USF tasked with slowing FSU's rushing attack
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Fourth-ranked Florida State appears to have fixed the problems with its running game — in a big way.
The Seminoles (4-0) rank second in the ACC in rushing this season after finishing 10th last year. They've already matched last season's total of 20 rushing touchdowns in just four games.
"It's definitely a luxury," quarterback EJ Manuel said Monday. "That's the great thing about our offense, we've very diverse."
Senior Chris Thompson's comeback from a serious back injury and the emergence of sophomore James Wilder Jr. behind a rebuilt offensive line has created the possibility of the school having its first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn achieved it in three straight seasons between 1994 and 1996.
"It's a good one-two combination," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We're staying very disciplined the way we run the ball."
South Florida (2-2) gets its shot Saturday at slowing down the Seminoles, who are averaging 56.2 points a game as they prepare for their first road test this season.
The Seminoles stormed back from a two-touchdown deficit last Saturday to defeat Clemson 49-37 with the offense putting up 667 yards. Wilder and Thompson had a hand in 256 of those.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Wilder's ability to run over and carry tacklers reminds many of former Seminole star Greg Jones, who went on to NFL stardom with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 5-8, 187-pound Thompson, who is similar to Dunn in some ways, doesn't shy from contact but combines breakaway speed and shiftiness that have produced five scoring runs of more than 70 yards in his career and a 10.8 yards-per-carry average this season.
"You get tired and beat up and then you've got to chase Chris," Fisher said, adding that both are reliable blockers and excellent receivers.
Add Manuel's 7.5 yards per carry and Devonta Freeman's 6.4 average as the third tailback in the rotation and the Seminoles are a run-first team despite a bevy of talented receivers. Freeman, who got his chance following Thompson's injury in the fifth game last season, led the Seminoles in rushing with 579 yards as a freshman.
A year ago Florida State had difficulty in short yardage situations, giving defenses the opportunity to keep pressure on Manuel. No more.
"You want to be known as a physical team," Manuel said. "A team that can bruise you, you know, run the ball down your throat."
Jones, Travis Minor and Leon Washington each eclipsed the 900-yard mark once over the past 16 years and Dunn's still awaiting company.
Thompson needs to average 80 yards in the remaining eight regular season games to reach the 1,000-yard plateau and he's likely to get more than his per game average of eight carries as the Seminoles settle into their schedule. He had 15 against Clemson.
Although Manuel doesn't particularly like to run, he's very good at it. He knows it'll draw the defense into alignments that make it easier for him to attack through the air.
"It poses a great threat to a lot of defenses we play," the 6-5, 240-pound quarterback said Monday. "Whenever they put eight people in the box, you can throw the ball over their head."
None of it happens without an offensive line taking care of business up front first.
"We're moving people," Fisher said. "Our offensive line is doing great."
The Seminoles began the season with a total of 14 starts between all five of the interior offensive linemen and it seems to have paid off.
One of those new faces, 6-6, 320-pound junior right tackle Menelik Watson, earned ACC offensive lineman of the week honors for his performance against Clemson.
South Florida is coming off a demoralizing 31-27 loss at Ball State last week - its second consecutive defeat - as the Bulls allowed the winning touchdown pass with 1:02 left. It will also be facing a Florida State team that may have revenge on its mind after losing the only previous meeting between these programs.
Then a redshirt freshman making his first career start due to a season-ending injury to Matt Grothe, senior quarterback B.J. Daniels led South Florida to a stunning 17-7 road victory over the Seminoles on Sept. 26, 2009, rushing for 126 yards and passing for 215 and two touchdowns on just eight completions.
Daniels is a Tallahassee native who grew up rooting for Florida State.
"It was a bad feeling. It was a bad feeling," said Manuel, in his second season at the time. " ... B.J. being from Tallahassee, it was kind of his coming-out party, he had a huge game, rushed and threw the ball great. So we're looking forward to going down there, not necessarily payback or anything like that because it's our next opponent, but we want to go out there and take care of business and play well."
Daniels threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions last week, leading his team in rushing for the second straight game with 75 yards on 14 carries.
"We're just ready to get back on the field and redeem ourselves because last week wasn't South Florida football," safety JaQuez Jenkins told the team's official website. "This week, we're coming out with our heads on straight and we're ready to get on the field."