Not there when you called, but there when you needed.
The Florida State defense continues to put us on a roller coaster from game to game, but the results speak for themselves.
When the moment came, the ‘Noles met it.
Saturday did not always look pretty for this group — that’s been the case multiple times this year. There were moments on the sideline where players needed to be held back and voices raised. There were also stretches of dominant play that we became accustomed to since the bye week.
Florida State gave up an 11-play 82-yard drive today and an 85-yard touchdown pass. They also allowed one first down in five straight drives combined in the second half and held Emory Williams to eight completions on the day.
Mike Norvell tried to compartmentalize the defensive performance during his post-game press conference.
“I mean, you get to this game, rivalry game, we knew it could come down to literally one play. That’s what showed up tonight...There are plenty of mistakes made and things we have to get corrected, but in the moment of truth they just continued to respond.”
There was something for everyone with the performance of Adam Fuller’s group today.
Here are two things to like, and two things to fix for the defense in the win over Miami.
Positive No. 1: Meeting the Moment
Florida State’s defense was the difference on the day. Three drives explain that they ensured no heartbreak occurred on Saturday.
The first season-saving drive began with Miami taking over on the FSU 31-yard line after Jordan Travis almost ran himself into the endzone for a safety. The defense had been hot under the collar, angry at themselves for giving up an 82-yard touchdown sequence the drive before. FSU clung to a 3-point advantage, and with Miami getting the ball to start the second half, they could not afford to give up 7. Miami drove the ball deep into the heart of the Seminoles at one point, getting the ball to the 4-yard line. But the most underrated strength of the defense came through when they needed. That asset is their ability to create goal-line stands. Miami needed 1 yard for a first inside the 5, but the Seminoles threw a party in the Hurricane backfield, creating a TFL and holding the game to being tied at the half.
The last drive of the first half looked a lot like the first drive of the second half. Mike Norvell placed an incredible gamble, kicking an onside kick to start the 3rd quarter that the Hurricanes recovered. Miami would begin with their ball again in plus territory, and after a 20-yard rush, they looked to be in business. Instead of rolling over, Florida State locked it down. Two straight TFLs in the run game forced a Miami third and long, and FSU got off the field, only giving up three points, which could have been much worse.
As usual, the last drive of the game was the most important. Miami found themselves back in the ball game, and a touchdown meant a tied ball game or a do-or-die two-point conversion. Florida State did not let them sniff the end zone. The Hurricanes needed to earn every yard on that drive, as they only gained 37 yards on 12 plays. Florida State played sticky coverage on the Miami receivers, holding Tyler Van Dyke to just two completions on seven attempts. Finally, when the kill shot came, they did not miss. Three straight incompletions created a 4th and 10 at midfield with under a minute to go. Malcolm Ray flushed out TVD to his right, and the throw across his body fell into Jarrian Jones’ arms. Akeem Dent, during his post-game availability, explained it in simple terms.
“Oh, what I seen was, yeah, backyard football going to make a play. (Laughter.) No lie.”
Saturday could have looked differently if the defense had not stepped up during these moments. Instead, the communication, execution, and fight were taken to another level and these drives highlight what the ceiling of this group looks like.
Positive No. 2: Pass defense
Throwing out the 85-yard touchdown pass, which objectively was a fluke, the Seminole defense picked up where they left off against young quarterbacks. Instead of the expected Tyler van Dyke, true freshman Emory Williams lined up under center for the Hurricanes. He played valiantly. He was also no match for a pass defense playing at the top of their game. The Seminoles held Miami QBs to 33% completion percentage, and only four different receivers caught a pass compared to seven for the Seminoles. The proof lies in the UM third-down numbers. They were an abysmal 4/16 on the day and were usually in a third-and-long situation, as the average yardage needed was 6.7.
The key to the gaudy numbers is mirroring pass rush and pass coverage. Florida State, especially in the second half, brought the house on third downs. Emory Williams would be forced to beat the ‘Noles with his arm with players in his lap. On one Hurricane third-down incompletion, Kevin Knowles lined up with his hand in the dirt like he was running the 100-meter dash and gave Williams no opportunity to make an accurate pass as the pass fell incomplete. Not only did the pass rush force poor throws from the Miami QBs, but the Seminole corners were up for the challenge. Jarrian Jones followed Xavier Restrepo around for the entire. The nation’s leading target-getter finished the day with zero receptions. Jones did wonderfully staying in phase and sifting through the traffic.
Further, even with no official stats, Renardo Green, I would imagine, will grade out as the best cover corner for FSU when they come out tomorrow. After he gave up the touchdown, he did not even allow a window for a ball to be thrown. Teams continue to attack him, and he continues to be sound in his technique and never loses touch with receivers. He did well tracking back to the ball and getting his eyes around, and was part of the reason only four different Hurricanes registered a catch. We will get to the other side of the Miami offense next, but the pass defense made the true freshman quarterback look like a true freshman quarterback.
Negative No. 1: Run Defense
As I just said, if the pass defense won Florida State the football game, the run defense made them almost lose it. It did improve in the second half, but it didn't look lovely for long stretches in the first half. Miami finished the first half with an average of 5.1 yards per rush and finished the day averaging 3.9. It felt much worse. Miami needed to run the ball with a young quarterback under center, and the Seminoles still could not stop it.
The Hurricanes gashed the Seminoles on the ground on Miami's lone touchdown drive. It was an 82-yard drive, and 75 came on the ground. Mario Cristobal proved his worth for his ability to coach offensive linemen today as they continued to push FSU around. They consistently double-teamed FSU defensive tackles and a massive push along the line of scrimmage. The other issue lay in that when Miami did not block with precision, FSU was at fault for their undoing.
Their new problem of letting runs bounce outside constantly became an issue. For some reason, the defensive ends sprinted up the field on multiple occasions, creating massive rush lanes and resulting in poor gap discipline. While mostly played at an extremely high level, the linebackers lost the edge and were washed inside for stretches of the day. Worst of all, the tackling in the secondary left much to be desired. The PFF numbers are released tomorrow morning, but the missed tackle category should have a crooked number next to it. Each level of the defense looked lost at moments in the run game, and their bad habits almost cost the ‘Noles.
Negative No. 2: Explosive Plays
Does this article feel like a broken record yet? Every week, I write about the same issues for the defense, and this one seems to be the worst. At the end of the first half, Miami finished with a 16% explosive play rate, good for the 98th percentile. On the day, the Hurricanes finished with eight explosive plays, four runs, and four passes. The worst part about it is that the Seminole defense played well for the majority of the day. Take out those explosive plays, and the Miami offense only ran for 38 yards. But, of course, football does not work that way. Those four rushing plays kept Miami alive in this game when FSU could have turned the water off much earlier. The deep passes gave everyone in Doak Cambell Stadium unneeded anxiety, as the plays were mostly self-inflicted. The most explosive play of the day belonged to Emory Williams and Jacolby George, which resulted in a game where Miami was on life support to be within a touchdown. The play mixed poor technique with Kevin Knowles taking a terrible angle to the ball with extreme unluckiness as top Seminole players were taken out by each other. Mike Norvell explained what he saw on that play postgame.
“Even the big touchdown they had, I mean, we got two guys in position. Just unfortunately didn’t — weren’t able to finish it in that moment. You know, that’s part of this game. It was a great throw by Emory, and obviously George made a really nice catch and run there afterwards.”
The Seminoles survived tonight, but looking big picture, these horrendous habits will one day find a way to burn them.