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What went right, what went wrong on defense for FSU vs. Louisville

The Noles survive a thriller in Louisville

Florida State traveled to Louisville this weekend to play the Cardinals under the lights on Friday. It was their first ACC matchup, and a very important contest to determine where this team currently stands in the conference. The main priority for the Noles defense was maintaining a consistent run stop plan against UL’s quarterback Malik Cunningham and making sure he stayed in the pocket.

Their defense has fared well this season, but they were set to face a quarterback that’s caused recent struggles for the Noles. After early struggles, the Seminoles' defense stayed patient and played well enough to secure a win. It may not have been a pretty victory for the Noles, but they’re back home with an undefeated record and an extremely important ACC win.

First half

The Seminoles won the toss prior to the game and chose to defer. Louisville started the matchup on their own 11-yard line, after a penalty on the kickoff. After some great tackling from FSU’s linebackers and coverage from their defensive backs, UL went back to the sideline on a three-and-out. Florida State took complete advantage of the shortened field and put seven points on the board just a couple of minutes into the game. With 11 minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Noles were up 7-0.

After FSU found the end zone early in the first quarter, Louisville turned its focus toward a counterattack. Running back Jordan Jawhar found an open gap for a 14-yard gain and the Cardinals were within scoring distance. Louisville never stopped running; Cunningham punched in from eight-yards to tie the game. The score was 7-7 with 8:28 left in the first half.

The Seminoles missed a field goal, and UL took advantage with a 24-yard gain on first down. Defensive back Jarrian Jones deflected a pass in the middle of the field, but it didn’t matter after Cunningham tossed it up for wide receiver Dee Wiggins. The Cardinals were in FSU territory with 2:56 remaining in the first quarter.

Louisville was able to sneak their way into the end zone on a third and five, marching their way to a 14-7 lead. The Noles offense continued to roll in the passing game and it was all tied at the end of the first; 14-14. FSU forced a third and eight, but Cunningham converted again and kept the ball in their hands. The Seminoles were so focused on the run from Cunningham, so the receivers found profitable gains in the middle of the field.

FSU was constantly missing tackles, and UL gained six first downs on that drive to put them within the 15. Linebacker Kalen DeLoach bulldozed his way toward Cunningham for the sack and the Cardinals were at the nine yard line on third down. Defensive lineman Derrick McLendon grabbed a fumble from Cunningham on the third down attempt. While the Noles were struggling against the run, they stayed patient and kept the Cards out of the end zone.

Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis threw his first interception of the season in the second quarter, so the Cards made their way back on the field. Defensive end Jared Verse headed to the medical tent and FSU forced Louisville to punt soon after. The Noles defense was forced back on the field with 7:44 left in the half, thanks to a three and out from the offense and a 24-yard punt.

With an extremely short field to play with, Cunningham and the offense kept moving the sticks. They couldn’t be stopped on the ground; Louisville led 21-14 with 5:30 remaining in the second quarter. Travis left the field soon after, demanding the defense get back on the field to help maintain the Seminoles focus. Cunningham and the Cards running backs continued to find success, but linebacker Tatum Bethune recovered a fumble close to the 50-yard line.

The offense struggled with backup quarterback Tate Rodemaker on the field, so the defense was back on the gridiron with 33 seconds remaining. Louisville headed into the locker room with a 21-14 lead.

Second half

The ball game was tied at 21 when the Noles defense entered the field in the third quarter. Louisville kept the ball on the ground to no one's surprise. While they were able to find a first down, they met DeLoach on a third and two.

Louisville’s offense had their shortest breather of the night when the Seminoles had a three-and-out to end the squad’s third-quarter run. Cunningham shot out of the pocket for a 40-yard rush, putting the Cardinals in the red zone. He didn’t stop there; Cunningham found the gap on an 18-yard touchdown run. With 14:25 left in the fourth quarter, Cunningham notched over 100 yards on the ground.

The Noles tied the game at 28, and it seemed like the momentum shifted back toward their favor, but a massive gain from the air pushed Louisville inside the Seminole's territory. After a pass breakup from Jammie Robinson, the Cards were up 31-28 with a made field goal. The Seminoles were back on the board with a touchdown from wide receiver Johnny Wilson.

Louisville never shied away and kept their game plan throughout the game. They pushed the ball on the ground yet again, but the Seminoles played safe and survived to put their offense back on the field. They were very close to finding an answer to punch it into the end zone, but flags pushed them away from that goal. Kicker Ryan Fitzgerald was set to kick a 35-yard field goal to extend the lead but missed.

Florida State did a great job at keeping the Cards in a short field, but they were unable to stop Louisville on fourth and three. After an effort from their running back to get the first down the Cardinals didn’t stop there. They kept moving the sticks, just until defensive back Kevin Knowles introduced himself to the Louisville crowd. Knowles snagged an interception from Cunningham and it was all about the clock winding down with 37 seconds left in the game. The Noles won 35-31 in their conference opener.

Standout players from FSU vs. Louisville

Linebacker Kalen DeLoach

It looked like DeLoach was tasked with chasing Cunningham for the entire game. He was very successful in reading the decisions of the Cards' offense, making plays all over the field. He was the Noles Swiss Army Knife, finishing the game with one pass breakup, one QB hit, one sack, two tackles for loss and five tackles.

Defensive end Derrick McLendon

McLendon stepped up to the plate when it was time to make game-changing plays. He was rushing his way in when Verse was leading the line, and took part in the leadership role when he left the game. There was clear maturity and improvement from McLendon. He recorded one QB hit, one tackle for loss, one sack and one fumble recovery.

Linebacker Tatum Bethune

The UCF transfer led the Noles in tackles with 10 on the night. He was there to stop big run plays, although the initial film may not show that. Bethune’s consistency is his biggest weapon, while he uses a veteran mind that knows when to attack. It’s incredible to see this linebacker duo thrive in the Noles defense this year, after they’ve searched for answers at the position for years.

Defensive back Renardo Green

While the ballhawk may have allowed more receptions than he should’ve, he was a tackling machine that avoided big play opportunity. Green ended the game with nine tackles. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller described him as one of the best weapons on the Noles defense and that was definitely on display against the Cards.

Safeties Akeem Dent and Jammie Robinson

The safety duo concluded the win with a combined one pass breakup and 19 tackles. They showed their ability to stop any man in the open field and were able to save the Noles from a couple trips to the end zone on the opposing side. They’ll only get more comfortable with one another, and that’s scary to think since they’re already connecting on a high level.