Improved O-line has FSU rushing with ease
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State’s running game is far from a concern anymore.
A ground attack that often struggled on third-and-1 and in goal-line situations in 2011 is now averaging 7.5 yards per carry.
Plenty can be said for senior Chris Thompson’s return from fractured vertebrae. And the maturity and experience showed by sophomore James Wilder Jr. But behind an offensive line that is healthy, physical and dominating, FSU’s rushing game is off to its best start in years.
“At the beginning of the year, I said our O-line improved a lot,” Wilder said. “The holes are there. There aren’t a lot of carries that we’re stopped at the line. We’re usually five yards past the line of scrimmage before we get touched.”
FSU has run for 1,124 yards and is averaging 281 yards per game, placing the Seminoles eighth nationally and among the likes of ground-it-out teams like Army, Air Force and Georgia Tech. FSU padded some of those numbers against Murray State and Savannah State, but then they had a season-high 385 yards in the rout of Wake Forest and added 287 yards against Clemson.
The Seminoles ran for just 1,458 yards in 13 games last season. At this pace, they could eclipse the 2011 total just six games into 2012.
FSU also has 20 rushing touchdowns, tying the 2011 total. With eight regular-season games left to play.
“We’re running the football well,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We’re getting hats on hats, moving people. Staying very disciplined in how we run the ball.”
Fisher said he and the coaching staff could see the difference in spring practices. Even with new left tackle Cameron Erving, who moved over from defensive tackle after the bowl win over Notre Dame, FSU’s offensive line was getting more of a push against a Seminoles defensive line that was thought of as one of the nation’s best.
And it was often more than a push. The offensive linemen were winning more battles and the defensive linemen were showing frustration.
If there was an indicator that FSU would be able to run the ball in 2012, it came out of those spring practices in March and April.
“Going against our guys every day made a difference,” Fisher said. “When they have a little success against our guys it started to give them confidence because they knew what kind of caliber players we have.”
Now attention is turning 180 degrees from a much-maligned offensive line and struggling running game to one that is among the most productive in the country.
And they are making FSU’s running backs look very good. Thompson has returned from a major back injury to run for 357 yards and five touchdowns. He is averaging 10.8 yards per carry, aided, of course, by 74-yard and 80-yard touchdown runs against Wake.
But the 5-foot-8, 190-pound tailback has shown that he is more than just a fast runner. He’s also pounding away at linebackers who weigh 40 pounds more, earning hard-fought, second-chance yards. Thompson had 103 yards and two touchdowns in FSU’s win over Clemson.
“Pound for pound, that guy could be as strong a guy as any on our team,” Fisher said. “He is an extremely powerful guy. He is a well-built, well-conditioned guy.”
FSU wore out Clemson early with Thompson but also mixed in the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Wilder.
Wilder, who has 285 rushing yards and is averaging 7 yards per carry this season, ran for 65 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries against the Tigers. He also had a stunning 35-yard run in which he fought off two would-be tacklers, stiff-armed another and then was finally taken down by four Clemson players at the Tigers’ 10. Wilder finished off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown.
“He has good lower body flexibility,” Fisher said. “Everybody says he runs high. But he can bend. He has good vision. He’s a tremendous balance-and-body-control guy.”
Six players have had rushing touchdowns for FSU in 2012, including Wilder (six), Thompson (five) and Lonnie Pryor (four).
At the rate FSU is going now, the school single-season records for rushing touchdowns (35 in 1995) and rushing yards (3,021 in 1984) may be in jeopardy.