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Defensive observations from Florida State’s comeback win at Louisville

When they needed big plays, they secured the bag.

Florida State v Louisville
LOUISVILLE, KY - SEPTEMBER 29: Jawon Pass #4 of the Louisville Cardinals throws a pass against the Florida State Seminoles in the first quarter of the game at Cardinal Stadium on September 29, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino had a good game-plan - spread Florida State’s defense out with five receivers in empty sets and throw. Exploit FSU’s linebackers and safeties in coverage.

Florida State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett knew this, too. His counter was to blitz. He stunted with the defensive line. He sent linebackers, like Dontavious Jackson and DeCalon Brooks. He sent corner-backs, namely Kyle Meyers. He sent them early and often in an attempt to pressure Louisville quarterback Jawon “Puma” Pass into making mistakes.

But while Jackson and Brooks both recorded sacks early, and defensive end Brian Burns and big defensive tackle Marvin Wilson were playing well, Petrino’s game-plan was working and the Louisville passing game was moving the ball.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Louisville’s success, however, was their success on defense vs. Florida State, putting the ’Noles in poor field position repeatedly, as has often been the case this season. The Cardinals’ second drive of the day started on the FSU 36-yard line, and they scored a touchdown in four plays. Louisville possessed the ball for 11:14 of the 15 first quarter minutes.

It wasn’t all bad news. On Louisville’s sixth drive of the day, following a Florida State turnover on a punt return, the Cardinals again started in FSU territory. But Burns would recover a fumble soon thereafter. Amazingly, it was FSU’s first forced turnover against an FBS opponent this season.

Unfortunately, Florida State would give up a touchdown just ten seconds before halftime. Pass went 6-6 for 56 yards on the drive, beating FSU corner Asante Samuel, Jr. on a throw for the score. On the previous play, Samuel was flagged for pass interference, handing Louisville a 1st-and-goal.

At the break, Petrino was clearly winning the battle vs. Barnett. Pass was playing well, and the Cardinal receivers were playing more focused than they had all season, with noticeably fewer drops. It didn’t hurt that Louisville receivers were allowed to hold FSU defensive backs, or that the officiating was uneven in favor of the home team. Still, Florida State’s linebackers and safeties had been poor in coverage, and the defensive line games weren’t working. Louisville led 21-7.

The 3rd quarter didn’t start much better. While a Meyers blitz managed to affect Pass just enough to save a touchdown on Louisville’s opening drive, the same weaknesses exposed in the 1st half continued to rear their ugly head. The linebackers also struggled at times to fill their run gaps.

By the time the third quarter was halfway over the Seminole defense looked gassed. Louisville also had tremendous fumble luck, recovering the ball all four times it hit the turf.

Louisville’s third drive of the 2nd half (their 11th of the day), looked like it would be the one to finally break the dam. A huge 66-yard pass would’ve put them on Florida State’s 5-yard line, but a block in the back of Meyers brought it back to the FSU 29-yard line. And FSU got lucky again, as Pass misfired on several open throws targeting a huge hole in FSU’s zone coverage in the middle of the field between the Seminole safeties. All of them would’ve resulted in TD’s, but they harmlessly hit the turf, instead. Louisville settled for a field goal. FSU somehow managed to keep Louisville out of the end zone in the third quarter.

Luckily, relief came. The FSU offense put together an eleven-play drive, churning 5:26 off the clock. Barnett’s defense got an opportunity to fix the coverage busts from the previous drive. On Louisville’s next drive, the defense forced a “three-and-out”, but not before Marvin Wilson committed a bad personal foul penalty for roughing the passer.

Notably, studs Burns and Cory Durden continued their high level of play this season, doing their best to disrupt the Louisville passing game.

On the Cardinals’ next possession, with FSU down three and less than six minutes to play, they started to march. By this point, Louisville had run 77 plays and possessed the ball for over 35 minutes. Eight plays later, the Cards were knocking on FSU’s door with a first down at the Seminole 21-yard line and less than two minutes remaining. A touchdown would seal the game. That’s when safety A.J. Westbrook stepped in front of Pass’ (ill-advised) throw for the interception at Florida State’s 19-yard line.

FSU’s offense didn’t waste the opportunity, and scored 43 seconds later. Louisville took over with 1:13 left, down four. Pass scrambled for one yard, and then Louisville took a timeout.

Second down. Incomplete.

Third down. Incomplete.

On fourth-and-nine, with :36 seconds left, Stanford Samuels III picked off Pass to secure the bag, and the win.

The FSU defense shut-out Louisville in the 4th quarter, and allowed just three points in the second half.

Pass finished with 306 yards at a 6.8 yards per attempt clip. The defense held Louisville to 115 yards rushing on 38 attempts, a 3.0 yard average. The Cardinals went 10-19 on third downs and 0-1 on a fourth down attempt. Louisville averaged 5.1 yards per play overall.

It was a great team effort. But FSU has to be concerned going forward. Their linebacker play still isn’t close to where it needs to be; aside from Jackson there aren’t many (viable) options. Samuels still isn’t 100%, and the secondary continues to have busts and communication issues. They have plenty to clean up before facing Miami next Saturday.