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Whiteboard Review: How Florida State stretched space to secure win over Duke

The “Devil” in Blue Devil comes from their linebackers getting put in hell

Charles Mays/Tomahawk Nation

What a way to earn a win.

In FSU’s dramatic come-from-behind victory over Duke last week, the Florida State Seminoles’ defense more or less dominated the Duke Blue Devils’ offense throughout, which was led by the noticeably limited Riley Leonard who re-injured his ankle in the second half and could not finish the game.

After rewatching the game I came away with the impression that FSU more or less wrecked Duke’s good offensive line up front. While the refs missed several huge holding calls, they also caught several more.

I do not think it would have made a difference whether Leonard was able to finish the game or not.

As for the chess match between FSU’s offense and Duke’s defense, this particular battle was really dictated by how sloppy, or not sloppy, Florida State’s offense was. That’s not to take anything away from Duke’s defense — but when this offense gets out of their own way we haven’t yet seen an opponent on the schedule capable of stopping them.

But boy was FSU’s offense sloppy to open this game. Two blown fourth-down plays that resulted in turnovers on down, a fumble, overthrown passes to wide open receivers, mediocre blocking, a pick six, some procedural penalties, and more.

There was also some good though, especially when it came to the tight ends.

Creative screen passes to Jaheim Bell and Markeston Douglas early in the 1st quarter, plus one more catch each that moved the sticks in the middle of the field, and a well-executed 15-yard dig to Kyle Morlock that went for more than 20 yards and another first down. Later in the game FSU also got Bell the ball on a jet sweep as well as a swing pass in the flat after lining up in the backfield and a 3rd down conversion in the flat after lining up as the H-back.

Here’s that very early screenplay to Bell:

1st Q - Screen to Bell with Counter blocking scheme

The running back motions from a wideout alignment into the backfield, showing the same split-back look we’ve seen quite a bit this year. Except this time it’s not a run but a screen. Duke’s linebackers bite on the pulling RG Emmanuel, too slow to realize Bell isn’t aligned as the lead blocker like he usually is in this formation, and the screen the other way to Bell out of the backfield picks up an easy 9 yards.

It was clear FSU’s game plan was to attack Duke’s aggressive linebackers in coverage. A lot of the play-action passes FSU ran early in the game used similar counter-run action in their pass-blocking scheme, which was very effective in drawing the Blue Devil linebackers up and out of position creating space behind them, or in this case getting them flowing the wrong way out of the play.

The tight ends then ran routes either into the space the linebackers vacated in the middle of the field, or behind them and in front of Duke’s safeties (vertical stretch). FSU also did a good job isolating their tight ends on a defender in space outside the numbers, forcing Duke to cover them sideline to sideline (horizontal stretch).

Lastly, a few times they ran both Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman on crossers, bringing them all the way across the field and FSU answered the call in pass protection up front to give Travis time to complete those passes.

Florida State also mixed in some different things, including a lot of zone runs like inside zone (IZ) and wide zone, as well as some new formations. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when your special teams has been excellent this season.

FSU’s run game is still anemic against better defenses, but they crushed Duke in the passing game where it mattered — on 3rd downs and in the Red Zone, where their success rates there were both in the 90th percentiles in the country last week. That’s even more striking when the aforementioned pick-six came on a 3rd and 12 and FSU was forced to settle for a field goal in the 2nd quarter after a 3rd and 4 pass in the red zone fell incomplete.

But back to how FSU won this game. It started after FSU’s goal-line stand on defense late in the 3rd quarter, whereupon the ’Noles’ offense marched 96 yards for a touchdown to finally take the lead. And they did it by finally using Travis’ legs, but also by converting three third downs of 5, 8, and 1 yard to go.

On the play following the first 3rd down conversion, an out route to Bell, Jordan takes it on a keeper for 10 yards and a first down, cutting it back so suddenly he makes two defenders overrun the play.

Travis’ running is a dimension to FSU’s offense that’s been sorely lacking. Head coach Mike Norvell made comments after the game that they knew they’d have to use Travis’ legs in order to move the ball on the ground. Why they waited 40 minutes of game time to do so is anybody’s guess. But the offense blossomed in a way I can only describe as hitting the “EASY” button.

After Bell converts the 3rd and 1 on a short pass from Travis into the flat, on the next play Travis pulls the ball from the belly of the running back and reaches the corner before Duke and picks up 20 yards setting up 1st and goal. Two plays later Travis takes the QB Counter to the right and follows Bell in for the go-ahead touchdown.

It was the following 3rd and 5 play in the 4th quarter, however, that stole the show.

4thQ - Travis to Coleman beats bracket coverage for 1st down

FSU again runs a crossing route to stress the linebackers in coverage, this time with Kentron Poitier, and the corner has good coverage. But it’s Travis’ throw with touch and anticipation to the post behind the crosser that somehow beats bracket coverage (and DPI) to Keon Coleman for the first. Everything about it is absurd. Keon was not open. But when this offense is “on”, they are capable of moments like this.

A few plays later Travis keeps it again on the ground for 19 more yards, putting FSU in scoring position. Two tight ends in, zone blocking scheme, Duke gets caught in a bad blitz as the safety and playside linebacker both cheat inside hard on Lawrance Toafili, still not respecting Travis’ ability to run because he does not run, and Travis pulls and takes off. Since the receivers aren’t blocking but running routes and Duke is in man coverage, it’s nothing but green grass on the outside.

4thQ - Travis Zone Read Keeper

Two plays later Toafili scores on a well-executed running back screen pass and the rout is on.

I thought the gameplan from Mike Norvell and Alex Atkins was very good and effective. But it took a while for the offense to clean up their errors, and it’s inexplicable as to why Norvell and Travis refused to use Travis’ legs until late in the game. Duke, as well as previous opponents, clearly did not see Travis as a running threat going into the game, and their players acted accordingly. That made it very effective. But Travis is a great runner and would be effective regardless of whether they used him this way all the time or only pulled it out of their back pocket in a “break glass in case of emergencies” kind of way. Perhaps they are only trying to keep him healthy.

On one hand, it seems like FSU’s offense can put anyone away, as long as they execute properly and get out of their own way. And on the other hand it sometimes feels like FSU is executing a deliberate strategy to “play the long game” and stay fresh in games so they can protect Travis and pull away late when their opponent is gassed. One can’t help but wonder whether, if that were true, letting teams hang around is a wise approach. Especially against opponents with deeper benches.