When Florida State Has the Football
Florida State Passing Game against the Oregon Defense
After a brilliant 2013 campaign that ended with the Heisman trophy and a National Championship, Winston regressed in 2014. He completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 3,559 yards and 24 touchdowns, all down from his 2013 numbers (66.9/4,057/40). Winston’s INTs nearly doubled, from 10 last season to 17 this year. The QB struggled in a number of games, throwing three INTs against Louisville, and four against Florida in the regular-season finale. His best performance of the season might have been the ACC Championship Game, where he completed 70% of his throws for 309 yards and three TDs without turning the football over.
Winston does two things very well in the passing game. First, he shows tremendous touch and strength on long-distance throws. Take this deep ball from the season-opener against Oklahoma State:
The signal-caller delivers the football well downfield, with tremendous touch on the throw, connecting with Christian Greene for a 62-yard gain.
Secondly, Winston’s incredible release allows him to get the ball out quickly to his receivers. On this slant route against Notre Dame, the QB delivers the ball to Rashad Greene in a flash:
Winston uses a three-step drop in the shotgun on this play, and, as his second right foot is planted (the third step), he is already starting his throw. This is almost flawless technique.
Rashad Greene developed into a dangerous weapon for the FSU passing game in 2014. The senior improved on a solid 2013 campaign by bringing in 93 passes for 1,306 yards and scoring seven touchdowns. He contributed a number of big plays during the year, perhaps none larger than this 74-yard TD against Clemson:
Greene’s big catch tied that game at 17, and FSU went on to win in overtime.
Winston’s other trusted target is his tight end, Nick O’Leary. Another senior, O’Leary had his strongest year as a Seminole in 2014, catching 47 passes for 614 yards and six touchdowns. The TE is a strong receiver over the middle, and earned the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end.
Returning to Winston, the quarterback will need to protect the football better against Oregon. Many of the QB’s interceptions this season occurred on late throws down the middle and into coverage. Take these two plays from 2014, the first showing an INT thrown against the Fighting Irish:
Winston floats a pass down the middle of the field late in the play, and off his back foot. Multiple defenders are in the vicinity and the pass is intercepted.
This play against the Wolfpack offers yet another example of a throw late, in the face of pressure, and into coverage:
Trust is a double-edged sword: The QB forced both of those throws to O’Leary.
If Winston handles pressure in a similar fashion during the Rose Bowl, this game might get out of hand. The Ducks excel at generating pressure without needing to blitz. Oregon ranked 28th in FBS with 34 sacks on the season, averaging more than two per game:
The Ducks send only four on this play against Washington State, and linebacker Tony Washington gets to the QB for the sack. The LB notched five sacks in 2014, topped only by Christian French, who tallied 6.5 sacks. With these two players creating pressure on the edges, defensive linemen such as DeForest Buckner benefited:
French (#96) blows past the right tackle. This forces the QB away from French, and into Buckner’s waiting arms.
A pair of seniors, Erick Dargan and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, led the Ducks secondary. Ekpre-Olomu grabbed two interceptions in 2014, while Dargan led the team with six ‒ including two against Wyoming ‒ and added a big pick in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Unfortunately for Oregon, Ekpre-Olomu will miss this critical matchup, having torn his his ACL in practice.
Florida State Running Game against the Oregon Defense
The Seminole rushing attack is anything but dangerous. FSU ranked 104th in FBS, averaging only 134.8 yards per game on the ground. Twice the offense failed to eclipse the half-century mark, gaining only 50 yards against the Fighting Irish and a paltry 13 against Clemson (with the caveat that sack yardage counts against the rushing total in college football). Dalvin Cook and Karlos Williams shared the load carrying the rock. Cook, a freshman, led the Seminoles with 905 yards on 155 attempts, scoring eight times. The senior Williams rushed 138 times, gaining 609 yards and leading FSU with ten TDs.
When watching Florida State’s running game one thing is clear: Whether by design or through cutbacks, look for them to run to the left. Take this sequence against North Carolina State:
This is a simple counter play to the left edge. Senior left tackle Cameron Erving blocks inside on the defensive tackle, while O’Leary gets a great seal block on the defensive end. This gets Williams to the corner, where the slot WR does just enough on the defensive back to spring the RB into the secondary.
The senior ball carrier proved crucial on FSU’s game-winning drive in overtime against Clemson. On back-to-back runs, he gained over ten yards (including the game-winner), all on runs to the left:
This first run is a designed cutback out of the i-formation. O’Leary comes in pre-snap motion, and, at the snap, the entire offense sells the off-tackle run to the right. The TE blocks to the outside as the offensive line blocks to the right, and fullback Freddie Stevenson aims for the right-side B gap. But the sophomore FB then peels backside, taking out Clemson’s right DE. This creates a big hole for Williams to exploit.
On the next play, Florida State shows the Tigers the same look:
The blocking develops a bit differently, with the FB blocking in the middle. But Williams has a big cutback lane to the left and he bursts outside and then just inside the pylon for the score.
Oregon’s run defense ranked as a middle-of-the-pack unit, finishing 51st in FBS with an average of 154.2 yards allowed per game. They started the year stout against the run, but in successive weeks they gave up 208 ground yards to Arizona (in the early-season loss) and 308 to UCLA.
The penetration they generate against the pass, though, translates well to stopping the run. On this first play from the loss to the Wildcats, Arizona faces a 4th-and-2 in the fourth quarter. They try the read option, and Anu Solomon hands the football to his RB:
But interior pressure, combined with a well-timed blitz off the edge, stops this play at the line.
This play from the Civil War further shows how Oregon’s penetration stops the run game. Notice how the backs of the Beavers offensive linemen (especially the left tackle) are all bowed backward at the moment of contact, illustrating the push from the Ducks defensive line:
Oregon stops this halfback lead in the backfield for a loss on 4th and 1.
NFL Scouts might outnumber the fans in terms of Rose Bowl attendance. Mariota seems destined for Tampa Bay, which owns the first overall pick and badly needs a QB. Ekpre-Olomu as well as defensive linemen Arik Armstead and Buckner are also projected first-rounders. Center Hroniss Grasu, offensive tackle Jake Fisher, Dargan, and Washington can also expect to hear their names called during the draft.
Winston might have garnered a top 15 selection last season, but his down year and off-field troubles might cause him him slide to slide in 2015. Goldman is another FSU first-round talent, with cornerback P.J. Williams and Erving also potential early choices. Second-day picks from the Seminoles could include Greene, O’Leary, Darby, and Williams. FSU’s top NFL prospect might be their placekicker, Roberto Aguayo, who rates highest at the position according to most outlets, with CBS giving him a third-round grade.
This is a tough matchup for the Seminoles. What they do best on offense ‒ throwing the football ‒ is neutralized by what Oregon does best on defense, which is generating pressure. Given Winston’s tendency this season to force throws into coverage in the face of pressure, expect FSU to turn the ball over a few times. On the other side of the football, what FSU does best on defense ‒ capitalize on mistakes ‒ is neutralized by the veteran Mariota, who makes very few errors. This all adds up to a Ducks victory.
Oregon 35, Florida State 20
All video and images courtesy ESPN.com
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.