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Opponent Q&A: FSU with Tomahawk Nation

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Taking a closer look at the team from Tallahassee as they head to Miami for this weekend's showdown.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

Who are these guys?

Has there ever been a more Jekyl and Hyde team in the history of College Football than the 2014 Florida State Seminoles?

They have clutched victory from the jaws of defeat on many occasions this season.

They can look like an also ran one minute, and dominate the next.

So what can the 'Canes expect this weekend from the defending National Champs?

Dylan Kidd (DKfromVA)  of Tomahawk Nation was kind enough to answer our questions on the Seminoles.

Enjoy.

SOTU: Understandably, the off the field noise/stories involving Jameis Winston, Karlos Williams, and others are probably getting pretty tiresome in Tallahassee. I will not dig into any particulars on what is going on off the field.  However can you tell me in your opinion, what if any impact they have had on the product on the field?

TN: Well unfortunately, this has really been the new normal for about a year now. It’s not a week as a Florida State fan if you’re not hearing a new story about someone’s off-field exploits, ranging from serious to trivial to fabricated. Through it all, the team has really seemed unaffected while they’re on the field. Whether they view it as a sanctuary or are just sociopathic I’m not sure, but Florida State has continued to play at a high level since the first stories of November 2013. Now, the 2014 team is different from the 2013 team in every way, and we’ve finally gotten to the point with most of the fanbase that they understand the 2013 squad should not color expectations for this year’s team, but the 2014 team has done well to ignore distractions too. The struggles have been due to other issues, in my opinion, and it continues to amaze me that the team can drown out all of the outside noise as well as it has.

SOTU: Getting back to the on the field product, FSU has struggled in quite a few first halves recently.  What is the biggest reason for the Seminoles' slow starts?

TN: That’s a great question, and one we’d like the answer to as well. Fisher said last week that teams have really done a great job of breaking tendency against FSU this season and doing things on both sides of the ball that the ‘Noles weren’t expecting to see. It may be that FSU opponents spent a lot of time in the off-season preparing to play the Seminoles, as it’s a marquee game on everyone’s schedule. There have also been execution issues, though, and too many times this team has not begun to play to its capability until its back is against the wall. I think part of it has to due with the departed leadership on defense, as Telvin Smith and Lamarcus Joyner were huge factors in driving last year’s team to its full potential, both in off-season workouts and during the year. The 2014 squad doesn’t seem to have the same mentality and approach as that of 2013, and it’s just another example of why performing at championship levels year in and year out is so difficult to do. A lot has to go right to win a title in college football, and much of it consists of things you won’t see on the field on Saturdays.

SOTU: To that point, how have they managed to refocus and play so incredibly well in the second half of games?

TN: Yeah, all of that said, this is still a team capable of playing great football. There are phenomenal players all over the field in garnet and gold, and when they’re clicking I don’t think I’d take anybody in the country to beat them. The problem is that they haven’t clicked for even three, much less four quarters at a time this season. But they have when it’s counted. I think a lot of it is Fisher, who is really a savant in terms of knowing the game. Charles Kelly, for all the grief ‘Noles fans gave the new DC early in the season, has adjusted very well too. And certainly Jameis has been at his best when he’s needed to be. Some of these things go hand in hand, like when Fisher sees things and makes the adjustments and play calls, allowing Jameis more and better options. But there’s definitely an elevation in the level of some players’ games when they need it, like Eddie Goldman just wrecking Louisville's offensive line in the second half of that game. The team has been great with its back to the wall, but if it continues to play with fire and put itself behind the eight ball against good teams, its going to get burned eventually.

SOTU: Winston has thrown 11 INTs this (one more than all of last).  What has accounted for some of his struggles?

TN: I think some of it is the departure of Benjamin and Shaw, both of whom were reliable, and Benjamin had the ability to just go get the ball. Jameis has always trusted his receivers and made aggressive throws into tight windows, which can be a problem if he’s relying on young receivers to be where they’re supposed to and make catches. Several times Rudolph, Lane, and Wilson have quit on routes and caused interceptions. There’s also the play of the offensive line, which hasn’t been to expectations this season, and the backs haven’t pass protected as well as they did last season, which was completely expected after Freeman left. I also think he may be pressing a bit. He was clearly frustrated at the end of the UVA game, and I think wants badly to get the offense humming like it did in 2013 when it had its way with everyone. It may also be that a book is out on him, to an extent. Teams pretty consistently try to disrupt timing with his receivers, blitz when FSU is in bunch/tight sets, and don’t jump O’Leary’s option routes like they used to. He’s still a generational type of player, but the struggles have definitely been there so far this year.

SOTU: What is the latest status of freshman RB Dalvin Cook?  Also will be seeing Mario Pender in this game, and if so what can we expect?

TN: Cook was held out of practice yesterday with a hip injury, but indications are that the injury isn’t serious and that he’ll go on Saturday. I think we’ll see Pender back as well. Pender may be FSU’s best pure running back, and ‘Noles fans will be happy to see a full backfield for the first time in a month or so. Pender has the ability to run outside, but is also very good at making decisive cuts on inside runs and getting up field, which is my favorite thing about him. I hope he’s 100% and gets a significant amount of carries against the ‘Canes. The key is always pass protection, because Fisher’s offense runs through the quarterback, and the ‘Noles like to throw on early downs to stay ahead of down and distance and open up the running game, which has been better of late but has yet to reach full effectiveness.

SOTU: Speaking of Cook, Can you talk about the current crop of freshmen who have been so key in the success of the 2014 Seminoles?

TN: The Louisville game saw true freshmen accounting for four touchdowns and about 50% of FSU’s yards gained. Cook has been excellent as one of three backs, forced into playing even more with Pender out for the last month. Travis Rudolph was the most college-ready receiver the ‘Noles brought in and indeed contributed early. He’s a good route runner and has the ability to make people miss in the open field. Ermon Lane has been a very good blocker so far this season, which was surprising to many, and has lately begun to see more targets in the passing game. Both freshmen receivers are still learning to be consistent, as both have quit on routes, but they’re very talented players with the ability to make big plays. On defense, Lorenzo Featherston, Derrick Nnadi, and Jacob Pugh are all true freshmen who have all seen significant snaps on an injury-riddled unit and will need to contribute meaningfully if the ‘Noles are to win a championship.

SOTU: Which players on Miami (besides Duke Johnson and Denzel Perryman) on both sides of the ball concern you the most?  In your opinion, what are they keys to victory for both teams this Saturday Night?

TN: First it’s the receivers Dorsett and Coley. I think FSU is going to try to stop Duke and make Kaaya beat them, which will open up opportunities for the two wideouts. Dorsett is very fast, and that’s always a concern. Coley is a very talented pure wide receiver, and he’s going to have room to make plays against one of two very talented FSU corners. These will be great match-ups to watch all night. Additionally, tight end Clive Walford. It’s almost cliché as an FSU fan to say you’re worried about a tight end in a game against Miami, but it’s certainly true this year as well. He’s played good football this season, and FSU’s linebackers are not good at all in coverage. He’ll have opportunities, and the ‘Noles need to find a way to limit the big plays for him as well as the two wide receivers. On defense, I think the play of Calvin Heurtelou and Olsen Pierre on the inside is going to be very important. FSU’s freshman center Ryan Hoefeld has been hit or miss, quite literally, and the run game is very easily disrupted if he’s consistently beaten on the inside by good defensive tackle play. I don’t think this is a game in which the ‘Noles can put Jameis back in the shotgun and throw 60 times to a victory. It’s going to have to be a more balanced Seminole attack against a much improved Miami defense on Saturday, and Hoefeld is an important component of that.

SOTU: How does FSU go about trying to slow down Duke Johnson??

TN: I think the first thing is to continue to get healthier. Nose tackle was the one position at which the Seminoles couldn’t afford to lose someone, and sure enough, Nile Lawrence-Stample went down for the year in week three. His backups haven’t been good, but Derick Mitchell can at least be competent against the run when healthy. FSU asks a lot out of uber-talented Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman, both of whom have battled injury, particularly Edwards. They’ll need to be full-go and play very well in their gaps. It’s going to be about gap integrity and committing numbers. I think Duke will get his yards, but the plan from FSU will be to limit his big plays and try to get Miami off of schedule with respect to down and distance with some minimal gain or negative plays on early downs running the ball. This will necessarily mean that Kaaya and the aforementioned receivers will have opportunities in single coverage without a lot of help. My key to the game on defense is how well PJ Williams and Ronald Darby hold up against Dorsett and Coley, with the added caveat that the ‘Noles can’t allow Walford to beat them up the seam too many times. If the Seminoles commit numbers and Johnson and the ‘Canes' offensive line still consistently beat them, it will be a long night.

SOTU: What is your all time favorite and all time least favorite memories from the rivalry?

TN: I am a younger FSU fan, and I became cognizant of the FSU-Miami rivalry in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, which has bred a particular contempt in me for all things green and orange. The rivalry wasn’t much fun for me for most of my formative years. I think my least favorite was Wide Left, which I remember vividly as a twelve-year-old. I could really say the whole streak from 2000-2004. Our more senior writers have better memories of some of the classics played between the two teams in the 80’s and 90’s, and I know 47-0 is a particular favorite of several of them, but my personal favorite was 45-17 in 2010. That was the year in which we first saw FSU starting to become respectable again under Jimbo Fisher, and he had Randy Shannon’s number that night. Emptied out the stadium, the long Thompson run late, etc. Saturday’s showdown many very well add another memorable chapter to the rivalry.

SOTU: Last but not least, how does this game play out?   Who wins, and why?

TN: Honestly, I’m worried about this one. I tried to be Mr. Optimistic for the first time since Oklahoma State last week and predict that the ‘Noles would put it all together against UVA, and, welp. So it’s back to cautious. Miami has the ability to play the type of game that can beat FSU. They’ll run the ball effectively, have the ability to make big plays on the edges, have had an extra week to prepare, and their defense is much improved. If there’s a game in which FSU needs to start sharp, it’s this one. As I mentioned, the Seminoles cannot continue to wait until they’re in dire straits to begin playing high-quality football. They will lose if that phenomenon continues. It could be particularly disastrous against Miami, who has the ability to slow the game down and keep Jameis off of the field if it takes the lead. With all of that in mind, I cannot pick against he combination of Jameis Winston and Roberto Aguayo. I think the spread being a field goal or less is appropriate, and I think the Seminoles are able to do enough to win late, 33-30. Again, my keys to the game are 1) FSU’s ability to limit big plays in the secondary, which will be stretched quite thin because of numbers committed to stopping Duke Johnson, and 2) Ryan Hoefeld and the FSU offensive line forcing Miami to commit numbers to pressuring Winston or stopping the run game, winning battles against Miami’s front four.

Thanks again to Dylan for answering our Q's.

We hope fans of both teams have a safe and fun Saturday Night.