Sunday, September 2, 2012
Grading the Game: FSU 69, Murray State 3
By David M. Hale
Florida State opened its season with a 69-3 win over Murray State in which the running game led a huge offensive performance, the defense looked as dominant as ever and the special teams provided the first touchdown of the game for the Seminoles.
But that doesn't mean it was a flawless performance for FSU all the way around, so we dug into the Week 1 numbers and handed out our position-by-position grades.
The most noteworthy moment of Saturday's game for EJ Manuel was probably his first-quarter interception, which snapped a streak of 128 straight throws without a pick. Of course, the INT was hardly Manuel's fault. The pass was delivered with precision, but Kenny Shaw bobbled it into a Murray State defender's hands. Shaw's blunder certainly kept Manuel's nuambers more pedestrian -- 16-of-22 for 188 yards -- but he also hauled in Manuel's lone touchdown throw of the game.
Given the questions surrounding the offensive line and the running game, it's not surprising that Manuel wasn't asked to do a lot as Jimbo Fisher tested his ground game often. But it's also worth noting that eight of the first nine offensive plays of the game for FSU were passing plays -- the sum total of which garnered the Seminoles 47 yards (5.9 yards per play, compared to FSU's game average of 7.9 yards per play). Manuel was also just 1-of-4 for 2 yards on third-down passes, and he converted just one of five third downs he faced in the game -- the lone conversion coming on a QB run.
With FSU rolling in the second half, Manuel didn't stick around too long. Clint Trickett entered in the third quarter and looked sharp, completing 8-of-11 passes for 117 yards, including a beautiful pitch-and-catch with Shaw for 40 yards. Trickett's highlight though? That would probably be his shoving match with a Murray State defender after Debrale Smiley's touchdown in the fourth quarter. Trickett boasted about bulking up in the offseason, noting that he was lifting weights with the linebackers these days, so he must have been eager to show off his new found moxie.
Jacob Coker also got in his first career game, too, completing 1-of-2 passes for 16 yards.
Overall, the FSU QBs were 25-of-35 for 321 yards in the game.
It was a big night against a lesser opponent, so even the 285 yards and seven touchdowns Florida State racked up on the ground won't prove the Seminoles have turned a corner. But it was a dominant performance, and that's all Fisher could ask for.
We wrote last week about the standard by which teams should be judged when playing an FCS opponent, noting that Florida State offered little in the running game against Charleston Southern last season. We suggested 6.5 yards per carry was probably the line of demarcation for FSU against Murray State, and the Seminoles managed to top that, checking in at 6.8 yards per rush.
The fullbacks stole most of the glory Saturday, with Lonnie Pryor and Smiley combining for five touchdowns in the game. Pryor's three scores topped his total for all of last season, and his 18-yard scamper in the second quarter perfectly illustrated the weapon the more slimmed-down Pryor can be as a runner.
Chris Thompson returned for his first game since breaking his back last October, and while he wasn't exceptional, he had a few nice runs, including a hard-fought eight-yard rush in which he hit contact just passed the line of scrimmage but refused to go down.
"At certain times, I thought he looked hesitant because I think he's still getting the flow," Fisher said. "But he will."
James Wilder Jr. had a huge night, racking up a game-high 106 yards on 12 carries and scoring twice. He got the game ball, and he was still carrying around with him after the game. "It's going to be my girlfriend tonight," Wilder said. Wilder also flashed some ability out of the backfield, catching one pass for six yards -- a weapon both he and Fisher have suggested could be utilized often this year.
With such a big night from the ground game overall, Devonta Freeman got a bit lost in the shuffle, but he turned in 64 yards on 10 carries, picking up some strong runs early in the game and serving as the lead blocker on Pryor's 18-yard TD run.
If there's one criticism offensively from Week 1, it might be the performance by the receiving corps, which was solid but also included a couple of glaring mistakes.
Shaw's bobble and Nick O'Leary's drop in the first quarter may well have cost Florida State two more touchdowns, and while that may not matter much in a 69-3 win, it's also not exactly encouraging for the group.
Both players managed to salvage their performances, however, as O'Leary hauled in two more passes for 33 yards and Shaw caught a 40-yarder from Trickett that was the game's longest passing play and was on the receiving end of Saturday's lone passing touchdown.
Overall, there was nothing overly spectacular from the group, but highly touted Kelvin Benjamin did have a couple decent catch-and-runs, O'Leary showed he can be a valuable weapon in the passing game, and Greg Dent had a solid game after a month's worth of praise from Fisher.
This was something of a no-win situation for the line, which will carry questions into Week 2 and beyond because these early opponents simply aren't much of a test for the group, which weighs in at an average of nearly 320 pounds but lacks any significant experience beyond center Bryan Stork.
But if there was any standard of success for this group, they met it. The running game found plenty of holes, and no runner was tackled in the backfield. The passing game wasn't asked to do much, but Manuel & Co. were flushed out of the pocket just once, and Murray State didn't record a sack.
The bottom line: The new-look line did exactly what was expected of it. While pushing around a smaller defensive front, very few glaring mistakes were made in assignments.
What's more, the backup linemen got plenty of work, too -- including Daniel Glauser, who stepped in during the second quarter when Menelik Watson was out with an ankle injury, and 2011 starters Austin Barron and Bobby Hart, the latter playing at right guard and obviously not redshirting this season, and the running game didn't miss a beat.
Again, even the second-string line should've been expected to win the battles in the trenches against Murray State, but it's encouraging to see that there is some legitimate depth at a position that absolutely killed Florida State a year ago.
First off, keep in mind that senior starter Anthony McCloud didn't play Saturday because of a pectoral injury. Senior defensive end Brandon Jenkins, one of the most elite pass rushers in the nation, left in the first half, too.
And still, the end results for the D line: 29 tackles, six sacks, nine TFLs, two forced fumbles and two pass break-ups.
Oh, and for good measure, they helped hold Murray State to just 39 rushing yards on 32 carries (Even if we factor out rushing yardage lost on sacks, Murray State still averaged just 2.7 yards per rush for the game.)
It was a legitimately dominant performance, regardless of opponent.
Bjoern Werner was the highlight, as he tormented Murray State's beleaguered offensive line while racking up four sacks alone. Perhaps the most impressive play of the game for Werner, however, was his coverage on a little bubble screen, in which he darted outside and wrapped up the receiver for a loss on the play. How many 250-pound defensive ends can do that?
The new-look linebacking corps figured to get a decent test Saturday, as Murray State loves to use its underneath passing game, and Brockman has an affinity for running with the football. That should've put some pressure on the linebackers to play good assignment football, but the truth is, the Racers' game plan was abandoned quickly and the linebackers were asked to do little.
Vince Williams finished with seven tackles to lead the group, and Christian Jones had a nice play sniffing out a screen pass in the first quarter, dropping the receiver for a two-yard loss.
Aside from that though? It was a mostly under-the-radar performance for the linebacking corps, which did hold Casey Brockman to just 15 yards rushing with a long of eight. The bulk of Brockman's completions were for short gains, and with Murray State trailing big in the second half, FSU spent far more time in nickel and dime packages.
It's worth noting that freshman Reggie Northrup saw action in the second half, making one tackle, while Markuss Eligwe appears set for a redshirt.
Odds are, Savannah State won't provide any more of a challenge for the group next week, so this area might remain one of the bigger question marks as FSU awaits ACC play.
There's plenty to like about the performance of Florida State's secondary Saturday night. The unit held Brockman, an FCS All-American, to just 117 yards passing, no Murray State play went for longer than 16 yards, Xavier Rhodes picked off his first pass of the season, and the two new faces at corner -- Nick Waisome and Ronald Darby -- both looked solid.
All in all, that's about all Fisher could've asked for in Week 1.
But it could've been an even better night if a few more things had broken FSU's way. Rhodes' INT was as easy as they get, the result of Werner forcing Brockman into a throw he wasn't ready to make, and Rhodes had to do little other than settle under the floater for a fair catch. Darby and safety Karlos Williams also both missed potential INTs, too.
That's probably nitpicking, but this is also a defense that, while extraordinarily effective in 2011, wasn't the best at creating turnovers. It would've been nice to see the secondary -- particularly the young guns like Williams and Darby -- come away with a couple of big plays. It's one thing to have the opportunities. It's another to cash in.
Fisher also complained afterward that his corners allowed a couple of plays to get outside, failing to get containment late in the first half, but none resulted in particularly big gains for Murray State.
Overall, a strong start, particularly for Darby and Waisome, and that's very encouraging.
This is something of a good news, bad news area for Florida State.
On the one hand, Rashad Greene returned the first punt of the season for a touchdown, and the obvious retort of "Greg Reid who?" echoed through the fan base.
Then Greene failed to cleanly field two more punts, barely avoided catastrophe in chasing another punt and muffed yet another that resulted in a turnover, and the fan base quickly remembered, "Oh yeah, Reid isn't going to be so easy to replace."
"That's just not being smart," Greene said. "That's all I can say. Taking my eyes off the ball, I should've fair-catched it. I tried to take a chance and that's something I'll learn from. I'm not perfect, and I'm learning still, but I'll make better decisions."
And, of course, that's what games against teams like Murray State are for. Mistakes can be made, lessons can be learned, no harm done.
After offseason rules changes lessened the value of a touchback, Dustin Hopkins showed he could still boom some nice directional kicks, but the consistency of the kick coverage by FSU was a little up-and-down.
The Seminoles did a terrific job of covering Hopkins' first three kickoffs of the game, smothering Murray State's return men quickly and forcing the Racers to start each of their first four drives (three following kicks, one punt) inside the 20.
The fourth kickoff, however, went sour.
Hopkins' kick was good, but the coverage was problematic, and Murray State's Patrick Robertson returned it 33 yards to the MSU 39. Tack on a Gerald Demps face-mask penalty, and the Racers opened the drive in Florida State territory. Another personal foul followed, and that provided the lone points Murray State would score on Florida State's D.
"We got a little sloppy on special teams, on kick coverage," Fisher said.
Fisher said he thought the focus got a bit better in the second half, but actually it was more that the game plan changed. After kicking directionally on his first five kickoffs, Hopkins booted five of the next six for touchbacks.
Freshman punter Cason Beatty got his first work of the season, too, and he probably deserves something of an incomplete grade for his performance. Beatty booted three punts in the game, averaging just 34.3 yards per punt with a long of 39. But Murray State was only able to return one of the three, and that went for just two yards, while two of the three resulted in the Racers being pinned inside their 20. Essentially, Beatty was only asked to punt from FSU territory once in the game, and he delivered a 39-yarder with little chance for a return.