- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Before practice Tuesday, James Wilder Jr. settled in to get his first glimpse of Northern Illinois, the upstart opponent that will be Florida State's final adversary of the season in the Discover Orange Bowl two weeks from now.
Like fellow tailback Devonta Freeman, Wilder felt certain he'd seen Northern Illinois play at some point this season -- a passing glance or two while flipping channels some Saturday afternoon -- but he simply couldn't remember much about them.
The brief film session offered some insight, however. The Huskies use a lot of movement in their front seven to confuse offenses, and the defense is disciplined at all times.
"They're a well-coached team, and I don't know why anyone would say they're not that good," Wilder said.
Indeed, the numbers suggest Northern Illinois will be no pushover against FSU. The Huskies finished second in the Mid-American Conference in total defense and rush defense, and of Florida State's 13 previous opponents, only Florida and Maryland are allowing fewer rush yards per game this season. And yet, the number that might stand out the most is this: NIU's defensive line weighs, on average, 55 pounds less than the average Florida State offensive lineman.
In other words, the Seminoles are built to perform against an undersized Huskies front and should have a distinct advantage in the trenches.
"That's one thing, looking at their D-line and looking at our O-line -- being able to run the ball would be great," Wilder said. "We know we're going to have to take advantage of the spots they're weak at and our strong points."
Surprisingly perhaps, the ground game has been a strong point for Florida State all season.
A year ago, the Seminoles were among the worst rushing offenses in the country. Wilder and Freeman -- both freshmen -- were learning on the fly. The offensive line was a shambles. The offense lived and died with quarterback EJ Manuel's arm. It was a source of consternation throughout a long offseason.
"We always were talking about last season and how much we didn't produce," Wilder said. "We just said, let's be that team where we can run the ball. If you can run the ball, you can pretty much do everything. It all starts on the ground, so that's the main thing we came in with."
The results have been dramatic. FSU nearly doubled its rushing total from a year ago. The Seminoles' average of 5.54 yards per carry is seventh best in the nation -- though notably two spots behind Northern Illinois. Even after starter Chris Thompson went down with a season-ending knee injury, Freeman and Wilder -- along with fullback Lonnie Pryor -- kept the momentum going.
"Just hard work and dedication, trusting one another," Freeman said.
Still, the matchup against Northern Illinois doesn't come without its complications.
For one, running backs coach Eddie Gran has announced he's leaving Florida State to take over as offensive coordinator at Cincinnati. He's still in Tallahassee, coaching practices as always, but Freeman admits there's immense curiosity about what the future holds for the group.
And while Florida State's ground game made huge strides in 2012, one problem lingers from last year's struggles. In short-yardage situations, the Seminoles haven't found the same success.
In third-and-short situations this season, Florida State is converting at just a 47-percent clip -- 115th in the nation. Those struggles came to a head on three crucial drives against Florida and Georgia Tech when Freeman couldn't get the job done on third-and-1, killing FSU drives in key moments.
The problems have been widespread, Freeman said, but it's nothing that can't be overcome.
"It's missed assignments, cutting a zone back when I should press it more, or just missed reads," Freeman said. "That's it."
Freeman said he expects the short-yardage struggles to be a focal point in practice throughout the next two weeks, but Jimbo Fisher said the problems might be addressed as much with scheme as with execution.
In all three of FSU's failed third-and-short runs in recent weeks, Fisher has called for a power formation, and defenses have responded by gearing up against the run. Even if the offense executed perfectly, there was little room to maneuver. Against NIU, Fisher is considering a less traditional approach.
"People are bunching the box a little bit, and we've got to get better at it," Fisher said. "We need to maybe get more outside plays and do some things."
Freeman said he'd embrace more spread formations in short yardage, but with FSU's distinct size advantage against Northern Illinois, this may be the one game where the power formations work with ease.
Of course, Wilder isn't suggesting Florida State take anything for granted.
"We're not looking over them and saying they're smaller so we're going to get 300 rushing yards," he said. "They're smaller, and we have to take advantage of it and do what we have to do."
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