Florida State’s defensive statistics against FBS opponents are ugly. Their hopes of making the playoff are in ruins and the inquest has already begun on what has gone wrong.
It all looked so positive for the Seminoles in preseason. The 2014 National Champions were expected to be a dominant defence as they retained most of their starters from the previous season. The only notable exceptions being 5th overall pick Jalen Ramsey and graduating seniors Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith.
In 2015, the Seminoles were ranked 19th overall in total defence, 10th in yards per play and 9th in scoring (averaging 17.5 points per game). With so many underclassmen in key positions, it was not unreasonable to expect this team to develop considerably and become a legitimate top 5 defence in 2016.
It hasn’t turned out that way.
After five regular season games, Florida State rank 99th in total defence averaging 35.4 points per game conceded and have failed to return a turnover for more than 20 yards in any game. These statistics become far worse when the game against FCS school Charleston Southern is removed. Then FSU’s defence drops to 125th overall in yards-per-play, conceding 41.75 points per game and 6.98 yards per play against. Only three schools — Marshall, Hawaii and Rice — fall below that last threshold.
The question is where do these defensive woes start?
A good starting point is how slow Florida State have been getting out of the blocks. In all 4 games against FBS schools, FSU have conceded a touchdown on the first drive. In the first half, they have conceded scores on 53.5% of drives against them. More than 1 drive in 2. This is decidedly different from the Seminoles second half performances where only 39.8% of drives have ended in a score.
These numbers are even more drastic when the blowout 55-35 victory over the South Florida Bulls is removed. FSU were 45-14 ahead with 5 minutes of the 3rd quarter to go and subbed in 2nd and 3rd stringers for game experience. With that game removed, 62.8% of drives in the first half ended with points against the Seminoles while only 33% end that way after the half time break. In the most basic terms, this means that Florida State are giving up scores 2 out of 3 times in the first half and only 1 out of 3 times in the second. A massive disparity.
In points terms, this has meant Florida State has faced 22, 25 and 21 point depicts by the second quarter in three of their games. To their credit, FSU were able to battle back to win against Ole’ Miss and were able to get their noses in front against North Carolina until a last second field goal. However any team putting themselves in that sort of position is going to face losses.
Much of the blame has been focused upon the Seminoles problems with giving up big chunk play. This is certainly an issue with 5 and 6 play drives being common on scoring drives against them. However this is a symptom and not the reason of the teams defensive issues.
Concentration for the core problem should be focused on Florida State’s run defence, especially on 1st and 10. In their 4 games against FBS teams, FSU have been run on an average of 7 yards per touch on 1st and 10 situations in the first half. 2.7 yards more than the average. This number does realign to a more average number in the second half but the damage has already been done. Their inability to stuff the run forced Florida State to load the box. This opens up more man to man and read zone opportunities which results in the chunk plays.
How to resolve the issue is going to be complicated. Coach Jimbo Fisher has been very public in his pronouncements that he must coach the team better as they are playing the same scheme that has been so successful in previous seasons.
However this is not quite as simple as Coach Fisher makes out. Fisher’s defence relies on a strong front to hold up the run so the two linebackers and large safety/linebacker hybrid can work underneath zones. When this works, the linebackers move up into or beyond the line of scrimmage on run plays or force the quarterback to throw underneath where the receiver can be challenged or, at a minimum, be tackled for a small gain. With a porous line of scrimmage, the linebackers are caught in two minds. They know they must move up and make the tackle but have to be more aware of their gap determinations and accuracy in the tackle due to more one on one situations. Overcommitment leads to spaces behind them which allows fro the vast majority of the chunk plays.
The challenge is made more difficult by the aforementioned loss of the two graduates in the summer. Both were key leaders in the linebacking core which has led to a young unit being further exposed. Less public were the losses of their potential replacements as pencilled in hybrid linebacker Terrell Lyons transferred to Northern Iowa and junior transferee Lorenzo Phillips unexpectedly ran out of eligibility.
How Coach Fisher can remedy this issue is really a case of speculation. Certainly getting more out of highly thought off defensive end DeMarcus Walker would be a good start. The Jacksonville native came out of the blocks with gusto, getting 4.5 sacks in FSU’s opener. However he has only contributed with 2 more sacks since and has been relatively quiet for someone with considerable expectations on his shoulders.
It may also be necessary for Fisher to shuffle the pack at linebacker. Its not entirely clear if any of the starters have been playing outside in their natural roles however it may be time to look to the freshman group for better system fits. Fisher certainly has the opportunity to make such a bold move with the season already over in respect of playoff ambitions.
There is certainly enough talent for Florida State to turn this around. Yet their schedule does not get much easier with #10 Miami, #3 Clemson and #18 Florida still to come. There is a real danger that this could turn into the poorest year of the Jimbo Fisher regime.