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Thursday, November 15, 2012
Updated: November 16, 10:30 AM ET
Road unkind to FSU offensive line

By David M. Hale
NoleNation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- At one point in last week's win over Virginia Tech, EJ Manuel came down hard on his shoulder, and as he lumbered off the field the worst possible outcome came into focus. As it turned out, he'd just had the wind knocked out of him, and Manuel didn't miss a play. But the situation was all too familiar to a Florida State team that had believed its offensive line had become a strength in 2012 after sinking its 2011 season.

Kyshoen Jarrett, Tyrel Wilson
The Florida State offensive line has subjected quarterback EJ Manuel to many more hits on the road than at home in 2012.
Virginia Tech pressured Manuel routinely, blitzed constantly and completely disrupted FSU's run game, leaving Jimbo Fisher searching for answers. But when he watched the film a day later, the problems didn't seem quite so extraordinary.

"There were some technical things that we haven't been doing that just got out of whack," Fisher said. "A lot of very technical things."

Fisher downplayed concerns, but while the schemes and technique might be technical, the numbers illuminate what appears a fairly simple and distinct dichotomy for Florida State this season.

At home, the Seminoles' offensive line has been dynamic. The running game averages 6.9 yards per carry, tops in the nation. Manuel has been sacked just five times in six games, making FSU one of just 18 teams in the country to allow less than a sack per game on its home turf. The line has been light years ahead of the miserable performances the unit turned in so often in 2011.

On the road, however, there have been far more causes for concern. Manuel has been sacked 13 times -- 72 percent of his season total. FSU's yards per carry gets cut in half. Its four road games thus far have yielded its four worst rushing performances of the season.

"I wouldn't say it's much more difficult, but it's really just a matter of executing what you're supposed to do, and sometimes we fall short of that," Manuel said.

FSU's offensive linemen declined all discussions with the media this week, focusing on what's ahead rather than deconstructing last week's struggles. It's a pragmatic plan.

Now the Seminoles travel to Maryland, where the Terps rank second in the ACC in both sacks and run defense, which might be a major source of concern if Fisher was at all convinced those home-road splits represented a trend for the Seminoles.

"They're better teams [FSU has played on the road]," Fisher said. "Communication is an issue. It always is on the road. People defend their home better. Teams brought their 'A' game to us. We've responded in a lot of ways, but we have to get better."

The competition has certainly been better away from Doak Campbell Stadium, and that will continue against Maryland's stout defense this week, and tailback Devonta Freeman believes the Terps will have learned something from Virginia Tech's success a week ago.

The Hokies blitzed Florida State often, putting Manuel under constant pressure and surprising the FSU ground game that wasn't entirely prepared for the challenge.

"I didn't know they were going to come that hard at us," Freeman said. "We expected it to be a hard game, but we didn't know they were going to all-out blitz as much as they did."

On passing plays, Virginia Tech blitzed 48 percent of the time against FSU, according to ESPN Stats and Info, marking the second-most pressure any team has brought against the Seminoles this season. But even then, the difference between home and road numbers is telling.

Two teams -- Wake Forest and Duke -- have blitzed on at least 40 percent of passing downs against Manuel at home this season. He's is 10-of-17 (59 percent) for 175 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in those two games in which FSU allowed just one sack and won by a combined score of 100-7.

Two teams -- NC State and Virginia Tech -- have blitzed that often on the road this year, too, but the offensive success for the Seminoles has been much different. Manuel is 18-of-34 passing (53 percent) and averaging less than six yards per attempt. He's been sacked seven times on blitzes in those two games.

"I can't say what the exact reason is, but we have to do a better job," Manuel said. "I have to do a better job getting the ball out so those guys don't have to block as long."

Fisher insists the bulk of the problems weren't issues with recognition -- by either Manuel or his offensive line -- but rather problems with physical execution. That's been the focus in practice this week, and he believes progress has been made with both protection and finding holes for FSU's runners.

"There's some plays in there to be made," Fisher said. "We just have to coach 'em better, and we have to play a little better. The running game, I was very pleased with this week. I thought we were fundamentally better, and I think we'll carry it over to the game."

If Fisher's right, Saturday should be smooth sailing toward an ACC Atlantic Division title for Florida State. It would also be exceptional preparation for what figures to be the Seminoles' toughest matchup of the season when they host Florida the following week.

"Once we pick up those blitzes, we're going to start running up the scoreboard," tailback James Wilder Jr. said. "I like that challenge."