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Line adjustments bring results

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- There was a moment early in the fourth quarter of Florida State's emotional win over Clemson last month that Chris Thompson caught a glimpse of his right tackle on the sideline.

A former boxer, Menelik Watson bounced on the balls of his feet, his fists held high, a mountain of energy waiting to explode onto the field.

"It was like he was getting ready for a boxing match," Thompson said.

The image springs to mind each time Thompson sees Watson manhandle a pass rusher or carve a wide running lane along the right side. Watson's a fighter, and that's exactly what the Florida State offensive line was missing in a loss to NC State two weeks ago.

But Watson returned to action Saturday against Boston College, after missing the previous game with flu symptoms, and the offensive line suddenly looked stout once again, allowing just one sack of quarterback EJ Manuel while the Seminoles' offense exploded for 649 yards and 51 points.

"It brings a true edge having him back in there," Manuel said. "It's like having my big brother in there."

The sudden and dramatic turnaround for the offensive line certainly underscores Watson's contributions, but pinning the improvements entirely on the shoulders of the 6-foot-7 junior college transfer might be a bit of an oversimplification.

Watson shined at right tackle, but the entire line played dramatically better against Boston College than it had a week earlier. NC State sacked Manuel four times, and nine of his passing attempts came under duress. Against Boston College, however, the lone sack came because of strong downfield coverage by the Eagles' secondary, and Manuel threw under duress just three times, completing two. For the game, all five starting offensive linemen graded out at 82 percent or better, a feat that hasn't been accomplished by a Seminoles line in years.

"We didn't have any missed assignments," Jimbo Fisher said. "We played clean and we executed. When they blitz this time, we were getting a hat to a hat and letting EJ deliver the ball in those one-on-one [matchups]."

It's not as if the improvements required a miraculous makeover, center Bryan Stork said. Much of the team's problems against NC State were simply self-inflicted wounds.

"It wasn't that we didn't know what to do," Stork said. "It was just technique."

The technique was vastly improved against Boston College, which mustered just two tackles for a loss in the game. Florida State had allowed 19 in its previous two contests.

Fisher praised tight end Nick O'Leary's pass protection, too, and said Thompson and fullback Lonnie Pryor did an exceptional job of picking up blocks as well.

A good portion of the credit for the offensive improvement falls on Manuel's shoulders, too. In the loss to NC State, Manuel was 0 for 6 passing against the blitz in a scoreless second half. Against BC, he read more blitzes at the line of scrimmage, was 2-of-3 passing against the blitz and completed all three of his attempts when outside the pocket.

"We moved him around a little bit more, and we spread it around," Fisher said. "And the two [tackles] held up really well."

It helped, too, that Boston College blitzed far less than NC State had a week earlier. Manuel faced down at least five rushers on 48 percent of his drop-backs against the Wolfpack. BC took a far different approach, and Manuel had to adjust to the blitz on just three of 35 passing attempts, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

So was Florida State's improved protection a matter of a rejuvenated offensive line or a conservative defensive game plan by a Boston College team that has just five sacks on the season? Was it a simple matter of better technique and Watson's return, or did all the pieces just fall into place?

"There's more to it than just one thing," Stork said. "A problem has multiple problems."

Last week yielded answers -- not overwhelming shifts in scheme or personnel, but small changes that made a big difference.

"I can't really say what the difference was," Manuel said. "Those guys just did a good job. They stopped the blitzes; we didn't have any blown coverages. I think guys just focused in during the week and they were able to to do it well Saturday."