“We play better with our backs against the wall.”
Patrick Payton spoke for the entire defense with this statement as he and his teammates shut out the Hokies in the second half of Saturday’s contest. Besides one long drive in the second quarter, the defense played as consistent a 60 minutes as they have this year. The defensive line roared back to life, the linebackers rotated new bodies throughout the game (not a lot of Tatum Bethune is a concern), and the secondary tackled fairly decently, considering the opposition.
Of course, there are still glaring issues with this side of the ball, which we will go into, but I was impressed with how the Seminoles responded and played with an edge throughout the game.
Positive: The defensive line
The defensive line can be considered the straw that stirs the drink for the entire defense. When they are firing on all cylinders, days like today become routine for Adam Fuller and company.
The leader of the bunch is Jared Verse, who statistically had been quiet to start the season. The defensive end put any worries of a statistical dip in play to bed Saturday afternoon. The Albany transfer flew off the line of scrimmage today; he seemingly had a beat on the Drones’ snap count and bolted off the ball. Already with offensive tackles on their heels, he used his incredible flexibility to bend around the edge and get to the quarterback twice today. Verse, through all of his media availability, has been adamant that the lack of sack numbers does not bother him, but he broke character today, saying, “I tried to hide my excitement, but I think I did a bad job.”
The projected NFL first-rounder did not work alone as his partner in crime, Patrick Payton, carried over his strong play in the Clemson game to Doak Cambell stadium. He finished the game with six tackles and drew a holding call in the third quarter to deter a Virginia Tech drive. Payton says that he tries to get better “every week,” but the Boston College game seemed to be a wake-up call to the Miami native, and he played his best ball in a Seminole uniform these last two weeks.
The interior defensive line has been the most consistent unit on the entire roster to start the year, and that did not change on Saturday. Fabien Lovett did Fabien Lovett things multiple times, throwing off interior linemen to blow up running plays, Josh Farmer and Braden Fiske combined for seven tackles, and Malcolm Ray played the most snaps he has all year, recording a PBU and was a pest inside. Although VT ran for over 200 yards on the ground, the group played valiantly. Take out Drones’ 40-yard run, and he averaged less than 4 yards a carry. Even on their lone touchdown drive, FSU 5 Virginia Tech run plays to 2 yards or less. Brett Pry threw the ball on all three plays of his team’s opening drive, a testament to this group. The group up front may not always play to their potential, but when they do, the results generally follow.
Positive No. 2: The Start
For the last two weeks, the main topic of conversation for the Seminoles was to start fast. The defense to begin the games against BC and Clemson let up a score on their opening drive and played flat in the first quarter. The Seminoles took notice. Florida State forced a three-and-out on the first three drives for the Hokies and only gave up 10 points in the half. At one point in the first quarter, FSU produced more touchdowns (2) than Virginia Tech had yards (1). The bye week did wonders for this group as they started the game fresh and fiery. Mike Norvell talked all week long about getting garnet jerseys to the ball, and they did just that, constantly blowing up screenplays and gang-tackling runners. They even seemed to have an answer for their kryptonite: third downs. I know it sounds simplistic, but they could only cause three straight three-and-outs by getting stops on third down three consecutive times. Adam Fuller wanted his group to play with the same edge when their backs “were not close to the wall,” and the defense did just that. By starting the game on the right foot, the Florida State defense seemed to answer some of its most significant question marks they had to start the year.
Negative No. 1: Explosive Plays
Besides third down, the explosive plays that the Seminoles give up are usually the root cause of the defensive downfall. Constantly, Florida State will turn offenses loose just when they are on the cusp of shutting them down or turning the game in a different direction. The theme continued on Saturday as FSU’s defense gave up nine big plays (defined as a run 10+ yards or a pass 15+ yards). The worst one the Seminoles gave up occurred on the lone Hokie TD drive as Drones dashed through the heart of the FSU defense and scampered for 40 yards.
This led to VT running over 6 minutes off the clock, making it a two-possession game to end the half. When FSU forces teams to march down the field against them, teams can rarely string together multiple touchdown drives. However, as we have seen weekly when they mess up their communication and are misaligned, any team can compete with the Seminoles. The bill will soon come due to the amount of explosive plays FSU lets up if the issue is unresolved.
Negative No. 2: Penalties
FSU, coming out of their bye, looked to play crisp, clean football. Mike Norvell fished his wish during most moments of the game, but occasionally, the defense lost its focus and was penalized for it. After being called for five infractions during the Clemson game, a referee threw his yellow flag against the Seminole defense on six occasions versus VT. The worst infraction committed by the Seminoles belonged to Byron Turner, who drove Kyren Drones into the ground, resulting in a roughing the passer call and wiping away an INT. Without the lack of misjudgment, FSU almost certainly would have pulled away much earlier and never allowed their lead to reduce to 5 points in the second half. Turner did not have the only significant penalty on the day as Jarrian Jones held a Virginia Tech receiver at the beginning of the fourth quarter, turning 2nd and 20 into an automatic Hokie first down.
Like with explosive plays, when the Seminoles stick to their fundamentals and play the way they are coached, teams can rarely compete with them. However, if they pass out automatic first downs like candy, the offense will never touch the field, and the defense will become worn down. The Seminoles need to buck this trend of constantly being flagged, or their other Achilles heel will rear its ugly head down the line.