Sunday, September 9, 2012
Grading the Game: FSU 55, SSU 0
By David M. Hale
What can you take from a 55-0 game against a bad FCS team that was played with a running clock for 11 minutes then abruptly called for weather reasons with nine minutes to play in the third quarter?
The answer: Not very much. But Jimbo Fisher will watch film on it anyway, so we're pushing forward with this week's grades.
Florida State scored 124 points in its first two games, so it's tough to offer much in the way of insightful criticisms of EJ Manuel's play, but we did note a few loose ends after the Murray State game that offered some minor cause for concern. It took just two plays for Manuel to provide a rebuttal Saturday.
Manuel connected with Rodney Smith for a 61-yard TD pass on the second play of the game, and it was all easy from there. His final numbers -- 11-of-13 for 161 yards and three TDs -- illustrate both how small an obstacle Savannah State was and how sharp Manuel looked in dismantling the Tigers. The only two incompletions of the day for Manuel were a drop by Rashad Greene and a ball he threw away while avoiding pressure.
What was most encouraging, Fisher said, was the fact that Manuel was in complete control of the game, looking off his first and second reads and finding an open man on all but one play.
"He made some throws in there where you may not recognize because it looked so clean, but he was going to third and fourth guys on the back side," Fisher said. "He was reading coverage, finding his matchups, finding the zones where his one-on-ones were. I really like where he is, not just in his physical stature and throwing the ball, but his mental understanding of running the offense."
Truth be told, Fisher could've set up parking cones on the field and simulated a better test than Manuel has gotten the past two weeks, but that's of little significance for a second-year starter and fifth-year senior. In these two games -- which really amounted to just three quarters of work -- Manuel was extremely sharp. If we give him credit for the three bad drops his receivers had in the first two weeks, he'd be looking at a stat line close to this: 30-of-35 (86%) for 396 yards, four TDs and no picks.
So, does Manuel feel bad about beating up on the little guys like that?
"Not at all," he said. "As a football player, you're told to go out there and play well, and we don't play down to anybody -- whether it's Ohio State or Savannah State. So I don't feel bad."
First off, how good was it to see Chris Thompson in the end zone again? It was just two days shy of a year since his last touchdown, and the senior looks like he's fully recovered from the broken back that cost him nine months of rehab and the bulk of the 2011 season. Thompson ran hard and didn't shy from contact, touching the ball just four times in the game but picking up 44 yards and the score.
James Wilder Jr. appeared to tweak his ankle on his first series of the game, but after being looked over by the training staff, he quickly returned to the field and showed no signs of a problem, capping the drive with a powerful 19-yard TD run. It's tough to say how Wilder's physical style will hold up against opponents equally happy to play physical, but he has downright dominated the two FCS foes Florida State has faced in the first two weeks, totaling 132 yards on 17 touches with four touchdowns.
But the most impressive runner of the day might have been Devonta Freeman, who was a force with the football in his hands. Freeman had the game's longest run (a 24-yard bullrush near the end of the first quarter), led all runners with 69 yards in the game, added his first catch (a seven-yard reception) and TD (a 5-yard run) of the season and looked flat-out dominant. In the two games against FCS foes, Freeman has averaged 7.8 yards per touch.
This was a men-against-boys matchup for the receiving corps, so there's not a whole lot to be gained by parsing the specifics. It's noteworthy that tight end Christo Kourtzidis got his first career catch and that Willie Haulstead made his first grab since the 2010 Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Smith's 61-yard touchdown grab was the longest TD reception of his career and the longest TD throw of Manuel's. It was also the longest offensive scoring play for FSU since Chris Thompson's 70-yard run against Maryland in 2010, and the longest passing touchdown since Christian Ponder's 98-yard toss to Rod Owens against North Carolina in 2009.
But if we're really trying to find something tangible from this game, it has to be the play of Kelvin Benjamin, who showed exactly why there's been both a ton of hype and a good bit of patience required with him over the past two years. Benjamin flashed his speed on an end-around that went for 16 yards, showed his physicality on a fade route that resulted in his first touchdown and offered a look at how his height and leaping ability can be utilized on two touchdown receptions in the second half -- the first of which was called back for an illegal procedure flag.
After the game, Fisher raved about Benjamin's improved work ethic and trimmed-down physique, and suggested a bigger workload could be in store down the road.
"He's in shape, he's coming on in practice, he's running, his top-end speed is as fast as any receiver we've got," Fisher said. "He's got body quickness. He can make you miss and he's tough and he's physical. He'll keep progressing, and he's got a long way to go, but he can be a very good football player."
Again, it's tough to find fault in the performance when an offense tallies 55 points in two-and-a-half quarters of work, but this wasn't quite as flawless a performance for the O-line as FSU delivered in the opener against Murray State.
Austin Barron got the start at center in place of an injured Bryan Stork (neck, day-to-day) and managed to draw the first flag of the season on an O-lineman -- a holding penalty in the first quarter.
While last week's game concluded without a single negative play for FSU, this week's had two -- one on a run by Debrale Smiley, the other on a Wilder carry.
And Manuel obviously had plenty of time to throw in virtually every situation, but he did face a bit of pressure from time to time -- and given the level of opposition, anything short of perfection may have seemed like a disappointment.
In the end, FSU finishes up its two warm-up games against FCS foes having not allowed a sack, having been flagged for just one penalty and having just two plays go for negative yards. That's good news. But things will get tougher this week when Nikita Whitlock and Wake Forest come to town, so the grade for Savannah State is a bit strict.
If Bjoern Werner finishes his career -- not just college, but anywhere -- with an easier sack than he had on Savannah State QB Antonio Bostick on the first defensive series of the game for FSU, it will be amazing. Bostick essentially took a knee as Werner made contact, providing the FSU defensive end with his fifth sack of the year. Werner now has seven tackles this season -- all for a loss.
There were other highlights, too. Toshomon Stevens recovered a fumble that came after Bostick essentially dropped the ball in the third quarter. Savannah State mustered just 19 yards on the ground. Anthony McCloud made his first appearance of the season -- though he got just six snaps.
But it's tough to chalk this up as a great debut of the post-Brandon Jenkins D-line. Savannah State started four freshmen on its offensive line, and FSU managed just one sack. Savannah State's longest play of the game, an 18-yard run by Sheldon Barnes that represented 64 percent of its total offense on the day, came when Niles Lawrence-Stample and Giorgio Newberry got bottled up inside, allowing Barnes to bounce a run out around the left end for a big gain. (And, in fairness, the safeties were caught out of position, too.)
The biggest problem for the D-line Saturday, however, was that the game ended so soon. Mario Edwards Jr. and Chris Casher got only a handful of snaps each before weather ground things to a halt. Edwards did finish with an assisted tackle -- which really amounted to little more than piling on headfirst as the runner went down to end the first half -- and Casher ran well, according to Fisher. In the end, however, there's a lot we didn't get to see from the two freshmen because of the abrupt conclusion.
If Christian Jones' move to the Will was supposed to open up a lot more opportunities to pad his tackle numbers, it hasn't happened through two games. Jones has just three tackles, but all are for a loss.
On Saturday, Jones made what might have been the most impressive defensive play of the game, sniffing out a screen pass on third-and-5, bursting through the line and tackling the receiver for a 3-yard loss.
Aside from that, there wasn't a ton of action for the linebackers. Nick Moody and Vince Williams finished without a tackle. Telvin Smith had a solid game, making two tackles, including one for a loss. Reggie Northrup got in some work, too, and recorded a tackle.
As Wake Forest comes to town this week, the linebacking corps remains somewhat untested. Given Fisher's tepid review of Moody's Week 1 performance, that's something of a concern -- albeit one that could be easily allayed by this time next week.
When the opposition racks up a grand total of nine yards in the passing game, that's considered a success, no matter who the opposition is. Bostick was just 2-of-15 passing in the game, and only a handful of wildly inaccurate throws prevented FSU's defense from grabbing a couple of INTs amid great coverage.
Reserves Keelin Smith, Karlos Williams and P.J. Williams were all able to get some valuable reps, and for the most part looked solid. Smith had soft coverage on a second-quarter throw that went for 12 yards (the longest passing play of the game) and P.J. Williams was caught out of position on Barnes' 18-yard run -- but it was a learning experience for both.
The only real cause for concern came in the first quarter when Nick Waisome was beaten badly by his receiver, but Bostick overthrew the pass by about 10 yards. It's tough to fault Waisome, who had to be a bit surprised by Savannah State's ability to draw up anything with a potential to work, but had the throw been remotely accurate, the pass would've gone for a score. Given that Waisome's starting role is perhaps the biggest question mark on FSU's defense -- and Sammy Watkins and Clemson are looming on the scheduling horizon -- it's worth noting.
The rest of the players had already disappeared when Dustin Hopkins strolled into the post-game media frenzy, dressed in street clothes. He wasn't avoiding the questions though. In fact, he strolled up to the podium Fisher had just departed so he could talk about his missed PAT at center stage.
"It was a good run, guys," Hopkins joked.
Indeed, Hopkins had a nice run of 145 consecutive successful PATs, the longest streak in the country before bouncing one off the left upright Saturday.
Hopkins said he was glad it came in a blowout win rather than a one-point game, and that's a fair point. Given the weather and the overall lack of urgency in the game, it's tough to find too much fault. But hey, we've got to nitpick somewhere, right?
Actually, the far bigger concern on special teams came on a punt fielded by Tyler Hunter at the end of the first quarter. Hunter muffed the catch before recovering, and FSU retained possession. Still, after Rashad Greene muffed a punt last week, it was particularly noteworthy for Fisher.
"We've put two balls on the ground," Fisher said. "We can't let that happen."