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Florida State vs. North Carolina: Defensive breakdown, analysis

Will FSU’s defense pressure Sam Howell enough to steal another one?

Florida State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

CHAPEL HILL: The Florida State Seminoles (1-4, 1-2 ACC) will try to knock off the North Carolina Tar Heels (3-2, 2-2 ACC) for the second season in a row after upsetting No. 5 UNC 31-28 last year. FSU is trying to somehow claw its way back to .500 while the Tar Heels are looking to get back in the ACC race. UNC opened as an 18-pt favorite.

Defensive backs Brendan Gant, Meiko Dotson, and Renardo Green are out today. That likely means we see Akeem Dent and Jarques McClellion at safety today. Defensive tackle Dennis Briggs is out for the season. However, Travis Jay is good to go, as is Fabien Lovett.

UNC QB Sam Howell has thrown a touchdown pass in 30 straight games and the Tar Heel offensive line has been a disappointment this season despite returning all five starters. However, they’ve averaged 52 points per game at home this season. The key to FSU winning will be its pass rush, led by Jermaine Johnson.


  • FSU defers. Howell comes out throwing. UNC picking on DJ Lundy and Jarrian Jones in coverage, and running at Malcolm Ray in the run game. Sidney Williams hurt. 3rd and 11 in FSU territory, UNC motions into trips, Jammie Robinson does a great job sealing off the middle of the field, pressure flushes Howell and Dent comes down the alley and forces a field goal attempt, which is good.
  • Defensive line is hit or miss, Howell scrambles and Heels go for it on 4th and 1 at their own 39-yard line. But Robert Cooper jumps offsides and gives UNC a free first down. Awful. UNC runs tunnel screen, Kalen DeLoach whiffs. FSU just giving up way more yards than they need to (after contact, missing tackles). QB draw gains another 1st down, DeLoach can’t get off his block (held a bit). Sidney Williams is back in the game and saves a touchdown on a bomb by knocking the ball away at the last second after UNC receiver gets behind the defense. Another draw — UNC spending a lot of time early on trying to slow down FSU’s pass rush. Then another QB draw. UNC chop blocks Cooper. Then Howell connects on a big bomb that targeted McClellion in coverage.


  • UNC running lots of crossing routes or cross-field digs/crossers, getting 1v1 matchups against these FSU DBs. Howell targeting receiver Josh Downs a ton. Pretty good coverage by Robinson and UNC has to punt.
  • UNC runs right at Joshua Farmer, who can’t defend the edge. Then next play Derrick McClendon loses the edge. Next play Howell doesn’t see anything and takes off, DeLoach is getting mugged. Lovett plugs the middle. Jarvis Brownlee injured. 3rd and 2 turns into 3rd and 7 on false start — Howell takes off again and easily picks it up. Williams, Dent, and Jay all miss tackles on Howell. Secondary not spying Howell, just playing pass. Then next play Howell takes a shot at the end zone and the much-maligned Jarrian Jones has good inside leverage (so poor decision/throw by Howell) and high points the ball for an interception! What a time to be alive.
  • After going down 10-0 FSU now has an 11-pt lead with :53 seconds left and absolutely cannot give up any points before halftime. UNC gets 17 on a RB draw. DeLoach makes a great tackle in space but gets called for a facemask doing it. Brutal penalty that puts Tar Heels in FSU territory 39-yard line. Amari Gainer flushes Howell from the pocket but can’t catch him from behind (yikes), gets bailed out by holding call on UNC left tackle on Marcus Cushnie who had good leverage to get Howell. UNC now on 49-yard line with 9 seconds left. Kevin Knowles has been playing well today.
  • Before this final hail mary attempt before halftime, Howell has 40% completion for 73 yards and 1 TD and 1 INT. Howell launches it as pass rush doesn’t get there and Jay nearly throws the ball back to UNC’s receivers but it falls incomplete.
  • Held UNC scoreless this quarter.

CoachAB notes: Defense is daring UNC to run and playing over top/slot to come down on RPOs.

FSU 21, UNC 10

Half-time stats

  • Yards per Play allowed: 5.6, 213 total yards. UNC with 140 rushing yards on 22 attempts. With FSU very committed to taking away the pass, the running game has been there for Tar Heels.
  • Howell: 6/16 73 yards 1 TD 1 INT (4.5 yards per attempt). 6 rushes for 58 yards (team’s leading rusher).
  • Third downs: 4/8 on third down. UNC with 8 penalties for 75 yards.
  • Leading tackler: Jammie Robinson — 7 tackles, 6 solo, 1 pass breakup.
  • FSU with zero sacks but 3 pass breakups. Cooper with the solo QB hit.


  • DeLoach has no idea if he’s supposed to be on the field, almost runs off before turning around. Jammie runs the alley for the tackle, not allowing the RB to get to the corner. FSU blitzes Knowles but he doesn’t threaten Howell, who makes Keir Thomas miss and takes off again (Lovett held). Another QB draw for Howell picks up 3rd and 4 conversion. Then UNC runs a WR screen, Knowles can’t get there before left tackle buries him. Late hit flag on Cooper gets picked up. Sidney Williams whiffs again in open field next play. Good design and DeLoach gets burned on a wheel by the tight end for a touchdown. Way too easy for UNC.
  • UNC hits one of those crossers they’ve been running all game. Jermaine Johnson blows up a running play. Play action gets a wide open Downs but he drops it. Cushnie loses contain on Howell on third down by crashing too far into the pocket, but Howell is tackled short. UNC just not executing consistently enough, but the plays they want are there now.
  • UNC goes five wide on 3rd and 3, Howell runs the draw for 31 yards. FSU tried to stunt inside, which hasn’t worked a lot today. Dent misses a tackle on Howell in the open field.

Xs and nOles notes: Phil Longo (UNC offensive coordinator) is firmly in the “take what the defense gives you” camp and FSU is giving them that draw.


  • Gainer and Lundy squeeze an outside zone run for nothing. Howell evades the rush and finds a receiver to set up 1st and goal. Counter run gets stuffed, Keir Thomas is hurt but walks off. Lovett swallows up the RB to set up 3rd and goal. FSU in man coverage, Brownlee covers the receiver on the back of the end zone and Gainer does a good job on the wheel. Howell throws it away out of the back of the end zone.
  • Fourth down — FSU in zone, Howell looks like he’s gonna take off but then throws it into the front corner of the end zone. FSU E/T stunt with Thomas and Cooper forces Howell to throw. Low percentage throw low on the ground but Knowles knocks it anyway for the goal line stand!
  • FSU’s defense now has an interception in the EZ and a goal line stand in this game.
  • Howell takes a deep shot and has a receiver open behind Jones next to the sideline, but Jones makes a great play on the hands of the receiver and it’s incomplete. Howell wants something deep again but settles for a throw underneath to Downs and Gainer makes the stop. It would be 3rd and long but FSU accepts an OPI penalty on UNC to make it 2nd and 25. Jermaine pressures Howell and then Lovett bear hugs Howell for this defense’s first sack of the day to set up 3rd and very long. However, refs call hands to the face on Johnson and UNC gets new life and Lovett’s sack is erased. Next play Johnson sacks Howell haha. Sidney Williams’ tackling in space today has been absolutely horrific, gives up a first down. UNC not hurrying up, FSU is forcing everything in front of them making UNC burn clock. DeLoach does a good job forcing the play back inside to burn more clock. Williams tackles UNC in bounds but hurt again and clock stops. UNC burned nearly six minutes off the clock running just 10 plays, but gets into the end zone on the 11th play. Down 35-23 UNC goes for two — UNC runs an end around trick play and Downs the receiver throws for the conversion. UNC kicks onside but FSU recovers despite a hold-your-breath moment where the ball was just sitting there for anyone to fall on.

Final Thoughts

What a team effort. They sold out to stop Howell in the passing game. After UNC went up 10-0 early, FSU clamped down and limited the Tar Heels, allowing FSU to go on a 35-7 run.

The defensive line mostly dominated UNC up front, even with some arguably rampant holding. The linebackers weren’t great but the defensive backs, while shaky at times, performed overall a lot better than expected. Especially Jarrian Jones. Jammie Robinson and Kevin Knowles played well.

But the story of the game has to be Jones’ interception in the end zone and FSU’s goal line stand. As a unit they came up big when it mattered most. Howell is always going to get his, but FSU had a great game plan and FSU’s players executed it pretty well and came up big in critical situations.

End-of-game stats

  • Yards per Play allowed: 6.4, 432 total yards of offense. 229 rushing yards on 36 carries; 6.4 yards per rush.
  • Howell: 17/32 203 yards 2 TDs, 1 INT, 6.3 yards per attempt. It’s Howell’s lowest passing yardage total since Clemson in September 2019 (min 20 attempts or vs FBS opponents). 11 rushes for 108 yards, UNCs leading rusher.
  • Third downs: 7/13 on third downs, 0/1 on 4th downs.
  • Red zone conversions: 1 for 2.
  • Leading tackler: Jammie Robinson — 12 tackles, 9 solo.

Defensive MVP:

It was a team effort today, but we have to give the game ball to Jarrian Jones. The interception in the end zone changed momentum and stole points off the board for UNC. Jones was also beat but made a great play down the sideline late in the game; that pass breakup also saved a potential score. At minimum it prevented an explosive play for UNC that could have given them more time to try and complete the comeback.