- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The play unfolded just as Jeremy Pruitt might’ve dreamed it up back in spring practice, with the lone exception being the personnel on the field. Florida State’s defense has been so dominant that the starters were already resting comfortably on the sideline by the time Dan Hicks became the 15th Seminole with a takeaway this season.
Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen takes the snap and fakes a handoff. Tight end Josh Parris comes over the middle, and Allen tosses a spiral in his direction. Hicks jumps on it, diving in front of Parris at the last second, swiping the ball from midair for the interception.
The sideline erupted, and Florida State’s offense marched back onto the field and, once again, the Seminoles’ defense was making it look easy.
"They're playing extremely well," Jimbo Fisher said. "They're very disciplined, flying to the ball, creating turnovers. We've got a lot of athletic guys that are being very physical and very disciplined."
When Pruitt arrived as defensive coordinator in January, his to-do list was extensive — evaluate personnel, adjust the scheme, shore up fundamentals. At the top of the list though was the one crucial variable that past Seminoles defenses had failed to master: Takeaways.
“As good as Florida State played defensively last fall,” Pruitt said upon arrival, “one of the things where we really could improve is getting turnovers."
Indeed, FSU’s defense had been among the best in the country two years running under former coordinator Mark Stoops, but it was hardly a turnover machine. In 2012, the Seminoles’ pass defense ranked tops in the country overall, but was tied for 65th in interceptions. FSU had one of the most disruptive defensive lines in the nation, but 103 other teams finished with as many forced fumbles as the Seminoles did.
A large portion of the formula for creating turnovers is luck, and that would even out, Pruitt believed. What he hoped to do was fix the rest of the formula by putting his best athletes in position to make more plays and instilling a mind-set to get after the football every chance they got.
Through 10 games this season, that formula is working perfectly.
“Once again, execution is the key," linebacker Reggie Northrup said. "We’re making sure everybody’s where they need to be, and we make stops like that.”
Florida State leads the nation with 19 interceptions. The FSU defense creates a takeaway once every 27 plays, the sixth-best mark in the nation and a marked improvement over last season's rate of once every 42 plays. In the Seminoles’ last five games alone, they’ve secured 18 takeaways -- a tally that would rank in the top 50 nationally for the entire season.
All that defensive success has helped key Florida State’s offensive explosion, too. For the year, FSU has scored 135 points off turnovers, tops in the nation and more than a quarter of all points the team has scored this year. The defense has already scored six touchdowns of its own, two more than it mustered during the entirety of Mark Stoops’ tenure. FSU's defensive efficiency rating -- a measure of a unit's contributions to opponent-adjusted scoring margins -- is tops in the nation, better even than Pruitt's former team, Alabama.
"It's crazy," tailback James Wilder Jr. said. "We joke around with them like, 'Y'all getting those interceptions, but stop scoring. You're keeping us off the field.' It's great. They're doing a great job. That shows how mature the defense is."
Of course, what has been most impressive about the aggressive approach to takeaways is that it hasn’t come at the cost of fundamentals. FSU is allowing 18 more yards per game than last season, but 3.5 fewer points. The secondary has been dominant, and the rushing defense, which struggled a bit early, is rounding into shape.
This was the plan all along, but the speed with which Pruitt’s formula yielded results has surprised even his players. Still, it has been fun to watch it all click into place.
“It’s something exciting to see," tackle Timmy Jernigan said. "I love watching those guys make plays behind us.”
3dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna