FCU Bowl Season 2014-15: National Semifinals ‒ Rose Bowl Preview

The College Football Playoff is here, and Pylon University has been bringing the bowl breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. Today, Mark Schofield offers an expanded look at the two national semifinal matchups. In this edition, it’s the Rose Bowl preview.

The Matchup

WHO: Oregon Ducks (12-1) vs. Florida State Seminoles (13-0)

WHAT: Rose Bowl Presented by Northwestern Mutual – National Semifinal

WHEN: Thursday, January 1 – 8:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)

WHERE: Rose Bowl – Pasadena, CA

The two most recent Heisman Trophy winners and their teams meet in “The Granddaddy of Them All” with a berth in the National Championship Game on the line.

For Oregon, were it not for an upset loss at the hands of Arizona (and linebacker Scooby Wright III), this game would be a pairing of unbeaten teams. The Ducks avenged that loss in the Pac-12 Championship Game, routing the Wildcats 51-13. This year’s Heisman winner, quarterback Marcus Mariota, triggers an offense that ranked third in FBS, scoring an average of 46.3 points per game. In only one contestthe loss to Arizonawere Mark Helfrich’s Ducks held to under 38 points.

The Seminoles arrive as the reigning National Champions, but somehow still in search of a little respect. Jimbo Fisher’s team weathered off-field turmoil as 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston battled legal issues, yet handled the best shot every opponent had to offer. Though while Florida State did not lose a game, they never produced a true “statement victory” in 2014. More often than not, the Seminoles found themselves scrambling late to pull out a victory:

  • Week 4 vs ClemsonThe Noles eke out an overtime win over the Tigers (with Jameis Winston serving a one-game suspension).
  • Week 8 vs Notre Dame FSU gets a 4-point win after a penalty nullifies an apparent go-ahead Irish score.
  • Week 8 at Louisville After falling behind 21-0, Florida State comes back in the the fourth quarter to win.
  • Week 12 at Miami (FL)The Seminoles gain a 4-point victory when Hurricanes freshman QB Brad Kaaya throws his first interception of the game with 30 seconds left to play.
  • Week 13 vs Boston College Florida State beats the Eagles on a field goal with three seconds left.

Despite the multiple high wire acts and close calls, in each case Fisher’s team found a way to win, and his Seminoles are now battle-tested from the experience.

When Oregon Has the Football

Oregon’s Passing Game against the Florida State Defense

Mariota projects as the likely first overall selection in the upcoming NFL draft, and with good reason. The QB turned in his finest season yet for the Ducks, completing 68.3% of his passes for 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns with only a pair of interceptions. He averaged an astounding 10.2 yards per attempt, the only QB in FBS to gain more than 10 yards per throw.

What makes Mariota so dangerous are his arm strength, his solid decision-making, and his experience in Oregon’s offense. The Ducks implement a number of “package plays” that give the signal-caller various run/pass options on nearly every play. On this play against Wyoming, the offense lines up with Mariota in the shotgun using 11 personnel. They run the read option, with a packaged passing route to the opposite side of the field:

Mariota’s first read is the handoff to the running back. The left tackle blocks the defensive end to the outside while the rest of the offensive line blocks in the opposite direction, opening up a hole to the left side. But the linebacker steps into that gap, so Mariota keeps the ball. Since the offensive line by designstays behind the line of scrimmage the QB is free to hit his outside receiver on a quick vertical route:

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Notice, too, that the cornerback to that side tries to bait Mariota by coming towards the line of scrimmage prior to the throw, then scrambles to get under the route. Mariota’s arm is too strong, and his accuracy too great, for such a ruse to succeed.

The quarterback displays a tremendous arm and pinpoint targeting, whether inside or outside the pocket. Take these two plays from Oregon’s victory over Oregon State. First, the Ducks face 3rd and 7 on their own 23-yard line. Mariota is in the shotgun with 10 personnel on the field, and the offense has a trips formation to the right. The QB takes the snap, makes his drop, and uncorks a 35-yard rope on a deep post pattern against Cover 1:

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Slot receiver Byron Marshall reels in the throw, breaks a tackle, and races for a 77-yard score.

On this play, watch Mariota as he steps into a deep in-cut from his outside WR:

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The QB delivers the football quickly to freshman Darren Carrington, giving the WR an opportunity to turn the reception into a huge catch-and-run.

Finally, what adds an extra dimension to Mariota is his ability as a runner. An elite athlete, the QB often wisely tucks the football and gets what he can with his feet, as shown on this sprint against Washington State. The Ducks face 4th and 10 at the Cougars’ 34-yard line and empty the backfield. The defense rushes only four, dropping seven defenders into coverage. Mariota recognizes this immediately:

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The QB tucks the ball and races into the secondary. He is not knocked out of bounds until he has the Ducks set up with a 1st-and-goal situation.

Looking to slow down Mariota is the 50th-ranked passing defense in FBS. The Seminoles surrendered 218.2 yards per game in the air this season, along with just 20 touchdowns. But what Florida State does well is capitalize on mistakes and force errors. They may have only tallied 13 interceptions, but those takeaways often came at crucial moments that changed the complexion of games. Take this play against Virginia:

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The Cavaliers have an early lead but start this possession pinned in their own territory. They attempt a pass and their QB tries to check the ball down to his running back on an out route. But outside linebacker Terrance Smith (#24 – remember this name) reads the play perfectly and steps in front of the throw, setting up Winston and the offense with a 1st-and-goal.

Another example is this play against the Gators. Florida has an early nine-point lead and is on the march late in the first quarter on this 1st-and-goal play:

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Treon Harris fakes the handoff to his running back and attempts a roll-out pass. The football is tipped… and falls into the hands of Smith. The linebacker returns the ball 97 yards for a score.

Turnovers are not the only way Florida State’s defense rises to the occasion on big downs. In their victory over Notre Dame, the Seminoles tried to end the game on this 3rd-and-12 play:

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Everett Golson drops to throw but never has a chance. Smith blitzes through the weak-side B gap, makes the running back whiff in blitz pickup, and drags the QB to the turf. Notre Dame somehow converted the fourth down, but the linebacker did his job on this blitz.

While Smith is the playmaker for the FSU defense, the Seminoles sport talented athletes at every level. Fellow linebacker Reggie Northrup led the team with 113 tackles, 55 of them solo. Jacob Pugh, a freshman linebacker, notched two interceptions. Defensive backs Jalen Ramsey, Nate Andrews, and Lamarcus Brutus also tallied a pair of INTs apiece.

Oregon’s Running Game against the Florida State Defense

Royce Freeman shouldered the load in the Ducks’ running game. The freshman carried the football 230 times for 1,299 yards and 16 TDs, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. His numbers benefit from a combination of Oregon’s scheme, and Mariota-induced paranoia. Take these two running plays. On the first, Freeman breaks free for a big gain against Utah. But watch the outside linebacker and defensive end for the Utes flow towards Mariota, opening up the middle of the field for the RB:

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On this next play, observe Oregon State safety Justin Strong (#39):

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The freshman is very cognizant of Mariota keeping the ball around the edgeso aware, in fact, that he fails to recognize the running back speeding past him with the football until it is too late.

Oregon’s scheme also creates room for Mariota in the running game. The QB was the Ducks’ second-leading rusher, gaining 669 yards on 117 carries with 14 TDs. Here are two examples of scheme leading to a big play from Mariota carrying the ball. First, the Ducks implement a packaged play against Wyoming where Mariota runs the read option with a bubble screen as an outlet:

On this occasion, the Heisman winner keeps the football:

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The play works to perfection. The simulated screen occupies not only three Cowboy defensive backs, but the linebacker who bails to that side of the field. Mariota keeps the football, and once he gets into the secondary the only defender in position to prevent a touchdownthe LB who bailed on the playis blocked by the left tackle who races downfield at the snap of the football.

A final example of how packaged plays work to free running room comes from this play against Washington State. Oregon uses a similar concept, showing a bubble screen toward the far sideline (top of frame) while running the read option:

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The screen “look” from Oregon holds three defenders outside; this leaves only one safety in the middle of the field. Mariota fakes the handoff to Freeman and keeps the football. The RB gets crushed, but a second too late for the Cougars defense. Mariota breaks through the line and puts a quick move on the single safety and breaks into the open field.

The Seminoles ranked 58th in FBS in rushing defense, allowing over 160 yards per game to the opposition. Again, Florida State’s defense is an opportunistic unit that gives up yards but always seems to make the big play when needed. Take this huge play against Clemson. Late in the game with the score tied, the Tigers are in position to knock the Seminoles from the unbeaten ranks:

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The defense blitzes, and just as it seems that Clemson’s RB will break through the line, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (#90) rips the football away from the ball carrier and the Seminoles alertly pounce on the loose pigskin:

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The DT gets his arm in to jar the ball free. Meanwhile, notice that #24 is again right in the middle of the action.

On this goal line stop against Syracuse, watch the push from the Seminole defense up front:

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The offense tries a simple halfback dive, but Florida State blitzes and gets immediate penetration. Goldman leads the way, and he and a host of defenders (including Smith) drag the ball carrier to the turf for no gain.

It should be clear by now that Smith is a player to watch. The linebacker seems to thrive in big moments for this Florida State defense, and if the Seminoles pull out the win he will likely play a huge role in slowing down Mariota and company. Other FSU defenders also have the ability to make an impact on Thursday. Defensive lineman Mario Edwards, Jr. led the Noles with 11 tackles for losses, and Ramsey added 9.5 from his defensive back position. We just saw what Goldman can do in forcing the fumble against Clemson, but he also contributed eight tackles for losses in 2014. Ramsey led Florida State with three forced fumbles, including two against North Carolina State.

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