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Whiteboard Review: How Boston College’s explosive plays almost upset the ’Noles

What went wrong with FSU’s defense?

Boston College vs Florida State University Set Number: X164430

The Five Factors are pretty standard these days: they are the five things (four of which you can control) that contribute the most to who wins the game.

Explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers.

Explosiveness has been the Florida State Seminoles’ domain recently, what they were known for last year with the nation’s most explosive offense and a defense that gave up the nation’s fewest explosive plays for most of the season. But on Saturday against the Boston College Eagles that world was flipped upside down. The Eagles had a whopping 13 explosive plays (99th percentile in the country last week), more than one every six plays, while FSU had just three total.

Even worse, many of BC’s explosive plays came on critical passing downs, often 3rd and long. Below are a few examples:

  • 2nd and 12: Pass for 35 yards
  • 2nd and 16: Pass for 32 yards, TD
  • 3rd and 17: Pass for 52 yards
  • 3rd and 20: Pass for 28 yards
  • 3rd and 8: QB run for 29 yards
  • 3rd and 15: QB run for 14
  • 3rd and 14: QB run for 45 yards
  • 3rd and 10: QB run for 13 yards

Those eight situational plays account for 248 yards. In fact, BC’s 12 biggest explosive plays accounted for 348 of the Eagles’ 457 total yards, at a 29-yard per-play clip. The Eagles managed just 1.7 yards per play on their other 63 plays.

Boston College had a great game plan and was able to manufacture these explosives by repeatedly exploiting Florida State’s poor — and at times inexperienced — play at linebacker and in the secondary. In their very first explosive play early in the game, BC used FSU’s over-aggressiveness against them.

1stQ 2nd 12 - 35 yard bootleg pass

You can see the overall design of the play — get FSU flowing one way, then come back the other way with the receiver coming from the backside of the play that nobody picks up. The ’Noles had a good play call here, with Kevin Knowles at safety coming screaming downhill on a blitz. But he whiffs on the athletic Eagles QB Thomas Castellanos who completes the pass to a wide-open receiver.

A few plays later Boston College would score by exploiting the linebackers in coverage, again preying on their aggressiveness.

The Eagles come out in a 12-personnel heavy Pistol formation with two TEs to the left side (ignore the WR label on the end), but throw out of it via play action. FSU responds with three linebackers in a two-down formation with Jared Verse and Patrick Payton standing up on the edges.

1stQ 2nd 16 - 32 yard PA TD

DJ Lundy and Kalen DeLoach bite hard on the play action, vacating the hook/curl zones. Tatum Bethune takes the interior tight end on an out route, while Renard Green and Shyheim Brown carry the other tight end up the field. On the other side, Fentrell Cypress and Kevin Knowles carry the streaking receiver up the field. Left all alone in the middle of the field is Eagles receiver Lewis Bond. Knowles also ends up in the middle of the field after leaving Cypress in one-on-one coverage, then has to flip his hips and chase Bond to the corner. Castellanos gets rid of it before Verse can get to him, and Bond takes advantage of poor pursuit angles and scores.

Later in the 2nd quarter with the score 10-10, Castellanos showed he was going to hurt FSU with his legs, too. Backed up to his own 5-yard line on 3rd and 15, Castellanos took a QB keeper for 45 yards. BC ultimately wouldn’t score on the drive, but it was foreshadowing for what would happen later in the game as the Eagles staged a comeback.

2ndQ 3rd 15 - 45 yard QB CT Counter run

BC comes out in an unbalanced 11 personnel formation and runs CT QB Counter. They fake the run left, then Castellanos pulls the ball and follows the pulling OC and backside OT into the crease to the right. Azareye’h Thomas is the DB lined up playside and is the force defender here, responsible for making sure the run stays inside, and he does his job. The Center seals the unblocked Payton on the edge as he pulls around. Unfortunately, for some reason freshman linebacker Omar Graham Jr. jumps out of his gap wide like he’s the force player and the pulling LT easily seals him out of the play, creating a huge hole for Castellanos. Freshman DB Ashlynd Barker shows good athleticism but takes a poor angle chasing Castellanos down from the backside and is unable to make the tackle while also initially preventing Thomas from ending the play. Thomas does a good job staying with it and eventually gets the QB out of bounds.

You can argue the following play sparked Boston College’s comeback. If this one play has a different ending, the game likely has a much different ending. It’s 31-10 with 3:26 left in the 3rd Quarter. The Eagles have 3rd and 17 at their own 24-yard line. Instead of FSU’s defense getting off the field, Castellanos flips the field with a 52-yard pass that gets them into the red zone and they would punch it in a few plays later to cut the lead to 31-16.

3rdQ 3rd 17 - 52yd Pass - condensed visualization

Boston College doesn’t do anything fancy on this play. So far this season FSU has played a ton of man coverage, and it’s usually MOFO (middle of field open) coverage, typically with two safeties, versus MOFC (middle of field closed) which is typically with one safety or three deep defenders. Here, the ’Noles show a two-high safety look (MOFO) but roll into what looks like Cover 3 zone, which is a MOFC coverage.

But the Seminoles’ safety play is atrocious on this play. Thomas is lined up over the slot receiver but jams him and then comes to help Jones in underneath coverage. Knowles, who is lined up pre-snap about 11 yards off the line of scrimmage, rolls into the single-high safety but for some reason makes a deep 12-yard drop to the 47-yard line six yards from the first down marker. He is then also late to react to the pass and drive on the ball. So when Eagles receiver Dino Tomlin catches the pass with one yard to go before the line to gain Knowles is still five yards away. The other young safety Barker doesn’t trust what he’s seeing, inexplicably begins to drive a few yards toward Castellanos despite the QB in his throwing motion 25 yards away, has to turn around and then again takes a poor angle on the receiver as he tries to chase him down. It’s Cypress who is being blocked 40 yards downfield that eventually forces Tomlin out of bounds.

FSU mostly plays a ton of man coverage, perhaps even man match, and against a quarterback as athletic as Castellanos, that caught them in more than a few poor situations. They looked almost unprepared to deal with a running quarterback. After how well they held Jayden Daniels in check against LSU, that’s more than a little confusing.

Florida State also made the conscious decision to play a lot of young defenders in this game in critical situations. It cost them multiple times, and in the end almost cost them the game. The silver lining is that is you got young players some great game experience with meaningful snaps, and that helps build your depth. Depth you might think you need down the road this season, and you won the game anyway. But it was risky.

I thought the linebackers and safeties were especially disappointing in coverage, though not every explosive play was their fault. Sometimes the other team just beats you and you tip your cap and move on. On one particular explosive play in the fourth quarter when the Eagles rally was at its peak the blame falls squarely on a gassed pass rush who gave Castellanos enough time to build a 1st-place science fair project. But overall, the linebackers and the safeties took poor angles, had poor gap integrity, and in general seemed lost in coverage. I think FSU misses Akeem Dent. The good news is they’re all correctable things, but in time to not be a liability against Clemson? I can’t imagine FSU will play the younger players quite as much against the Tigers. Florida State’s defensive line, and to a slightly lesser extent their cornerbacks, continue to play at a high level.