WALLACE).
Late in the third quarter, Florida State needs a big play on offense if it wants to get back in the game with Clemson up 17-0. Jimbo Fisher knows that the key to scoring is hitting a big play, as FSU has not been able to go on long, sustained drives against the Tigers.
The ’Noles come out in 11 personnel, with Auden Tate, Nyqwan Murray, and Keith Gavin as the three receivers. Blackman’s primary read here is Murray on the deep post from the slot. FSU has hit these with some efficiency, most notably last week against Syracuse as well.
Clemson looks to be playing man under, with the nickel back backing off pre-snap to give himself a bit of leverage. At the snap, Murray gets a step on the defender due to poor technique. A post route like this is designed to beat the two-deep safety defense, and Murray makes an excellent adjustment to the catch to set Florida State up in the red zone. Jacques Patrick would later punch it in for a touchdown, FSU’s first third-quarter touchdown of the season.
The play: Blackman, J pass complete to Izzo, R for 60 yards to the CU0, 1ST DOWN FSU, TOUCHDOWN, clock 08:53.
Trailing in the fourth quarter, Fisher reached into his bag of tricks to give Florida State a spark on offense. We’ve seen the Seminoles run some trick plays before, but nothing like this.
Florida State comes out in 11 personnel with Blackman in the pistol and Cam Akers behind him. At the snap, Blackman hands off to Akers, who proceeds to flip it back to Murray on the reverse. Clemson has eight men in the box and all are fooled by the second flip back to Blackman. Watch in the clip above as four defenders move to defend the reverse back to Murray.
With four defenders flowing to defend the reverse, Ryan Izzo is completely forgotten about down the sideline. An easy throw by Blackman, a key block by Tate, and Izzo is rumbling down the field for a 60-yard touchdown.
The credit here goes to Fisher, who recognized that the defenders would react to Murray given that the shifty receiver burned Clemson’s defense for a big gain earlier in the game, as seen above. Before this play, Izzo had not been a major factor in FSU’s passing game, which might contribute to Clemson forgetting about him to focus on Murray.