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Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Updated: September 12, 9:16 AM ET
Loss to Wake in '11 motivates

By David M. Hale
NoleNation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The film flickered across the screen, and Lamarcus Joyner was mesmerized.

A handoff, a cutback, and 10 yards. Another handoff, another cut, 42 yards. Again, handoff, cut, 57 yards.
Josh Harris
Josh Harris had 136 yards in Wake Forest's 2011 win over Florida State.
Joyner watched himself on the screen, out of position and overly aggressive. He watched his teammates miss assignments and be fooled badly. He saw Wake Forest's Josh Harris trample any lingering hopes Florida State had for a championship, en route to a 35-30 Demon Deacons win.

That was nearly a year ago, and Joyner hasn't watched the film since. The images are still vivid.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said.

There are no assurances that this is a new Florida State team, despite the immense hype that has surrounded the Seminoles for months. But since that ugly loss at Wake Forest last October -- the third straight for FSU -- things have felt different. Florida State has won nine of its last 10 games and built a defense as dominant as any in the country, and the turning point might have been that somber film session the day after Harris torched the Seminoles for 136 yards on just 13 carries.

"It wasn't really many mistakes," defensive tackle Everett Dawkins said. "But the ones that were there were big ones. They gashed us."

How it happened is both simple and complex.

From a purely schematic standpoint, Wake Forest is a testament to the value of fundamentals and patience. The Deacons slowly chipped away, waiting for a mistake. Once it happened, they pounced.

"They do a great job of mixing protections, runs, all those things," Jimbo Fisher said. "We have to be gap sound, assignment sound. If you look at that film, that's what happened -- guys out of gap, two guys in one gap, nobody in another, and creases happened."

Those mistakes and abandoned assignments were the product of one of the most miserable three-week stretches in Fisher's coaching career.

Florida State saw the bulk of its 2011 hype disappear in a loss to Oklahoma in Week 3. The following Saturday, Sammy Watkins and Clemson overwhelmed the defense in another loss. By the time the Seminoles reached Winston-Salem, N.C., to face Wake Forest, the confidence of the defense had been shattered.

Rather than work as a unit, each man wanted to play the role of hero. Rather than relying on a teammate for support, trust was overwhelmed by doubt.

"We went through a couple losses, and there's a lot of players who wanted to go out there and be that person that, if nobody else is, I'm going to make those plays," Dawkins said. "We had to go back in and re-evaluate things." Talent had been trumped by Wake's attention to detail, and there was an important lesson in that.

In practice, defensive coordinator Mark Stoops doesn't believe in heroes. He has preached technique, manning assignments, doing the little things. Assignments, gap awareness, fundamentals -- they're preached again and again and again.

"You may make the play, but if you're not in the right spot, that's an error," Joyner said. "[Stoops] is very critical of guys being in the right spot and keying your key, and not just out there watching the game and making plays that way."

Through the first five weeks of last season, Florida State's defense allowed an average of 91.6 yards per game. In the 10 games since the loss to Wake Forest, that number has dropped to 67.5 yards per game.

Harris broke off a handful of big plays that turned the tide in Wake's win a year ago. Since then, Florida State has allowed opponents five yards or more on just 24.5 percent of carries -- the second-lowest total in the nation.

Wake Forest ran for 162 yards last season -- not counting yardage lost on sacks -- but FSU wrapped up the year as the No. 2 rushing defense in the nation, behind only Alabama, the BCS national champion.

"After that loss, we knew we had to step it up," Dawkins said. "It was time for us to grow up as a team, go out and make plays and do stuff right."

Florida State has watched plenty of film this week of Wake Forest's win over North Carolina last Saturday. The Deacons' running game was largely dormant, but Timmy Jernigan knows that means little. It only takes a handful of snaps in which a gap goes unfilled or a defender takes a bad step and loses containment for the momentum to swing and the big play to develop.

Jernigan doesn't need to watch last year's film again to know this. The memories are still fresh.

"We come out and practice on it every day," Jernigan said. "Day in and day out."