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Defensive observations from FSU’s thrilling win over North Carolina

The defense iced a game!

Don Juan Moore

Florida State Seminoles football’s defense faced a good North Carolina offense at home tonight, looking to build on a decent second half against Notre Dame last week.

Defensive lineman Dennis Briggs opted back in to the season, while Fabian Lovett wasn’t dressed out for currently unknown reasons. Travis Jay returned, although Hamsah Nasirildeen was still out. Cornerback Jarrian Jones was also out.

We saw a much improved defensive unit in the first half, although it didn’t always look it. The Seminoles held the Tar Heels to 5 yards per rush on thirty carries, while Sam Howell went 9/15 for 91 yards and an interception (pick-six). Overall the ’Noles held the Heels to 5.4 yards per play on a whopping 45 plays. It’s not an elite defensive performance, but it’s improvement. FSU carried a shocking 31-7 lead into the locker room, though obviously you’d prefer that FSU hadn’t given up the touchdown late in the half. Further, Cory Durden was ejected on a targeting call on a hit on Howell.

So that left the question — could this defense protect a lead? In the third quarter that answer was no, as FSU gave up 14 points. UNC really isolating and attacking Stephen Dix and Akeem Dent in coverage over and over again. UNC was running a very large number of plays, more than 60 in the first three quarters. Tar Heels scored again in the fourth quarter to make it a one-score game 31-28 with just under five minutes to play.

FSU’s offense collapsed in the second half, and UNC had the ball with 2:30 left and one timeout, down just three points. It would be up to the defense to win the game. In the end, FSU’s defense held as UNC dropped three consecutive passes, including a final one on fourth down, and FSU kneeled to ice the game. The Tar Heels ran an exhausting 81 plays and finished with 6.9 yards per play, but just 4.1 yards per rush on 45 attempts. Howell finished 20/36 for 374 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception.

The overall story on the defensive side is some improvement in some areas, some of the same issues, especially on the boundary and in coverage at the second level, and killer penalties. The penalties repeatedly kept UNC drives alive. But overall it was a good gameplan by Fuller, who constantly sent blitzes after Howell, which worked. He was harassed and hit all night long, and it had him seeing ghosts.

Defensive position unit notes and observations:

Defensive line: Much better effort and disruption early in the game. Marvin Wilson was a man possessed this game, and was still unblockable deep into the fourth quarter. Defensive ends are rotated much less than usual; almost exclusively Janarius Robinson and Joshua Kaindoh. Surprising to see them all of a sudden not look physically outmatched. Kaindoh looks better and more explosive now that we’re a couple weeks removed from his knee hyperextension. I don’t know what they did to this unit, but they are winning battles they weren’t before. Malcolm Ray got some burn. Cory Durden ejected for targeting. Caused consistent pressure which harassed Howell all night.

Linebackers: Backers look slow, including Stephen Dix. Still too many whiffs and arm tackles from this group — they get into position and then can’t break down and make the tackle, resulting in whiffed arm tackles. This unit really needs the defensive line to be disruptive in front of them. With all of that said, not all bad. Emmett Rice took much better angles to the ball in this game, and his tackling was also consistently better. But this unit still gets exposed in coverage.

Secondary: Run fits noticeably better earlier, especially from safeties Travis Jay and Brendan Gant. Asante Samuel, Jr. was his usually extremely good self. ASJ not rotating to boundary much as Akeem Dent and Meiko Dotson playing there. Not sure Dotson is healthy. Akeem Dent did not play well there, and Dotson wasn’t much better. Still don’t have any answer at boundary corner, which nearly cost FSU the game. Renardo Green also doing a good job being decisive and physical as the force player (whose job it is to come down against the run and force runs back inside to help). Jaiden Lars-Woodbey still takes terrible angles and doesn’t like contact, but did ok in coverage playing the robber role. Jarvis Brownlee playing very well in coverage and the run game. I put him here even though he played some SAM backer because he played a ton of nickel. Fuller blitzed Brownlee over and over to some really good success, though Brownlee also committed a big penalty late in the game.

Drive and scheme notes and observations:

Janarius Robinson did a good job on edge, secondary fits much better. FSU gets UNC into 3rd and long, and then block the punt! Biggest thing that jumps out is intensity and effort from defenders.

Both defenders on the edge standing up, Asante Samuel, Jr. great in coverage on third down and short, breaking on ball for pass break up. Seemed to be baiting Sam Howell. Two for two on three and outs. So far effort from defensive players is night and day better than earlier in season. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller loading box and forcing UNC to pass.

Blitz from corner, Jaiden Lars-Woodbey too slow to replace him; really doesn’t like contact. Dennis Briggs already in. Same story — guys in position but don’t finish. Poor technique breaking down ball carrier for tackle, resulting in missed arm tackles. Jarvis Brownlee saw time at Sam backer. Meiko Dotson playing at boundary. Woodbey later makes a great read and tackle to force a fourth down on FSU’s side of the field. Woodbey playing robber role (zone coverage in shallow middle of field). Marvin Wilson, a defensive tackle, gets a hand on this UNC punt.

Brendan Grant doing well at the other safety position across from Jay, coming down against the run. Right after, Jay makes his own great run fit. Fuller bringing defensive backs on blitzes from field and boundary. Linebackers aren’t scraping the gaps, instead FSU is using safeties heavily in run game. A pressure package gets FSU’s 4th sack of the year on third down. Initial pressure was created by Kaindoh off the edge.

Missed tackles, missed tackles, missed tackles. UNC started throwing to running backs to attack linebackers in space on the edge. It’s turning 1-2 yard gains into 7-8 yard gains. Renardo Green shows up as a force player against the run. DJ Lundy in, as well as Amari Gainer and Raymond Woodie on third down. FSU forces a 4th and 1, and then Robert Cooper blows up UNC’s center and pursuit makes the stop three yards in the backfield.

Can this defense....protect a lead?!? Edge defense much better tonight, continuing through the first half. Brownlee playing well. Dotson playing well, usually at boundary, which helps. On third down, Kaindoh reads Howell who wanted to swing it to the running back in the flat, and Kaindoh intercepts it for the pick six to put FSU up 24-0. Howell never sees Kaindoh because he got small behind the left offensive tackle.

On the first play of the next drive with about three minutes till halftime, Fuller sends Brownlee on a blitz and he sacks Howell. However, next play Howell hits a wide open receiver on boundary for a huge play. Dotson went out a play earlier on a cramp. Bad angle by Woodbey gives up another huge play that puts UNC on the 15-yard line. A great defensive effort two plays later was erased with Cory Durden committing a clear targeting penalty against Howell. Durden was ejected and the Tar Heels were gifted a first and goal with 1:16 left in the half. On the next play Marvin Wilson committed a ticky-tack roughing the passer penalty. A play later UNC walked into the end zone as JRob couldn’t set an edge. On the XP try, Cooper blew up the kicker, which kicked off a squabble between the teams. Mike Norvell then reamed out Cooper and Wilson for it.


Emmett Rice playing much better this game. UNC’s chunk plays have mostly come off of RPOs, including on this drive. Especially to tight ends down the seam. Woodie in a lot on this drive. Jay is great at getting into position but has missed some tackles tonight. Pressure and hits on Howell have him seeing ghosts — had RB wheel route open on a linebacker, but doesn’t take it. Taking off instead, Woodie making good tackles in space. On a 4th and 3 at the FSU 6-yard line the ’Noles forced an incompletion with Brownlee in coverage to get the goal-line stand. Got away with defensive holding in end zone however, as Brownlee re-routed the receiver in the end zone that threw off the timing.

UNC with great starting field position. Brownlee with fantastic man-to-man coverage deep downfield almost forces a coverage sack. Pressure and hits have Howell rattled, missing wide open throws. Unfortunately, UNC hits a big 38-yard throw for a touchdown as Dix bailed his zone coverage to come up to tackle Howell. He needed to be much more patient and wait for Howell to cross LOS before coming up. Heels went for two and got it, making it 31-15.

UNC’s field position much worse this time. Opening play is UNC’s 60th of the night. Targeting Dix in coverage. Also attacking Akeem Dent in coverage. Kaindoh and Robinson do a great job to sack Howell on a screen play. On the next play they pick on Dent again and the safety is too late to get there. UNC goes for two again, and they go right to Dent again. Dent commits pass interference. But out of a timeout UNC commits a false start. Tar Heels still go but Wilson flushes Howell and eventually Howell’s pass is batted down by Kaindoh, who peeled off the tackle to cover the running back.

A quick one-play interception by Travis put the defense right back on the field and in horrible field position. The defense holds and forces a field goal which goes wide left. Huge stop. Tar Heels have some open receivers early in a play but the pressure on Howell is quick to get there. Howell looks like he’s hesitating. Fuller is putting robber coverage underneath a lot of the throws Howell wants.

UNC backed up on chop block penalty, but attack Rice in coverage, then run next play before defense is set. Brownlee on blitz again, hits Howell as he throws to potentially save a touchdown. Fuller blitzed Brownlee again, who grabbed Howell’s facemask. They are disrupting the offense with free runners, but mistakes are keeping UNC alive. Next play Howell hits an easy touchdown to make it a one-score game, again attacking Dent who for some reason was caught looking into the backfield.

With their backs against the wall and the defense needing to win this game, they get a sack on first down, their third of the game. Second play Howell throws a jump ball and Dotson has great position but can’t make the play against the bigger receiver. A DPI penalty on Dotson in the boundary for holding the receiver’s arm put UNC in great position in FSU territory. Marvin Wilson harassing Howell all over the field. Three straight dropped passes ends UNC’s comeback bid. FSU a bit lucky, but pressure has to count for something. FSU found a way.