- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
Through the first two games, grades had to be scaled down a tad because the opponents weren't very good.
This week? Well, it's tough to say. The final score -- a 52-0 FSU win -- hardly indicates Wake Forest was much of a challenge either. On the other hand, there's a good case to be made that the Demon Deacons are still the fifth-best team FSU will face this year, so how easy could it have been?
In the end, there were a few causes for concern Saturday, mostly in the passing game, but it was such a complete all-around performance, with a dominant day from the running game, the defense and on special teams, that it's easy to understand why so many fans walked out of Doak Campbell believing they'd finally gotten an answer to the question: Is this the year Florida State is back?
Here are our grades:
There are two ways to look at this: 1.) I'm a jerk for criticizing any aspect of Florida State's offense after a 52-0 win or, 2.) FSU's passing game really wasn't very good, so imagine how dangerous this team could be if all dimensions were clicking at this point?
Now, perhaps there's not that much room for criticism, but EJ Manuel is taking the latter approach.
"Once we get the passing game clicking, we'll be dangerous to any team," Manuel said. "I don't think teams will know what to prepare for."
The implications there, of course, are that Wake Forest wasn't that big of a challenge and that, indeed, Manuel struggled at times Saturday. None of that should come as a big surprise.
In all, Manuel was 15 of 24 passing for 176 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also added another 57 yards and a touchdown with his legs (when yardage lost to sacks is factored out).
Overall, those numbers aren't too shabby, but they benefit from a strong second half after FSU had a big lead.
In the first half, Manuel was just 5 of 11 passing for 75 yards -- 21 of which came on a throw to Rashad Greene that just as easily have gone for a pick-six in the other direction had lineman Joey Ehrmann had about three more inches on his vertical.
Even the successful plays for Manuel weren't exactly crisp. His touchdown throw to Kenny Shaw in the back of the end zone in the third quarter was lobbed high, and it took a long reach and a nifty bit of footwork on Shaw's part to keep the play in bounds, despite the fact that he was wide open.
Of course, Manuel wasn't all bad. When the throws weren't there or the pocket broke down, he was able to make things happen with his legs -- something we hadn't really seen yet this year. In fact, the 57 rushing yards (again, not counting sacks) was the most he'd had in a game since last year's win over Boston College (59 yards).
And it's tough to pin all the passing game problems on Manuel, too. Receivers dropped potentially big plays, and the line didn't do a great job of protecting -- issues we'll get to in a bit.
But Manuel is the fifth-year senior, the one guy who should be rock solid on that FSU offense. Odds are, there won't be many games when the Seminoles need him to put them on his back, but despite 176 points in three games, it's still fair to wonder if he's capable of doing that when they do need it.
If Chris Thompson had simply posted a mediocre 15 carries for 75 yards and a touchdown, it still would've been lauded as a great achievement considering how far he's come since breaking his back a year ago against Wake Forest.
But, of course, Thompson did much more than that.
The senior tailback had just 11 touches in the game and racked up 220 yards and two touchdowns, coming on runs of 74 and 80 yards on back-to-back offensive plays.
It's tough to really calculate the magnitude of that performance, but we'll try:
-- Those were the fourth and fifth touchdown runs of Thompson's career of longer than 70 yards. No one else in Florida State history has more than two. He's now responsible for four of FSU's 19 longest touchdown runs ever.
-- His 197 rushing yards in the first half amounted to the 10th-best rushing performance in an entire game in FSU history.
-- Only Greg Allen's 228 yards in the second half against Western Carolina in 1981 was a more productive half of football for FSU.
-- Thompson's 197 rushing yards were the most by any Florida State tailback since Sammie Smith had 212 in 1988.
Given the history here, it's actually a shame Thompson didn't get any work in the second half, but his first-half dominance assured he wasn't needed.
For all the problems with pass protection Saturday, the running lanes were wide open against Wake Forest, and even Thompson had difficulty taking all the credit for his big game.
"Pretty much all I had to do was just run," he said. "I didn't have to make any great cuts or break any tackles. My long runs were pretty much just open field."
Well, perhaps he deserves a bit more credit than that. His juke against Wake corner Kevin Johnson was a thing of beauty.
Still, there was plenty of room to run for everyone. Florida State racked up 385 yards rushing (398 if you factor out sacks), with James Wilder Jr. quietly adding another 94, Manuel chipping in with 48 and even Debrale Smiley putting the finishing touches on the 52-0 win with an 18-yard rumble for a touchdown. It was the first time FSU's offense had topped 300 yards in a game since 2009's win at BYU.
And since the talk is pretty much ongoing on the subject, assuming FSU plays in the ACC championship game this year (giving the Seminoles 14 total games), here's what each back would need to average the rest of the way to get to 1,000 for the year:
Thompson: 67.8 yards per game
Wilder: 70.9 yards per game
Devonta Freeman: 77.5 yards per game
This is a bit of a mixed bag, but let's start with the good. The downfield blocking for Florida State's receivers against Wake Forest was tremendous, and they were the key to both of Thompson's long touchdown runs.
"We're big, athletic and physical, and we need to be blocking like that all the time," Jimbo Fisher said. "That's what good football teams do."
Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw all had big blocks in the game, and that's become something of a staple through three weeks.
But when it comes to more traditional roles for the receivers, it wasn't all so positive.
Kudos to Shaw who made a great catch for his touchdown in the third quarter. Similarly, Greene's nifty moves after the catch near the sideline in the first quarter got FSU out from its own goal line and picked up 21 yards.
But there were problems, too.
"We dropped a jailbreak screen on the first drive (to Benjamin), we dropped a drag in the two minute that would've been a very big play to (Greene) coming across the middle," Fisher said. "I've got it on our quarterback, I've got it on the protection, and I've got it on the receivers. I think all three phases could do a better job."
The drops from receivers have been a mild concern thus far, and the few nifty grabs -- like Shaw's in the end zone -- more than made up for the rare drops Saturday.
And through three weeks of overmatched opponents, Manuel has done a nice job of spreading the ball around -- 11 different receivers caught passes Saturday -- but FSU has yet to establish a consistent passing attack.
That's probably not anything to be too concerned with yet, but given this week's opponent, it'll probably be bad news if these things are still issues a week from now.
Much like with the receivers, the grade for the O line largely depends on which area you want to focus on.
The running game, obviously, was exceptional, and FSU had no problems opening holes for its backs to find daylight. At the end of the day, that is probably the priority anyway -- and given the dangerous Clemson offense heading to Tallahassee, using the ground game to eat up clock isn't such a bad idea.
But in the passing game, it was another story.
Murray State and Savannah State did little to prove one way or the other whether the line had taken a big step forward. Wake probably shouldn't have been that big of a test either, particularly without All-ACC nose guard Nikita Whitlock.
Instead, the line struggled badly in pass protection.
Manuel was sacked three times in the game -- the first three allowed this year -- and was under pressure consistently. Assignments were missed, and big plays were lost. "We had a couple tight end plays that were really open that we missed some protections on," Fisher said. And even on the ground, FSU failed to punch it in on the goal line on three straight plays in the second quarter.
Given that pass protection and goal line were the two biggest concerns on last year's offense, that's a problem.
Having said that, Wake runs a defensive scheme that isn't entirely common among FSU opponents. The Deacons had five men up front routinely, and they showed the Seminoles a number of unusual looks. That helped expose the inexperience on the line -- but it also helped provide experience for those players, too. By the second half, the blocking had improved, and that's a good sign that this game will have been a well-timed learning experience.
Add the fact that Daniel Glauser got the start at right tackle -- Menelik Watson is fine, but without proper prep time in practice, Fisher didn't want to start him -- and didn't look good, and a handful of the missed protections were from the backs and tight ends, it's probably not a performance worth panicking over -- at least not yet.
But if there's one dark cloud to the otherwise rosy outlook provided by Saturday's 52-0 win, it's on the offensive lines, where Wake Forest at least managed to illuminate the fact that there's still a long ways to go before this unit is where it needs to be.
Outside of Tuscaloosa, Ala., there may not have been a more dominant unit in any phase of the game through the first three weeks of the season than FSU's defensive front four.
Once again, Bjoern Werner was a beast. He racked up four tackles, including 2.5 for a loss and 1.5 sacks. He's got 6.5 sacks for the year already after recording just seven all of last season. Doing the math, that puts Werner on pace for 30 sacks this season, despite the fact that he's yet to play four full quarters in a game.
Even when Werner wasn't piled on top of quarterback Tanner Price, he was effecting the play. Werner was in the backfield routinely, forcing early throws and diverting the running game into the teeth of the FSU defense.
But what may be the most impressive thing about Werner this year is his athleticism and agility. His recognition at the line of scrimmage has been nearly perfect, and his ability to jump outside and into coverage on screen passes and sideline routes has been impeccable. The task, of course, gets tougher this week, but Werner is making his case as one of the best defenders in the country so far.
All of that overshadows the work of the rest of the line, which was fantastic. Cornellius Carradine has stepped in for Brandon Jenkins and not missed a beat. He recorded 2.5 sacks Saturday and has 3.5 on the year now. Carradine and Werner are the only two ACC players with at least three sacks this season.
Everett Dawkins (3 tackles, 1 for a loss), Anthony McCloud (3 tackles) and Timmy Jernigan (6 tackles) were exceptional inside, as well. Josh Harris broke a long run up the middle when McCloud got caught out of position early in the first quarter, going for 34 yards. The line learned, and FSU allowed just 35 rushing yards on 34 carries the rest of the way.
And while the starters had huge games, it's also worth mentioning that Eddie Goldman was extremely impressive in the second half, too. He finished with three tackles, including one for a loss, in extensive duty. His most impressive play, however, may have come on a reverse to Michael Campanaro in the third quarter. The play was negated by a Wake Forest holding call, but Goldman recognize the play, fought through a block after being pinned to the ground, and got up to freeze Campanaro before Dawkins and Carridine made the tackle. The combination of recognition, physicality and determination on the play were extremely impressive to see from the true freshman.
We spoke with Christian Jones on Tuesday, and he was practically giddy at the thought of seeing some regular playing time against Wake Forest. He estimated he only about about nine or 10 snaps the previous week, and those supposedly big tackle numbers he was expecting in his new role as weakside linebacker were overwhelmed by so much time spent relaxing on the bench.
On Saturday, Jones got his wish -- sort of. He led FSU in tackles with six, but once again, he was still perched on the sideline with 20 minutes left to play in the game thanks to another blowout victory.
Still, it was a strong performance by the new-look linebacking corps, and it started on the first drive of the game when Telvin Smith batted away a deep ball on third-and-12, halting Wake's first drive and unleashing the flood gates.
Vince Williams had a strong game, helping to stuff the run and recording one tackle for a loss. Nick Moody didn't see a ton of work, as FSU spent plenty of time in nickel and dime sets, but he recorded a tackle as well and -- while it wasn't on defense -- had a terrific pinball tackle on social teams, ramming one blocker into the ball carrier for the double take-down.
Even freshman Reggie Northrup managed to be a part of the banner day, leading the Seminoles onto the field carrying the American flag as part of a military tribute. Northrup's father was a naval officer who served two tours during the Gulf War.
A week ago, Wake Forest completed 72 percent of its passes and accounted for 362 yards through the air against North Carolina, with Campanaro doing the bulk of the work, catching 13 balls for 163 yards.
This week, those numbers weren't quite so hot.
Tanner Price was beat up routinely by the defensive line, and when he did get a pass off, FSU's secondary didn't let anything through. For the game, Wake was 10 of 24 passing for just 83 yards -- 41 of which came on a throw along the sideline in the third quarter in which the receiver barely stayed in bounds. It was actually exceptional coverage by Lamarcus Joyner, but the receiver had about two inches on him and went up and over him to make the grab.
Aside from that, the passing game accounted for 1.82 yards per attempt, which is a particularly pleasant number to see the week before Sammy Watkins comes to town.
Xavier Rhodes played a great game, making three tackles and two impressive pass break-ups, including a nifty play on a Wake Forest first-and-10 throw from the FSU 40-yard line following Harris' big run. It was the first -- and one of the only -- times Wake threatened, and Rhodes' break-up of a long pass down the sideline essentially stymied the drive.
Nick Waisome had a great tackle on a third down play early in the game, and Joyner was exceptional throughout, recording just four tackles but dishing out countless big hits.
Wake was constantly in third-and-longs, thanks to the defensive front, but the secondary made sure the Deacons didn't wriggle out of many of those tough spots. Wake converted just one of 16 third-down plays.
Solid work, too, by Tyler Hunter in the nickel role, which spent a good bit of time shadowing Campanaro. He didn't make a tackle because he didn't have to, but he did break up one pass and was a big reason why Wake's best offensive player was kept silent.
Where to begin?
For the second time in three games, Rashad Greene took a punt to the house, a 60-yard run back for Florida State's second touchdown of the game.
Punter Cason Beatty was exceptional, pinning Wake inside its own 5 on each of his first two punts.
Kicker Dustin Hopkins has shown that the new kickoff rule is going to be a big weapon for Florida State, delivering directional kicks with precision and hang time.
Of all the impressive numbers from Saturday's win, the easiest to overlook might be this: FSU's average starting field position was its own 36, with seven drives starting on the good side of its own 40. Wake's average starting field position was its own 19, with seven of its first eight drives starting inside the 20.
Through the first two games, grades had to be scaled down a tad because the opponents weren't very good.This week? Well, it's tough to say. The final score -- a 52-0 FSU win -- hardly indicates Wake Forest was much of a challenge either.