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FSU vs. Jacksonville State: Defensive breakdown, analysis

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Solid performance overshadowed by fourth quarter collapse

NCAA Football: Jacksonville State at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday will go down as a historic night for the Florida State football program but certainly not for the reasons head coach Mike Norvell’s team hoped for.

Despite a double digit lead and the ball inside the opposition’s five-yard line with under 10 minutes remaining, the Florida State Seminoles collapsed, suffering their first ever loss to an FCS program as Jacksonville State completed a walk-off touchdown heave as time expired.

Up until that 10 minute mark, the Florida State defense had held Jacksonville State down like they were expected to do.

Through the game’s first 50 minutes, defensive coordinator Adam Fuller’s group allowed only 170 total yards and forced a crucial turnover that swung momentum back to the Noles in the first quarter.

A touchdown from their offensive counterparts on that drive inside the five in the fourth and this defense could be patting themselves on the back for a job well done as Florida State opens up an insurmountable three score lead.

Instead, the offense turned the ball over on downs, starting the spiral.

Jacksonville State used 11 plays to go 97 yards to get it to within three thanks to a lot of help from the FSU defense. The drive included three first downs thanks to defensive penalties, one of which was a targeting call on linebacker Kalen DeLoach that overturned a potential decisive interception by Jarvis Brownlee.

Two plays later, Jacksonville State found a receiver wide open in the middle of the endzone for a touchdown thanks to some miscommunication. Two Noles defenders tracked the slot receiver breaking toward the pylon and nobody followed the outside receiver crossing toward the goalpost.

Clearly one guy anticipated a switch while the other — something that simply cannot happen in that spot.

Florida State then failed to run out the clock so it was back to the defense to close it out. They nearly ended the drive on the first play with an INT going off the fingertips of linebacker Stephen Dix Jr..

From there, FSU held Jacksonville State away from their side of the field until the final 6 seconds when this happened.

There are plenty of problems with the play and I’m sure by the time you’re reading this, you’ve found more than even I have at this point. But let’s start with the play call.

“Ran a two deep man under, tried to get pressure on the quarterback,” Mike Norvell said after the game. “They still had one time out, so we didn’t go to immediate prevent.”

That quote reads as though Florida State considered going to a prevent defense and opted against it given the circumstances so let’s break that choice down. Quick run through of facts: Jacksonville State faced 4th and 10 at their own 41 with 6 seconds to go and 1 timeout remaining.

I’ve never coached football a day in my life so I won’t pretend that I understand the choice, but allow me to do my best with logic and deductive reasoning.

Jacksonville State’s kicker, who I do not know, is probably at best hitting a kick from 50 yards. He might be NFL-caliber and hit it from further, but let’s just stick with what is practical in this scenario. If that’s true, they’d have to get at least to the 33 yard line — meaning they were 26 yards from being on the edges of reasonable field goal range.

4th down required the Gamecocks to at least reach FSU’s 49 to even have another play. They did have the timeout remaining so Jacksonville State didn’t have to go to the sideline. Florida State did not have any timeouts remaining — they used their last one trying to draw JSU offsides before punting on their final drive — to set up the defense.

I doubt JSU can make a play underneath to get in that reasonable field goal range and still have time left on the clock so for me the choice to not go prevent is questionable at best.

And if you managed to stick with the ACC Network broadcast long enough to see the postgame interview with one of the Gamecocks receivers, you’d know even they didn’t feel they could get into field goal range in time. The receiver told the broadcast they dialed up four verticals and hoped one of them could find some space downfield for a TD. JSU went to the Hail Mary and FSU wasn’t in the defense to stop it.

Even then, they still had a chance to.

Once the ball is caught, the three closest defenders to the ball were Brownlee, Sidney Williams and Jammie Robinson.

Brownlee is the closest to the ball at the catch and he doesn’t immediately wrap up the receiver at the catch. Instead, both he and Williams almost try to corner the receiver toward the sideline. At that point, it’s two guys to bring down one as evidenced in the screengrab below from CBS Sports.

Obviously they didn’t, but take a look at the bottom of that screengrab. You can see Robinson and No. 9 for JSU both in the picture about 10 yards behind the play. No. 9 ends being the blocker who springs the touchdown right at the goal-line. Robinson ends up about 10 yards behind the play as he lays the block.

I’m not here to call it a lack of effort from any of the three players, but the two guys on the play who made a play were wearing JSU uniforms as FSU looked sluggish. I don’t know if they were burnt out from the previous long drive or became spectators in that moment, but either way it’s the same result.

There will be plenty more questions for Norvell to answer on Monday after they review the tape and I’m sure he’ll have more answers for what happened on this play.

The offense could’ve helped this disastrous finish by ending this game earlier, the defense could’ve avoided three penalties on the penultimate JSU drive and the coaches could’ve had them in a better formation on the final play. But they didn’t. None of them.

What’s next for this group is anyone’s guess.

We know they’ll be without DeLoach for the first half against Wake Forest next week — a tough blow to an already thin linebacking corps. The secondary will probably face tough questions all week either from the media, coaching staff, family or friends so how they handle it will be huge. The defensive line, especially Jermaine Johnson, has looked solid and can still anchor the defense as a whole.

But this entire team might need direction after losing one that will certainly sting for a very long time.