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What we learned on offense in FSU’s win over Wake Forest

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A win is a win, but this one may have raised more questions than answers.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

There’s something to the saying “A win is a win.”

It may not have been more true in recent Florida State football history than on Saturday when the Seminoles gritted out an ugly 26-19 win at Wake Forest to notch their first victory of the 2017 season.

However, wins can bring more issues to the surface than solutions. This was also the case for the FSU offense this weekend.

Last week against NC State, the offense was not stellar, but was not viewed as the scapegoat in the loss.

This week, the offense struggled mightily in all phases at times and nearly was the scapegoat for a dismal performance by players and staff alike.

Let’s start with the position group on the tip of every FSU fan’s tongue: the offensive line.

I will be the first to admit that I defended this group this week, telling multiple people that I expected a better performance from the OL this week. My justification was that Wake’s defensive front is solid, but nowhere close to the stratosphere of Alabama’s and NC State’s.

I was very wrong.

FSU’s offensive line put up its worst performance of the season regardless of competition level against the Demon Deacons on Saturday. They were physically dominated from the opening kick and this was only compounded by an early injury to left tackle Derrick Kelly. His replacement, Brock Ruble, was completely outmatched and the domination went to another level from there.

In all, Wake Forest finished with 17 tackles for loss. That’s a new program record for the Deacs. Of those 18 TFLs, five were sacks.

Things got marginally better when Josh Ball was shifted over to left tackle in the second half, but still, the offensive line’s struggles played a large role in limiting what the rest of the offense could do.

The player most affected by this was true freshman quarterback James Blackman. Blackman, who looked capable in his debut against NC State, looked more the part of a QB playing in his second collegiate game Saturday.

Blackman, rushed by a Wake Forest defense keyed in on him and limited by FSU’s offensive line woes, was unable to make downfield throws for long stretches of his first road start. This in turn led to him going to halftime with seven passing yards on 5/7 passing.

For most of the second half, that didn’t get much better with notable misthrows, missed reads and missed opportunities to use his legs.

With less than five minutes left in the game, Blackman was 9-19 with 38 passing yards. That being said, it’s the final five minutes and the plays Blackman made with the game on the line that will be rightfully remembered.

His 43-yard laser to Keith Gavin on 3rd and 20 which led to the tying field goal and his 40-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Auden Tate in the final minute of play were both throws you don’t often see from a freshman, demonstrated his arm talent and proved that he is a gamer.

The problem with FSU’s wideouts was that, outside of those two catches, their presence was almost entirely erased.

Outside of those two late-game catches, FSU’s entire receiving corps finished the game with four catches for 10 yards. George Campbell, a breakout player through FSU’s first two games, fumbled at the end of his sole catch which went for one yard and had multiple drops. Nyqwan Murray had two catches for a grand total of two yards. Tate, playing at less than full health after injuring his shoulder last week, had one additional catch for seven yards.

This would be less of a problem if the FSU wideouts were working capably in blocking. But, the opposite was true as the wide receivers were almost liabilities in blocking, struggling both in execution and effort.

Although a lot of the things going on around Blackman made his job significantly more difficult, one critique of his play through two games is his apparent hesitancy to utilize his tight ends.

The Seminoles returned a pair of competent tight ends from last year’s team, Ryan Izzo and Mavin Saunders, but through two games, Blackman has targeted them each only once.

The tight end is referred to as a safety valve for inexperienced quarterbacks for a reason and better utilizing them across the middle of the field could increase the offense’s potency going forward.

In truth, the most consistent aspect of the FSU offense against Wake Forest on Saturday was the same aspect the ’Noles struggled to develop in their first two games.

Florida State’s running backs, who accounted for 141 total rushing yards across FSU’s first two games, broke out for 184 yards between the three-headed attack of Jacques Patrick, Cam Akers and Amir Rasul.

This was in large part thanks to FSU’s commitment to the run, something the staff abandoned in the losses to Alabama and NC State. The Seminoles finished Saturday’s game with 37 designed running back carries.

Now, some will surely still take objection with how the carries were distributed. Patrick, the veteran who entered the season as the starter, was relied on most heavily once again.

The difference Saturday was that, against a non-elite rush defense, Patrick looked much closer to the level he was praised at by Jimbo Fisher in fall camp. He broke a career-long 69-yard run in the first quarter, punched in FSU’s first rushing touchdown of the season in the second quarter, and finished with 146 all-purpose yards on 22 touches.

Akers nearly broke a few of his touches and flashed his top-notch athleticism, but, for the second straight week, showed questionable vision and decision making which killed some offensive possessions.

Now, with the players discussed at length, it’s time to turn attention elsewhere: coaching.

Some of what has gone wrong offensively through FSU’s first three games is that the players have been set up for failure by stubbornness or ill-advised decisions from the Seminoles’ coaching staff. Saturday’s game was a prime example of this.

At one point, FSU was 1-11 in converting third downs. This was partly due to the fact that they were getting destroyed in the trenches and faced an average distance to go of 11.1 yards.

That being said, Fisher’s conservative nature on lengthy third downs which saw him call a number of draw plays in these scenario also played a role in FSU’s third down struggles.

To put this into perspective, a few conservative calls in third-down-and-long situations each game are acceptable. But, when a team is consistently putting itself into third-and-longs, some variance must be demonstrated both to keep the defense guessing and to allow the chance for a conversion which could jump start the offense.

Time and time again, though, Fisher went to his uber conservative calls and this in turn set up FSU’s struggling offense for failure.

The Seminoles’ continuing red zone woes can also be attributed to a mix of questionable playcalling and poor execution. Saturday’s game saw the Seminoles again finish just one of their four red zone trips with a touchdown, keeping their season percentage of red zone drives that end with a touchdown at 25%.

The sad truth now for the Seminoles is that it only gets harder next week. For the first time in a number of years, Miami (3-0) will enter its matchup with the Seminoles as the clear better team, possibly even set to be favored despite the game being played in Tallahassee.

It’s still too early for me to make my prediction in the game, but I do feel confident that FSU will not win if it once again finishes with a 25% red zone touchdown percentage, converts just 25% of its third downs, or racks up only 121 passing yards. The Seminoles have their work cut out for them over the next week.