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Florida State defense dominates Michigan in Orange Bowl win

The Seminoles’ defense saved perhaps their most impressive performance for Friday’s Orange Bowl victory.

Capitol One Orange Bowl - Florida State v Michigan Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

On a night where Florida State went up against a veteran-laden, top-notch defense in Michigan, the Seminoles’ defense flipped the script and outperformed the Wolverines’ elite defense.

FSU pulled the upset led by a defense that saved perhaps its most impressive performance of the year for the season finale. The Seminoles held a Michigan team that averaged 6.06 yards per play and 439.3 yards per game entering Friday to 3.4 yards per play and 252 total yards, the Wolverines’ second lowest yardage mark this season. Furthermore, Michigan did not score an offensive touchdown until there was a shade over five minutes left on the clock.

Florida State’s defensive domination showed at each level and in each position group. The FSU defensive line made its impact felt early and often against U of M. The Seminoles racked up four sacks, hardly a bad amount, but that was dwarfed by FSU finishing the win with 15 tackles for loss, the most in the Jimbo Fisher era. This came from a competent mix of keeping Michigan’s quarterback, Wilton Speight, on edge in the pocket with pressure and with solid run defense which held UM to 2.5 yards per carry as a team.

Senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker led the tackle-for-loss-charge in his final game as a Seminole. His impact on the box score may seem unsubstantial at first glance with only four tackles. However, further investigation shows that all four of those tackles were for loss, one of which was a sack, giving him 28.5 for his career, third most in program history.

The linebackers, an oft-criticized unit throughout the 2016 season, rose to the occasion in a big way on Friday. Redshirt junior Matthew Thomas added another impressive performance to his strong second half of the season, putting up a career-high 15 tackles (nine solo) with 3.5 tackles for loss in his hometown, one of which was a highlight-reel hit on UM running back De’Veon Smith. Ro’Derrick Hoskins added six solo tackles and a pair of TFLs of his own as Florida State’s starting linebackers played with a consistent physicality and chemistry that they have improved on as the season has gone on.

Florida State’s secondary analysis is where this gets very interesting as it must be analyzed in two segments: before and after Trey Marshall’s targeting ejection. Even missing three veteran players to injuries, the Seminoles’ secondary with Trey Marshall in the game excelled at shutting down the Michigan receivers. Through the first three and a half quarters, FSU kept UM quarterback Wilton Speight to 102 passing yards on 16-29 passing.

On the very first play after Marshall was ejected, Speight found wideout Amara Darboh for an 18-yard gain. Over the final eight minutes of game after Marshall was ejected, the ‘Noles allowed Speight to gain a little confidence as he racked up 51 passing yards, completing four of six passes over the ensuing two drives. However, the Florida State defense still stepped up when it needed to and shut the door despite missing its top four safeties.

The injuries to this year’s secondary have been a constant struggle for the Seminoles throughout the year. That being said, the improvement that these young players have made from their extended early playing time is noticeable already and could pay dividends in the years to come. The final drive of Friday’s game, capped off by an interception by true freshman Carlos Becker, was proof of that.

Becker, recruited by FSU as a cornerback before switching to safety this year out of necessity, has taken advantage of his early playing time to hone his craft. Kyle Meyers, another true freshman, has been a pleasant surprise in how well and how much he has contributed in year one at Florida State.

The star of the secondary from Friday’s win, however, was A.J. Westbrook. Westbrook, a consistent contributor in the FSU secondary since Derwin James suffered a season-ending injury in week two, has made huge strides over the course of the 2016 season. After making his first start against Louisville and looking uncomfortable and ill-prepared for the big stage at that time, Westbrook has steadily improved as the season went on and now reached the point where he was trusted to be making the calls in the secondary late in FSU’s win over U of M. Westbrook’s eight tackles (six solo) were the most among all defensive backs and he added a crucial third-down pass breakup to highlight his strong performance.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of all was Florida State’s ability to prevent Michigan from breaking off big plays. For some perspective, the same FSU defense that allowed FCS foe Charleston Southern to break off five chunk plays of 20+ yards back in week two kept the Wolverines to only two 20+ yard plays over the entire game. This metric proves to be an example of Florida State’s strong defensive improvements to finish the season. After all, FSU allowed 49 plays of 20+ yards over its first eight games this year (6.1 20+ yard plays per game) before dropping that number all the way to 15 20+ yard plays over the final five games of the season (three chunk plays per game).

The bottom line for FSU is that the Seminoles’ defense, pushed against the wall on a number of occasions in Friday’s matchup, rallied and responded on each occasion. Whether it was Michigan taking over at the FSU two-yard line after a massive special-teams blunder, consistently losing the field-position battle, or a number of other issues, Florida State’s defense always had an answer.

It’s nearly impossible to judge how a team can carry over a performance such as this one into next year. That being said, a team that can string together defensive efforts of that caliber on a semi-regular basis is capable of winning a lot of games. With a relatively large group of starters returning on next year’s Florida State team, it’s hard to ignore the potential that the strong finish to the 2016 season has demonstrated.