LSU found itself within the Florida State 10-yard line within the first minute of the season. The preseason hype around the Tigers looked true, and the Seminoles did not seem like they could hang with the best teams in the SEC.
Then, led by Fabien Lovett, the FSU defense stopped Brian Kelly’s offense six times from within the 10-yard line to force a goal-line stand.
Something about this season would be different.
After rolling through the tape, the FSU defense arguably had four total letdown quarters of football this season: the final half against BC and the first against Clemson.
Besides the early season errors, they dominated. Adam Fuller’s excellence helped the coordinator receive a pay raise at the end of the year.
However, as Mike Norvell explained all season, this team was about the players, with individuals rising up in key moments to help the team achieve just the third 13-0 season in school history.
Which players in each position group had the most impressive performance, though? Let’s dive in.
Best Performance: Braden Fiske, vs. Louisville (ACC Championship Game)
Stats: 9 tackles, 3 sacks, 4.5 TFLs
Why it’s here: Rumors swirled pregame that the Western Michigan transfer could not play. Fiske had been battling foot issues in the back half of the season, making the quarterback controversy not the only important injury issue. No.55 went through all the warm-ups and pushed through the pain to be there for his team. His presence was needed against a powerful running back duo in Jawhar Jordan and Isaac Gurrendo.
He did not just make an impact. He changed the course of Florida State history.
Fiske turned into an inferno. Louisville could not run the ball in between the tackles, and on third down, the two-man with Jared Verse became unblockable. The Cardinals went an abysmal 3/21 on cash downs, in no short part to Fiske stopping the run on early downs and creating pressure later in the series. He picked the perfect time to deliver a takeover game as the Seminoles leaned heavily into their defense on Brock Glenn’s first start. But that was the theme of the defense the entire season. When they needed a stop, and their back was against the wall, someone in garnet stood up and made a play. Fiske wrote himself down in the history books with his play in Charlotte and even surprised some folks that Toafili took him MVP honors.
“Being able to make an impact on this team,” an emotional Fiske said after the game, “Was something I’ve wanted to do since the day I stepped on campus. For it to finally happen in this moment is even more special.
The definition of an unconquered spirit.
Honorable mention: Jared Verse vs. Florida
Stats: 6 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 TFLs
Maybe the media and fans were worried, but Jared Verse and the defensive staff never seemed concerned.
They knew the stats would come.
With a two-point lead and Florida getting the ball back inside their 25, Verse knew the Seminoles had all they needed. He blew past the left tackle and 1st down, forcing Florida to go three and out. After Trey Benson’s touchdown run and FSU holding a nine-point lead, Verse recorded another sack and put the Gainesville game on ice. He delivered when the lights shined the brightest and kept his body healthy for the end of the year. The Albany transfer always trusted his talent; like they said all year, the numbers finally came.
“We just turned up,” a passionate Verse said postgame, “When you walk in the locker room and look in everybody’s eyes, they got that look in their eye like if they don’t score, we win this game easy.”
Jared Verse made it look that way.
Jared Verse only got BETTER and kept the opposing teams on their toes!— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) December 15, 2023
His tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (9.0) speak volumes about his sheer dominance on the field! @FSUFootball | @JaredVerse1 pic.twitter.com/ZWvASq2cyH
Best performance: Kalen DeLoach vs. Clemson
Stats: 5 tackles, one sack, 1 FF, 1 TD
Why it’s here: They say Death Valley is where dreams come to die, and Florida State’s season started unraveling late in the third quarter. After back-to-back three and outs from the offense, Florida State found itself down seven in the third frame. Phil Mafah burst through the hole for an impressive gain, giving Clemson the ball in plus territory and looking to take the game over. Florida State had done so well up until that point at stopping the run that this particular gash felt like a backbreaker.
The play has been shown thousands of times as the Savannah native sprints in untouched, slams Klubnik to the ground, and ties the game up at 24 just when the contest started turning towards the Tigers. The play became the highlight of an incredible season and a program-defining moment in Mike Norvell’s tenure. The Florida State defense did not allow a point the rest of the game and slowed the Clemson rushing attack. According to PFF, DeLoach finished the game with an 82.1 defensive grade and an 82.2 tackling grade. The senior linebacker had not defeated Dabo Swinney’s team during his time as a Seminole, and his leadership guided FSU to a victory.
“Feel like a play needed to be made,” a smiling DeLoach said in a crowded Clemson hallway, “So we’re going to go out there, play our defense, play fast. We knew we needed a stop...so we had to go out there and make a play.”
That he did.
Honorable mention: Tatum Bethune vs. Louisville
Stats: 8 tackles, 1 INT, 0.5 TFL
The defensive performance against the Cardinals needed a second discussion. But, before it entered into the Seminole lore, Florida State found itself facing adversity.
A special teams SNAFU gave Jeff Brohm’s team the ball inside the Florida State red zone. Quarterback Jake Plummer pounded on the door all night, and this finally seemed like the moment Louisville would break into the end zone.
Tatum Bethune had other ideas.
On the drive's first play, he intercepted a Plummer pass, but the referees called it incomplete. Two plays later, he undercut the post route being run by the tight end for an interception, creating a tremendous turnover for the team. Louisville never crossed midfield the rest of the game, and that INT ended up sealing the victory.
But, the criteria was performance, not just plays, and Bethune flew sideline to sideline in the run game the whole evening. PFF gave him a 90.1 run defense grade on the night, which was by far his best of the season and even more impressive considering the competition. The Miami native made the most of his 41 snaps and formed a dominant triangle with Fiske and Verse.
“Just having our offense’s back,” was the way Tatum Bethune explained his game-winning interception, “They threw the back out trying to get my eyes, but I stayed right on the tight end and just turned around, and he threw it right to me.”
Easier said than done from the UCF transfer.
Best performance: Akeem Dent vs. Florida
Akeem Dent was front and center of this group staring down the UF players after the DBs were cut off from doing their normal lap around the field.— Brendan Sonnone (@BSonnone) November 26, 2023
Not sure I've ever seen him so dialed in.
He was elite yesterday per PFF.https://t.co/euEmhQZPxv https://t.co/5ToyUVMkv4 pic.twitter.com/CofQssNbjT
Stats: 6 tackles, 1 QB pressure, 100% snap count
Florida marched down the field on their opening possession but faced a critical third down deep in FSU territory. Adam Fuller did what he did all season long when he needed a stop and called in a secondary blitz. Akeem Dent sprinted through the guard and the tackle and slammed Max Brown to the ground for a sack.
The defense was incredulous, Mike Norvell looked like he might get thrown out of the game, and the defense gave up a touchdown two plays later. Everyone seemed rattled except for the player who was called for the penalty.
‘Do it all Dent’ lived up to his Twitter handle. He came up in run support and made crucial one-on-one tackles when Dent found himself alone with the ball carrier. The senior safety played sticky pass coverage against the backup Florida quarterback, as evidenced by his 73.2 coverage grade courtesy of PFF. He made his most significant impact as a blitzer, however. Fuller turned up the heat all night, which meant that No.3 came flying off the edge all night. The stat sheet only credited him with one hurry and pressure, but he made his presence felt. Brown had no time to throw all night due to the pressure from the safety position.
“I mean, just film study, situational awareness,” Akeem Dent said was why he played his ‘best game’ in an FSU uniform. “With that game, you just need to know what situation to pull up there.”
Dent found himself in perfect position the whole game and led the Seminoles to a low-scoring rivalry victory.
Honorable mention: Jarrian Jones vs. Miami
Stats: 1 tackle, 1 INT, four times targeted, one catch given up for -3 yards
All week long, Jones heard about Xavier Restrepo. The Miami receiver led the country in targets and looked on his way to a 1,000-yard season. Adam Fuller needed an elaborate plan to slow down the senior receiver.
Jarrian Jones made his life simple.
Restrepo finished the game with no catches, his only time this season without a reception. Meanwhile, Jones finished the day with a game-sealing interception, finishing his career in Tallahassee with a winning record against the Hurricanes. He followed Restrepo the entire day, forcing Williams to hold the ball and allow the pass rush to get home. Jones increased his draft stock with a performance of this magnitude and solidified himself as one of the best cover corners in the ACC.
“Just who he is as a man is something that I respect, and I love him,” Mike Norvell said about Jarrian Jones's game, “He’s just a really special, special person. For him to be in that moment, to have the opportunity to seal the game, finish it like that, really proud of him.”
Jones’ climb was not linear, but he put on a career performance against Miami.
Agree? Disagree? Head to the comments to share your favorite moments and offer your guesses on who will earn the nod on offense.