Analysis: Surging Florida State defense continues to redefine Seminoles' ceiling
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – In a game that saw him record more touchdowns than incompletions, Jordan Travis committed a mistake that could have been a turning point.
The Florida State quarterback seemingly waited too long in the pocket for a passing play to develop, resulting in him losing a fumble on a strip sack. Syracuse then took over at FSU’s 23-yard line, looking to capitalize on the opportunity while trailing 14-3 early in the second quarter.
The three plays that followed encapsulates how the No. 23 Seminoles (7-3, 5-3 ACC) put the squeeze on the Orange (6-4, 3-3) in their 38-3 win Saturday, which came before a crowd of 45,213 at JMA Wireless Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.
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• Play one: Safety Jammie Robinson and linebacker Kalen DeLoach swarmed running back Sean Tucker on a screen play and brought him down for a one-yard loss.
• Play two: Defensive tackle Joshua Farmer immediately burst through the line and converged on an outside run from Tucker for a five-yard loss.
• Play three: Defensive end Jared Verse found the edge on his pass rush and sacked quarterback Garrett Shrader for a six-yard loss.
Those three negative plays deflated a critical possession for the Orange. They ended that drive with a 53-yard field goal miss from kicker Andre Szmyt.
“That was one of my favorite things in the game,” said FSU coach Mike Norvell about that sequence. “Sometimes you get thrown into a challenging spot. How do you respond? And that was the response.”
It is already challenging enough for opposing teams to slow down this Seminole offense. They rank among the nation’s best in most of the major statistical categories. So when FSU plays well defensively, this team can reach a borderline unstoppable level against a lot of teams.
The Seminoles certainly have played to that potential throughout their three-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 124-22. And it has continued to redefine this team's ceiling.
In FSU’s latest blowout victory, Syracuse gained only 160 yards on 48 plays (3.3 yards per play). Quarterback Garrett Shrader completed 6 of 16 passes for 65 yards. Running back Sean Tucker rushed for 52 yards on 14 carries.
Overall, the Orange had eight punts and an interception across their 12 offensive possessions. Six of those eight punts came after three-and-outs.
“I thought we did a great job of attacking. And I’m not saying just in blitzes or pressures, but the mentality of how they played,” Norvell said. “I thought our defense was flying around.”
Shrader entering the game questionable to play is worth mentioning. The Mississippi State transfer had yet to appear in a game since suffering an apparent lower-body injury against Notre Dame on Oct. 29. So Shrader might have been limited physically.
Still, Norvell rightfully gave his defensive coordinator, Adam Fuller, the honor of breaking the rock after the game. With their defense surging, the Seminoles look capable of beating almost any team in the country.
“Coach (Fuller) always believes in us,” FSU defensive end Jared Verse said. “He always tells us that no one in the country can score on us, and it’s up to us if we just stop them.
“To see him signify us as a defense, us as a whole, for him to break the rock – he was smiling the whole time he was doing it. He put his back into it, and he almost broke his back. It was amazing to see that.”
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It makes sense why FSU’s defense has played better lately.
That group is as healthy as it has been all season.
Defensive linemen Jared Verse, Fabien Lovett and Robert Cooper, linebacker Tatum Bethune and cornerback Omarion “Duke” Cooper are among players who missed time through the Seminoles’ first seven games.
Before its last three games, FSU ranked No. 26 nationally in total defense, No. 45 in scoring defense, No. 61 in third-down defense, No. 67 in pass-efficiency defense and No. 85 in run defense. Now, the Seminoles are No. 11 in total defense, No. 13 in scoring defense, No. 24 in third-down defense, No. 29 in pass-efficiency defense and No. 54 in run defense.
Not to mention FSU also comes in at No. 2 in passing yards allowed per game (155).
How much the Seminoles improved in those categories speaks to what they accomplished against Georgia Tech, Miami and Syracuse. FSU held those three opponents to a combined 7.3 points per game, 204 yards per game and 3.8 yards per play.
The Seminoles have not allowed a touchdown in their last 23 possessions, holding both the Hurricanes and the Orange to three points. The last time FSU limited back-to-back opponents to three points or fewer came in 2013.
“In the last few games, we’ve played a couple of whole games,” Verse said. “Our goal was to play a whole game of defense, shut teams down and let them know they are not getting in that end zone.”
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Seminole offense keeps rolling
Beyond Travis’ fumble, FSU’s offense kept its defense from feeling much pressure.
The Seminoles eclipsed 200 rushing yards for a fifth straight game, which has not happened for this program since 1995. They turned 40 carries into 230 yards and a touchdown.
Treshaun Ward, who began the season as FSU’s starting running back, returned from his three-game absence due to injury. But he saw limited action, tallying just five rushes for 13 yards. He also did not record a catch.
Trey Benson received most of the workload, accumulating a career-high 168 yards on 18 carries. He surpassed 100 rushing yards in each of the last three games.
“We expected to run the ball down their throats,” Benson said.
Travis became the second player in program history – and the first since 1949 – to record a passing, receiving and rushing touchdown in a game. He went 21 of 23 for 155 yards and three touchdowns. He also scored on a three-yard run, along with a two-yard pass from tight end Wyatt Rector as part of a trick play.
Most of Travis’ success through the air came in the short passing game. In the first half, 13 of Travis’ 17 completions were from no further than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Overall, the Seminoles were 17 of 18 on those passes.
“One of the biggest things that Syracuse defense has improved in is, they have limited the big shots,” Norvell said. “With that tonight … sometimes you’ve got to go and work your progression.
“I thought Jordan was very comfortable out there on the field. I thought he did a great job of executing the offense.”
Who: FSU (7-3) vs. Louisiana (5-5)
When/Where: Saturday, noon; Doak Campbell Stadium
Reach Carter Karels at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @CarterKarels. You can also follow our coverage on Facebook (NoleSports) and Instagram (tlhnolesports).
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