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Thursday, October 4, 2012
The Big Board: FSU's road woes

By David M. Hale

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- EJ Manuel grew up a fan of former Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller. Manuel remembers Miller draining a dramatic 3-pointer to silence a raucous New York crowd at Madison Square Garden, then holding a finger to his lips to further taunt the distraught fans.

Christian Ponder
Carter-Finley Stadium hasn't been kind to the Seminoles historically, as Christian Ponder can attest to after his Seminoles fell to N.C. State in 2010.
That's how to win a road game, Manuel said.

"When we get an opportunity to do that to an opposing crowd, that makes us feel good," Manuel said.

The Florida State offense had its chances last week in Tampa -- officially its first road test of the season. A handful of big plays turned the tide of a close game, and Manuel's Seminoles had little trouble keeping the USF faithful quiet throughout the second half.

But the truth is, the environment wasn't nearly as hostile as what the Seminoles will face this week. Against USF, half the stadium -- admittedly, the upper half -- was filled with FSU supporters, and the USF fans hardly rattled the veteran Seminoles.

When Florida State travels to Raleigh, N.C. this week, however, things get a little more intense.

"Everybody hates FSU for some reason," safety Lamarcus Joyner said. "I don't know what the older guys did before me, but a lot of guys seem to hate FSU."

Florida State has suffered through a long history of bullying tactics from the enthusiastic N.C. State crowd, which thanks to cramped sidelines gives fans a chance to hurl some verbal jabs -- and a few projectiles -- from close proximity. And for FSU, the on-field results have been less than impressive, too. Florida State has lost four of its last seven trips to Carter-Finley Stadium, and even its wins have been close.

With all that in mind, Jimbo Fisher is planning his regular road-game prep work this week. In practice, Florida State will pump in crowd noise through loud speakers. Players and coaches will practice calling plays with hand signals. Manuel has been instructed to call out plays in a whisper, forcing his offensive teammates to pay close attention, read his lips and watch for the ball to be snapped.

Add it all up, Fisher said, and it's not a bad way to practice.

"You'd be shocked how much that helps," Fisher said. "It makes guys quit taking things for granted and have to pay attention. They have to focus. Sometimes when you do it, you can even get better on the road."

Of course, that hasn't exactly been the case for Florida State under Fisher. Since the start of the 2010 season, FSU is 14-3 in home games and just 9-5 in games played on the road or at a neutral site. In the cozy confines of Doak Campbell Stadium, the Seminoles' offense racks up, on average, 436 yards per game. But put FSU in an opponent's stadium, and that number falls by nearly 70 yards per game.

The obvious explanation is that those hostile environments and crowd-noise distractions have taken their toll. But those numbers are also skewed just a bit.

Take a look at FSU's offensive per-game splits when we filter out games against FCS and non-AQ conference teams (which are exclusively played at home):

There's still a difference in performance -- roughly 52 yards per game of offense -- but that decrease (roughly 12 percent) is less than the ACC's average home-road splits, and when it comes to overall scoring, there's virtually no difference at all.

But let's look at those same numbers for Florida State's defense.

Again, the difference ins't immense, but it is more pronounced. FSU's defense allows roughly 19 percent more yards on the road than it does at home (though, to be fair, that increase is still just a tick below the ACC average) but it's allowing seven more points per game -- i.e., a touchdown -- on the road compared to what it has done at home against BCS-conference foes.

This runs contrary to standard logic that offenses struggle more amid the noise of a hostile environment, and those numbers are somewhat tough to account for. The obvious explanation -- particularly given the relatively similar yardage differentials -- is turnovers. As it turns out, however, FSU has a mundane +1 turnover differential at home since Fisher took over as head coach, but an impressive +8 margin on the road or in neutral-site games.

Perhaps it's as simple as the home team gets the breaks, and while the noise may not hurt FSU's offense drastically on the road, the fan base can inspire the home team's offense.

But given the relatively slow start the Seminoles' defense got off to in each of the past two weeks, it should be interesting to see how the unit responds to the hostile environment and potentially high-flying offense at N.C. State.

"Four home games, training here all offseason, then you go to someone else's home, you forget what it feels like," Joyner said. "Those situations can be tough, but we've got one under our belt, so you know what to expect and how to handle yourself."