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What we learned on offense from FSU football’s loss to Alabama

Step away from the ledge.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Kickoff-Alabama vs Florida State John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tempting to see a final score of 24-7 and quickly arrive at the conclusion that the Seminole offense stumbled throughout, but that just was not the case in Florida State’s season-opening loss to the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.

Did the offense do its job well? Not really. You can’t claim that when you notch exactly one score, turn the ball over twice, and watch your starting quarterback get carted off the field.

Of course, there’s no disputing that the biggest offensive story is what looks to be a rather serious injury to Deondre Francois. Before that, Francois was solid in the first half, behind what was an impressive pass-blocking performance from the offensive line, which was quite effective in handing Alabama’s base pass-rushing attack. This was a great sign, as that was thought to be the weakness of the FSU OL entering the season. The ’Nole line held its own against an Alabama front that, while having lost some talent from last year’s more dominant unit, is still stacked with former blue-chip recruits. We also got an early look at Florida State’s depth up front, as Josh Ball came in at left tackle when Derrick Kelly lost his helmet and had to sit for a play early on.

In the first half, Francois was a serviceable 14-22 with a (or should I say, the) TD pass. He also did exactly what we said FSU needed him to do early, by hitting big receivers. The Seminoles’ biggest gain of the day came in the first quarter, when Francois saw Auden Tate in solo coverage on a post pattern and put air under the ball, allowing his 6’5 wideout to use his body to shield the defender and make a great catch.

FSU also showed promising effectiveness and creativity in getting sophomore receiver Keith Gavin the ball in myriad ways. He registered his first career catch, was the recipient of a tunnel screen pass, and ran the ball on a double-reverse— all in the first quarter. And for good reason. Gavin looks every bit the star we thought he could be, leading the ’Noles with seven receptions on seven targets (no other Seminole had more than three grabs) and 50 yards.

Florida State definitely showed its shallow WR pool, though. When the Seminoles went four deep, they occasionally used George Campbell (who did have a nice 21-yard catch) with Tate, Gavin, and Nyqwan Murray (who underwhelmed), but more often than not, FSU split Jacques Patrick or Ryan Izzo wide in its four WR sets. Hence, freshmen D.J. Matthews and Tamorrion Terry don’t appear to have the coaches’ confidence quite yet.

The creativity employed in getting Gavin the ball did not extend much to the running game. Starting running back Patrick was ineffective throughout the contest, never really getting great holes to run through. Patrick is a downhill runner, meaning that he has to get a head of steam to properly utilize his power. He never got going against ’Bama though, gaining just 17 yards on 6 carries.

Freshman RB Cam Akers looked much better, not only in cutting quicker to take advantage of slim holes, but also in finishing runs with his own underrated power. Akers amassed 30 yards on 10 carries, and it’s worth noting that he started the second half. However, as the Alabama lead grew to multiple possessions, Patrick continued to take the field, which is strange, as FSU was badly in need of explosive plays— the kind that Akers is much more capable of authoring than Patrick.

Patrick will probably see ample holes in the Seminoles’ next game and truck undersized defenders against over-matched Louisiana-Monroe. But it appears to be a matter of when, and not if, Akers will assume the starting role. Unless, of course, Jimbo Fisher and company are hesitant to rely upon a backfield made up of two true freshmen, as Fisher acknowledged that, right now, frosh James Blackman will be the starting QB going forward, assuming Francois will miss time.

Continuing with creativity out of the backfield, the RBs had just a trio of catches, even if one of them was an electric snag from Akers, when he absolutely posterized an Alabama defender. Still, only Patrick, Akers, and fullback Johnathan Vickers saw time as ’Nole running backs. No Amir Rasul, no Khalan Laborn. The result: 27 total rushes for 40 yards, a paltry 1.5 YPC average. Most notably absent from the rushing attack, though, was just about any attempt to use Francois’ legs. Without having yet re-watched the game, I believe he ran just one rushing play designed as a keeper, and it was intended to pick up short yardage for a first down.

Francois being utilized as a runner could have leveraged Alabama and perhaps lessened the effect of its blitzing, if not punishing the Tide for doing so. And beating a blitz is a lot like overcoming a full-court press in basketball: you cannot just look to survive, you have to take measures to exploit it, to make it pay. Otherwise, the risk-reward factor for the defense is weighted heavily in favor of the latter.

On to explosive plays: they were all but non-existent for Florida State against the Tide. FSU completed just three passes of 20+ yards and did not have a single rush for double-digit yards. Grinding it out is not how you beat Alabama. You need to strike downfield and make them play vertically, and the Seminoles simply did not do that.

One reason for that was the Tide’s recognition that it couldn’t get to Francois using its base rush, which prompted Alabama to blitz time and again. Without the time to stretch ’Bama, FSU threw continually underneath. This was a wise ploy by Alabama, as Francois struggles with intermediate passes. It’s also how the Tide got its pair of interceptions, by baiting Francois into passes that it picked from underneath.

The FSU tight ends were rather quiet as a position group, although Ryan Izzo did pull down three catches on three targets for 46 yards. Mavin Saunders saw very sparse playing time. It is worth noting that the Seminoles played a remarkably clean game; the offense did not incur a single penalty yard as a result of a transgression.

So. Deep breath, y'all. Perspective. Yes, seven is FSU’s lowest point total since 2009 against South Florida and the fewest points registered in the Jimbo Fisher era, but that missed pass-interference call with Florida State threatening toward the end of the first half was, inarguably, massive. It most probably cost the offense points and very much changed the trajectory of the game, as did the Seminoles’ woeful special teams performance. Developments like these helped in making the ’Noles more one-dimensional than they could afford to be, and that’s tricky for any offense to negotiate, especially one facing the Alabama defense. But the line protected well, Akers and Gavin are playmakers, and Blackman was often praised by Fisher throughout fall camp.