TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Before Florida State’s season began, the two main concerns were how well a redshirt freshman quarterback would fare in guiding the offense and how a defense with a new coordinator and seven new starters would perform.
As the calendar flips to October, there are no concerns about Jameis Winston, who has led Florida State to four straight 40-point games.
The defense? There are reasons to be concerned.
Florida State is 4-0 and the No. 8 team in the nation but the defense has been pushed around early in games — Pittsburgh drove 80 yards for a touchdown on the first drive and both Nevada and Bethune-Cookman moved the ball on the Seminoles early in the game.
But the Seminoles still allowed just 26 combined points in the wins over Pitt, Nevada and Bethune. There was a feeling that a young defense — and a first-year defensive coordinator in Jeremy Pruitt — was adjusting well as the game went on.
That all changed on Saturday at Boston College. Florida State allowed Chase Rettig to throw for four touchdowns and the Eagles ran for 200 yards. The Seminoles were shredded early as BC built a 17-3 lead. And while Florida State stabilized for much of the second and third quarters, BC still drove the field for touchdowns in the third and fourth quarter.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was concerned on Saturday about the defense’s performance. But after watching game film on Sunday, he said he wasn’t as frustrated and feels confident that the problems will be fixed when the Seminoles play host to No. 25 Maryland (4-0) on Saturday.
“I thought our defense did a nice job and we had a couple of knucklehead things that we did,” Fisher said. “Gave up a couple of big plays that were very simple, but when we watched the film I wasn’t as distraught as I thought I was going to be because it was only two or three individual things that caused the problems.”
Fisher said that the missed tackles are correctable. And he threw some misdirection plays at the defense in Monday afternoon’s practice in an effort to prepare them for what opponents might use down the road.
But still there’s this telling quote from a BC offensive lineman.
“If you run downhill and hit them in the mouth enough, they’re going to start stepping back and playing around the blocks instead of through them,” BC senior right tackle Ian White said. “There were times when I felt like we had them there. I thought there were times when we had them backing up on the ropes.”
Take that for what it’s worth. It may be bragging by a BC player that is proud of putting up 34 points (in a loss). Or it could be spot-on analysis of the flaws in Florida State’s defense.
Either way, it was obvious that Florida State missed tackles for the second straight week. It’s one thing when that happens against Bethune, but it’s another when it’s Boston College. Fisher likes to “thud” during the week and not tackle or wrap up, a means to prevent injuries to offensive and defensive players in practice. But it’s possible that the thud has taken the thunder out of the defense.
The problems are not widespread. Fisher praised linebacker Telvin Smith, who had 10 tackles, and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who had seven tackles. True freshman Jalen Ramsey had seven tackles while filling in at safety.
“We had some little, stupid mental errors in that game,” Florida State safety Terrence Brooks said. “Just letting our guys go. Trying to do too much sometimes, getting out of gaps. I feel like that’s the only reason they were able to get all the points they were able to get.”
Florida State has to fix the concerns quickly. Up next is Maryland, which has one of the nation’s top offenses. Maryland has scored 32 points in every game this season and is coming off a 37-0 rout of West Virginia on Sept. 21.
The Terrapins have averaged 532 yards per game (293 passing yards and 239 rushing yards). Quarterback C.J. Brown is a dual threat, throwing for 1,043 yards and seven touchdowns while running for six touchdowns. And he has one of the nation’s top young receivers in sophomore Stefon Diggs, who has 18 catches for 400 yards and three touchdowns.
“Very dynamic players on offense — C.J. Brown is playing lights out,” Fisher said. “Diggs is a great player — he’s catching balls everywhere.”
And it doesn’t get any easier. Florida State’s schedule was front-loaded with relatively easier opponents but there are several games against ACC contenders coming up.
After Maryland is a bye week and then a showdown at top-5 team Clemson. Then it’s N.C. State, which upset Florida State on the road in 2012. And Miami’s high-scoring offense awaits on Nov. 2.
As the calendar flips from September to October, we know little about Florida State’s defense. This four-game stretch will tell us everything.