FSU's ground game toils in the shadows

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
11:00
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The first half of December was a coronation for Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. He won the ACC championship game MVP, led his team to a berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, won a slew of postseason awards, including the Heisman Trophy.

[+] EnlargeJames Wilder Jr.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIJames Wilder Jr., who has tallied 542 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, is one of three of Florida State's solid running backs.
Meanwhile, last year’s ACC championship game MVP, James Wilder Jr., relaxed and enjoyed awards season from home. Never mind that Florida State’s ground game actually tallied more rushing touchdowns and averaged more yards per carry this season than it did a season ago, when it was widely considered one of the best units in the country.

No, with a quarterback like Winston, the shadow the ground game lives in can be a long one.

“We have a Heisman[-winning] quarterback,” Wilder said. “It’s hard to talk about the running backs when you have a Heisman[-winning] quarterback.”

It’s not just Winston overshadowing Florida State’s runners now. The narrative for this season's national title game has already been written, with Winston’s high-flying passing attack going up against Auburn’s spectacular ground game, and the team that best executes its strength is likely to be the one hoisting a championship trophy on Jan. 6.

But again, that ignores the work of Florida State’s running backs.

Auburn’s rushing attack has earned raves -- and for good reason. The Tigers led the nation in rushing touchdowns entering bowl season with 46. Of course, that’s just five more than Florida State had, despite 202 more carries.

Auburn also had one of the most explosive running games this season, racking up 335 yards per game on the ground -- the best total in the country. But break those numbers down a bit by eliminating yardage lost to sacks on passing plays and big numbers tallied against FCS competition, and Florida State was actually just a tick better running the ball (6.43 yards per carry) than was Auburn (6.42 yards per carry).

In other words, there will be more than one talented rushing attack on the field in Pasadena.

“Inside the [running backs meeting] room, we feel we’re as good as anyone,” said Karlos Williams, FSU’s third-string back who has averaged 8.2 yards per carry and scored 11 times this year.

Outside that meeting room, however, the Seminoles’ runners are happy flying beneath the radar.

Williams has been spectacular when he has touched the ball, but he’s gotten just 14 first-half carries all year.

Devonta Freeman is on course to become Florida State’s first 1,000-yard runner in 17 years, but he hasn’t complained about his lowly 12.5 carry-per-game average or the fact that he has had just 65 rushing attempts in the second half this year (an average of just five per game).

Wilder entered the season with NFL aspirations, but a shoulder injury and a concussion limited his workload. One year after winning the ACC championship game MVP, he is on pace to carry the ball 26 fewer times this season, but he’s not complaining.

“The backs, we’re not those guys that care if we get attention or not,” Wilder said. “All of our running backs are unselfish guys who just want to see the team succeed.”

And thus far, that dynamic has worked particularly well for Florida State’s offense, which leads the nation averaging 7.81 yards per play.

The Seminoles have done it with an almost perfect 50-50 split in running plays vs. passing plays -- a much heavier dose of the passing game than in years past under coach Jimbo Fisher. From 2010 through 2012, FSU ran 58 percent of the time. Florida State’s 36 rushes per game this season ranks 84th nationally, yet its 41 touchdowns ranks seventh and its 5.7 yards-per-attempt average is ninth.

“We’re explosive,” Williams said. “Very, very explosive when we lock in, when we pay attention to the small details and when we play our football.”

Of course, that’s not to take anything from Auburn’s ground game, which Wilder insists is as good as advertised.

The Tigers’ tailback Tre Mason was there in New York alongside Winston at the Heisman Trophy presentation, a worthy finalist. Wilder is good friends with Mason, and he actually texted the Auburn junior to wish him luck before Winston won the award.

But that’s where all the good wishes are likely to end. With a national championship to be decided, Wilder knows Mason will be a big factor, but on Jan. 6, Florida State’s ground game will get a chance to shine, too.

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