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FSU football film review vs. Virginia: The good, the bad, and the ugly

At least the 1st half was fun...

NCAA Football: Florida State at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s game against Virginia looked pretty cool for a while, until it wasn’t. That seems to be a recurring theme for the Noles.

The first half showed marked improvement for the Florida State defense in terms of familiarity with the simplified defense they deployed. The Seminoles were more fluid in zone coverage, dropping to their spots while engaging opponents who entered their zones and also passing them on to deeper players. FSU allowed 5.3 yards per play in the first half against a solid Virginia offense.

On the other side of the ball, signal caller James Blackman struggled with accuracy, showing hurried mechanics which hampered his ball placement. That said, the attack was efficient both in the air and on the ground, netting 5.8 yards per play against a very typically well coached Broncho Mendenhall vintage Virginia defense.

The second half saw those fortunes change.

Let’s break it down.

Great pressure from 4 against 6 man protection, but you see the same issues we saw through the first two weeks. Linebackers are sitting in zones just staring at Perkins, and UVA receivers are running open. This is an example of Bad Zone Defense.

The nice part? Competence is so, so attainable. And we’ll see some of it.

Here’s what competence and pass rush will get you. From a trips set, FSU gets great pressure with four and plays the distribution of receivers well. Perkins’ only option is a tough cross body throw over a linebacker Leonard Warner and under a corner Asante Samuel Jr. ASJ anticipates the throw, breaks on the ball and makes a play.

Good zone coverage, good pressure and a solid college QB is forced into a poor throw.

The last play shows how well FSU’s athletes on defense can do when they play even simple coverages. Here, we see the same, but in man coverage.

Cover 1 man blitz, FSU’s five rushers overwhelm the six man protection. Perkins has no option due to good coverage but to throw it over his receiver and out of bounds.

FSU’s athletes can play with Virginia, as we all know. When they’re set up to do it well, it works well. This play is a great example of that.

This play is the prime example of why Jaiden Lars-Woodbey is being switched and will be playing in the “linebacker” edge spot that covers space. Warner struggles to make a play in space on the running back. Nothing wrong with the coverage or play call here - and Warner diagnoses it fine. Woodbey is simply better suited athletically to play the field side/open space areas. Instead, he’s on the hash in a hook zone with little space to defend.

Reports have discussed this switch in practice. To me, it’s a clear no-brainer. Woodbey struggles to take on guards when asked in odd front 3-4 run fits, and can make this sort of play in space better than Warner or Gainer.

Good post wheel route combo, Carlos Becker follows #1 receiver to post, the #2 to wheel should be picked up by Isaiah Bolden. Bolden should follow and pass off, as the flat is not his responsibility when two receivers distribute through his zone.

This is where we see the Houston Cougars era Kendal Briles offense come into play. Slot receiver Ontaria Wilson in jet action brings a safety well out of position, allowing Khalan Laborn tons of space as Tre McKitty engages the play side linebacker and helps spring a big hole.

We had a debate about if some notable FSU running backs could have broken this play. General consensus is that even Dalvin Cook or Chris Thompson could not make this a home run, let alone Cam Akers. Even though the playside safety is drawn out of the play by the jet motion, the well coached UVA safety has a nice angle on this. Does not help that Tamorrion Terry doesn’t get much, if any, blocking done here to free up more space on the sideline.

That said, this is precisely what the Briles offense will do to defenses. Constrain you horizontally and vertically even with its run plays.

The “tying” drive, with a missed extra point keeping it from being the, well, tying drive. This is a great example of how UVA carved up FSU in the second half into agonizingly long drives.

This is where I think you see mental fatigue begin to set in. This is where the UVA offense really takes advantage of the holes in the spot dropping zone scheme FSU’s defense has simplified itself into. That said, better linebacker play in coverage and this keeps UVA behind the chains.

Gainer plays this as though this is man, playing the running back while ASJ plays the flat zone - so you have two FSU defenders effectively playing to the flat.

Perkins recognizes that Gainer’s hips are turned towards the flat and he’s not going to be able to pick up the receiver entering his hook zone. I believe we’ll see less of these issues as Woodbey transitions into this position.

The entire second half features much of this on Virginia’s four drives. This is a microcosm of that success. They reached right into the core of Jimbo Fisher’s old playbook and chew up field with curl/flat, curls, stick and slants. Simple, simple offense that works well against the deficiencies FSU displayed earlier in the game.

UVA is really well coached on defense. This is a prime example. A really nice play call on second and medium, Briles opts for the tight end screen to McKitty in the flats.

The pace, jet action and run action are all intended to muddle the reads the UVA linebackers have to make. But 56 stays football sound, realizes McKitty isn’t there to seal him off but to catch the ball, and makes the play design moot.

Sometimes you get beat even when you make a nice play call. This call had been set up all game with the jet and run actions.

It is very tough to ask a kid in college who isn’t an elite athlete to play off-man coverage. Harlon Barnett asks this of his corners far too often, especially for true freshman Renardo Green on a critical drive near the end of the game. This ends up being the game winning drive, and this is the throw that takes UVA into scoring territory.

Renardo Green is a true freshman playing opposite Virginia Cavaliers senior Hasise Dubois. It may be difficult for the somewhat lanky Green to play a full jam on Dubois, but even press bail with the correct leverage can prevent this sort of play from being a slam dunk into the seam.

Off man with outside leverage lets Dubois accelerate straight into the seam and the wide open area where Hamsah Nasirildeen has to clean up after the young Green gets embarrassed in the open field.

FSU defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett continues to have a poor defense that does not play up to the level of talent of its players. That being said, there were some legitimate signs of improvement this past Saturday, but not at a great enough pace.

FSU’s defense was unable to play extremely simple coverages at a sustained high level. Part of this, as detailed above, was forcing larger linebackers Warner and Gainer to play in more space than they are physically capable of. This is being remedied somewhat with the switch of Lars-Woodbey.

On the other side of the ball, the second half showed that James Blackman may be adopting some poor mechanical tendencies that cause his accuracy to be disrupted. A player who will never be an elite quarterback and who has perhaps a “B” grade for accuracy in his career, Blackman’s ball placement was uncharacteristically poor, at a level I would characterize as a C-/D+.

The offense has had a great improvement over last year despite significant offensive line deficiencies. Kendal Briles has come in and installed his offense relatively successfully. Briles’ unit did not have its best game.

But the defense should have been able to keep this game in the hands of the Seminoles.

Barnett’s unit is continuing issues Tomahawk Nation and the Nolecast have discussed in previous articles and podcasts. While execution is somewhat improved, the approach remains the same.

Safeties are playing too deep, allowing too much space for linebackers to be exploited. Corners are not pressing, allowing outside receivers easy, quick releases down the sidelines and in the flats - which, again, allows too much space in the middle of the field and hurting the already poor linebacker group. Spot drop zone is being executed at an improved but still poor level. All of this means that despite decent pressure from blitzing and the defensive line, the defense cannot get itself off of the football field.

This is not what Harlon Barnett and Mark Dantonio did successfully at Michigan State.

The Dantonio defense that built the Spartans is based on shallow quarters with press corners and pattern reading from an even front. Barnett was hired for this, and this is what he needs to be teaching to this group of players.