Top WRs stunted

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- They watch the film, and study the stats, but the names mean little according to Xavier Rhodes.

Even last week, as Florida State's secondary prepared for the arrival of Duke's big-play duo of Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon, cornerback Nick Waisome was keeping it all simple.

"[Numbers] 2 and 3, those are the targets," he said.

As far as Waisome, Rhodes and the rest of the Seminoles defensive backs are concerned, there are no superstars that play wide receiver, just guys they need to shut down.

Through nine games, that plan has been nearly flawless.

Vernon is poised to become the ACC's all-time leading receiver. Crowder has been nearly as explosive this season. But on Saturday, the duo was held to five catches for just 28 yards. Neither was a factor, despite 37 passing attempts by Duke quarterbacks. It was easily the worst game of the season for both.

Of course, that comes as no surprise. Florida State's secondary has made a habit of providing gaping holes in the otherwise stellar resumes of some of the ACC's top receivers -- even if that's not entirely their goal.

"We go into every game thinking the same thing," Rhodes said. "We look at film, go with our scheme, then play off our fundamentals. We don't go in saying this receiver is bigger than another receiver. We know that by the stats, but we go into a game just playing."

Despite the casual approach, Rhodes and his unit have been dominant.

For the season, Florida State ranks sixth nationally in passing defense, allowing just 154 yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging just 4.4 yards per attempt against them Seminoles, which ranks as the best mark in the country. And when it comes to big plays, they've been few and far between. The Seminoles have allowed just 22 receptions of 15 yards or more this season. Only Boise State has allowed fewer -- and the Broncos have played one fewer game.

"Being in situations where you're always able to come through, always able to prove yourself, it says a lot about this defense," safety Lamarcus Joyner said.

While the aggregate numbers are sterling, the specifics provide an even more impressive picture.

Florida State has faced seven of the top 10 receivers in the ACC this season, based on yardage, which includes All-American Sammy Watkins. They've also faced USF's Andre Davis, who ranks ninth in receiving in the Big East. Those nine receivers have averaged just 3.3 catches and 32 yards receiving against the Seminoles, with just one touchdown between them. That's roughly one-third of what they average against other defenses.

In fact, that lone touchdown -- a 60-yard score by DeAndre Hopkins -- represents the only big play FSU has allowed to a top wide receiver all season. Boston College's Alex Amidon is the only other member of that group to catch pass longer than 20 yards against the Seminoles.

"When we have our meetings we talk about those guys having good numbers," linebacker Christian Jones said. "The players we have, with the confidence and pride, we get in their faces and let them know. We're aggressive with them and we don't give them anything. We take pride in that."

That bodes well when Florida State travels to Virginia Tech, a team that features two of the ACC's top receivers in Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller.

It also bodes well for the future. With the loss of Greg Reid and new starters at safety, corner and nickel, Florida State figured to go through some growing pains in the secondary. Instead, Waisome, Tyler Hunter, and Terrence Brooks have stepped up, while freshman Ronald Darby and sophomore Karlos Williams have provided depth without the defense losing a step.

Of course, whether they admit it or not, FSU's defensive backs understand what they're up against, and there's plenty of pride in rising to the challenge.

Had Vernon matched his season average in receiving yards Saturday, he would've set the conference career record, passing former Seminoles great Peter Warrick. Afterward, Joyner joked that Warrick now owes the current DBs some gratitude.

"That was the game plan to try to contain [Vernon]," Joyner said. "He's a great player. To be able to give him his worst game just says a lot about our defense and what we're capable of."

Vernon can take some solace, at least, in knowing he's not alone.