- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A year ago, it was simply a matter of survival for Florida State's offense.
Bruised and battered freshmen littered the skill positions. The offensive line was in shambles. Several players might have benefitted from surgery, but against Florida, it was all hands on deck.
"We were able to get through that game, but we were so battered up front it was ridiculous," Noles coach Jimbo Fisher said.
The valiant effort produced a win, but for Florida State's offense, it was as ugly as a win can get. The Seminoles mustered just seven first downs, didn't crack 100 yards of total offense, and EJ Manuel simply did his best to dodge the Florida pass rush.
Looking back, it was something of a lopsided effort, and Manuel aims to balance the scales this time around.
"Our defense played lights out, but I felt like we didn't do our part on offense," Manuel said. "This year, we have to do our part in helping those guys out."
There's ample cause for optimism. Florida State's offense ranks seventh in the nation in scoring, averaging 43 points per game. But Florida's defense has improved, too, and the Gators present a challenge unlike anything FSU has seen this season.
Florida enters the game third in the country in scoring defense, allowing fewer than 12 points per game. The Gators are sixth against the run and fourth in total defense, allowing just 281 yards per game -- nearly 50 fewer than any other team FSU has faced this season.
"That's a great team," tailback Devonta Freeman said. "They're going be big. They're going to be physical. They're going to be chirping. It's going to be hard to play against them."
The Seminoles have already heard some of the chirping -- and not just from their rivals at Florida. It's the Gators' defense that's generating all the pregame buzz, and the FSU offense is left to answer questions that seem far more appropriate for the battered group that stumbled away with a hard-fought win a year ago than the high-flying unit that has averaged 50 points per game at home in 2012.
It's not that Florida State isn't expecting a tough matchup against the Gators' vaunted defense. It's just that it's expecting more from its own offense.
"We've reviewed the film of what happened last year, but we can't expect it to be the same as last year," said receiver Rashad Greene, who said he played the 2011 game still hobbled from a midseason injury. "We've gotten better, they've gotten better. It's going to be a good, physical game."
Unlike last season, Florida State is prepared for that physicality this time around, too.
The 2011 game was a template for all that had served to undermine FSU's offensive game plan. The line was in tatters, a mix of hobbled veterans and overwhelmed youngsters.
Last season's Gators sacked Manuel four times, and he didn't complete a pass longer than 14 yards. The ground game mustered nothing, with an injured Freeman averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, but cashing in on two short touchdown runs to provide the entirety of the offense.
"We just couldn't block them," Fisher said. "You could draw up anything you want, and we couldn't block them."
Things are different now. Of the five men who started on FSU's offensive line last year, only center Bryan Stork remains in this year's starting lineup, and the improvement has been remarkable. The Seminoles are on pace to double their rushing total from last season, Manuel's sack total has been cut in half, and the offense has blossomed.
"Those guys being healthy this whole season and playing with each other, they've kind of jelled together," receiver Rodney Smith said. "We don't have a problem in that area, and it's going to show."
That's a level of swagger Florida State couldn't muster a year ago, but for the Seminoles, that game is ancient history.
It's not that they don't appreciate the task at hand, though. It's simply that they're so much better prepared now to endure the challenge.
"It ain't close," Fisher said. "We're two different football teams from where we were a year ago offensively."