It’s no secret that FSU’s bread and butter run concept is Counter. Everyone that lines up against Florida State knows it’s coming. Usually, the Seminoles have success running it anyway. But FSU struggled to get the run game going for most of the night against LSU’s active and very talented defensive front on Sunday, finishing their contest vs. the Tigers with 34 rushes for 135 yards — a pedestrian 4.0 yard per carry average.
The main thorn in the side of FSU’s running game was defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo. He consistently won at the point of attack, either disrupting the line of scrimmage or outright slashing into the backfield.
The ’Noles rushed for just 39 yards on 11 carries (3.55 YPC) in the first half before racking up 100 yards on 21 carries (4.76) in the second.
If we break it down even further we discover that, aside from Jordan Travis’ 1-yard touchdown run, in the third quarter FSU rushed the ball 8 times for just 16 yards. It is no coincidence that the ’Noles’ 21-point fourth quarter explosion just so happened to coincide with the run game finally breaking through with 83 yards on 12 carries, or nearly 7 yards per rush. For the purposes of this exercise we’re not counting the two kneel-downs to end the game.
So, how did FSU suddenly manufacture a running game in the fourth quarter? How did they take Wingo out of the game and break it open? The answer is simple — a combination of personnel and scheme.
If you’re a longtime reader of Tomahawk Nation you might recall this 2020 article where we broke down Mike Norvell’s offensive scheme when he was first hired. This is what we said about how Norvell likes to utilize his tight ends:
The tight end plays a crucial role in this offense’s run game. Norvell will pull guards, tackles, and tight ends lined up both in-line and as an H-back in a dizzying amount of combinations from a multitude of formations, including split-back and pistol.
Norvell did all that and more Sunday night. Based on his coaching at Memphis, I’m surprised it took him this long to attract quality tight end talent to Tallahassee. Now that Norvell and offensive coordinator Alex Atkins have the talent and depth of Jaheim Bell, Kyle Morlock, and Markeston Douglas to work with, this offense has unlocked a dimension that previously didn’t exist (and one LSU wasn’t prepared for and didn’t have an answer to).
Against the Tigers, the majority of Counter runs Norvell called were GH Counter, where FSU pulled the backside guard and the HB, usually Morlock (below designated as Y). They were often in a formation just like this one, with Travis under center and Morlock offset.
Everybody downblocks while the pulling guard would take the unblocked defensive end on the edge and Morlock folds inside while the running back, usually Benson, would follow them through the crease.
Early in the game FSU often ran Counter to Wingo’s side, who promptly blew it up. The only run longer than three yards among FSU’s first five drives was a Counter run on their scripted first drive and one of the few times they ran it away from Wingo’s side; Trey Benson picked up 12 yards.
However, Norvell didn’t wait until the fourth quarter to make an adjustment. Because Counter is such an established play, he likes using its run action in the pass game as a blocking scheme, often paired with play action. They did this a few times, running Counter action to Wingo’s side, while rolling Travis the other way, getting him out of the pocket and neutralizing LSU’s pass rush.
Norvell tried a few other wrinkles, including GT counter. Instead of putting a TE at HBack offset, Norvell would use this staple by pulling the backside guard and tackle. However, most of these plays were run to Wingo’s side and weren’t successful. Credit goes to the junior tackle, he clearly earned LSU’s vaunted #18 jersey for a reason.
But Mike Norvell and this offense wouldn’t be denied. On Florida State’s first drive of the third quarter Norvell brought out a new formation — the split-back shotgun, which he used heavily at Memphis. He called Counter out of it, because of course, and it promptly went for a six-yard loss.
Undeterred, Norvell called it again on the first play of FSU’s opening fourth-quarter drive following Renardo Green’s interception. This time Benson ripped off 14 yards and a first down.
Two things began to happen in the fourth quarter — FSU used this formation, and Norvell began to consistently run the ball away from Wingo. Here, Norvell added Jaheim Bell as a lead blocker for Benson or Rodney Hill, while Morlock and the backside guard lined up across from Wingo (in this case Keiondre Jones subbing in) still pulled like before.
This created an extra gap in the run game to the slightly less disruptive side of their defensive line, finally allowing FSU to outflank the Tigers. On the very next play Norvell flipped the formation and ran it again, also away from Wingo, and got rewarded with a solid four yard run that kept FSU in standard downs.
Two plays later Norvell threw in another wrinkle on my second-favorite playcall of the game, calling QB Counter on a critical 3rd and 8 which picked up 13 yards and another first down.
This, too, was run opposite Wingo, who was lined up over the left guard, D’Mitri Emmanuel (who replaced Colorado Buffaloes transfer Casey Roddick for this drive). Morlock pulled, as did Emmanuel, who sealed off the unblocked defensive end. Four plays later FSU punched it in to go up 31-17 and take full control.
Last season FSU lined up against the Miami Hurricanes and ran the same basic Counter plays repeatedly. A lot of fun was had at the Hurricanes’ expense for that, and rightfully so. What the ’Noles did Sunday night wasn’t as simple as that, but I’d argue it was just as fun in an even more satisfying way. I love what it says about Norvell, and how it explains what we saw on Sunday night. He’ll help you, he’ll add wrinkles to put his players in the best positions to succeed, but he still challenges his team to be physical in order to overcome adversity. Instead of abandoning what doesn’t work for something else, he’ll simply find a different way to do the same thing. And in doing so, over time he creates an identity; it necessitates the will to dominate the man (and team) across from you.
Once Norvell found something that worked, Florida State ran variations of it in the final frame, and LSU simply had no answer. Before the end, Wingo and the rest of the Tigers’ talented front were gassed. And if LSU, who has one of, if not the best defensive fronts FSU will face all season, could not stop it, how can anyone else?