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Thursday, December 6, 2012
The Big Board: Manuel's struggles

By David M. Hale

The general sentiment as Florida State's offense slumped through a dismal second half against Georgia Tech in last week's ACC championship game was that those 30 minutes of ugly football were eerily reminiscent of the scoreless half against NC State that ended with the Seminoles' first loss of the season.

E.J. Manuel
EJ Manuel's masterful skill season has taken a bit of a hit recently, as he has struggled against some of the best defenses on Florida State's schedule.
While fans flooded Twitter and message boards with those concerns, the players were saying the same things on the sideline.

"You just have flashbacks in those moments," safety Lamarcus Joyner said, "but you always remind yourself championships are not given away."

To the credit of Joyner and the defense, FSU fought for its championship and managed to escape with the 21-15 win -- something it couldn't do against NC State.

Of course, the defense was hardly the problem in either game. It was the offense that was the culprit, and those second halves against NC State and Georgia Tech were FSU's only two scoreless halves of football this season.

So who's to blame?

Against the Wolfpack, the finger was largely pointed at Jimbo Fisher for conservative play-calling down the stretch, running the ball on crucial drives when the Seminoles were desperate for a first down. Against Tech, Fisher might not have called a flawless game, but he was dramatically more aggressive in the second half (52 percent passing plays) than the first (31 percent).

Against Tech, the bulk of the blame seemed to go to EJ Manuel. Fresh off his worst game of the season a week earlier, patience was low for the fifth-year senior. Manuel was an efficient 7 of 9 for 64 yards in the second half against the Yellow Jackets, but two second-half turnovers doomed FSU's scoring chances.

The third piece to the puzzle was the offensive line. Against NC State, Manuel was sacked four times, and under constant pressure from the Wolfpack's blitz. In the second half against Tech, Manuel wasn't faced with nearly as many blitz packages but was sacked three times.

The common thread in both games: Right tackle Menelik Watson was on the sideline.

Watson sat out against NC State with an injury and left early in the third quarter against Tech with a sore ankle. The junior also missed a game earlier in the season against Wake Forest, and a quick look at the 10 quarters of football Manuel played without Watson in the lineup underscores just how valuable the burly right tackle has been.

It's a pretty stark difference, but have FSU's offensive shortcomings been as simple as keeping Watson healthy and in the lineup? Not really.

Even with Watson playing, the Seminoles' line hasn't been nearly as effective since the Week 10 bye, and neither has Manuel. Here's a quick look at how both fared in the seven games vs. FBS foes before the bye week and the four games since.

Add in the two fumbles Manuel has had post-bye, and it's a notable dip in production and a significant uptick in mistakes. The obvious explanation would be that the line has worn down, allowed more pressure on Manuel, and the QB has struggled as a result.

That might not be entirely accurate though, and digging just a bit more into the numbers shows why.

In those first seven games of the season, Manuel was blitzed just 25 percent of the time, but 69 percent of his sacks came on blitzes. In the past four games since the bye week, opponents have blitzed far more often (40 percent of the time) but the line has actually held up relatively well against it. Just six of the 13 sacks (46 percent) Manuel has taken during that time came on blitzes. Against Georgia Tech, Manuel didn't attempt a single throw under duress -- but did take three sacks.

The other explanation for the offensive struggles is even more simplistic. The defenses Manuel faced were quite a bit better.

What happened against NC State was something of an anomaly. The line faced a twin challenge of playing without Watson and facing an unusually high percentage of blitzes, and Fisher responded accordingly with a conservative game plan. In the end, it was too much to overcome.

What happened against Tech was the continuation of a trend in which neither Fisher nor the blitzes have been the problem, and the struggles of the line aren't as easy to pin down. The bigger issue is that Manuel simply hasn't been as good, hasn't made as many smart decisions, and hasn't hung on to the football -- all while playing the four toughest passing defenses he's faced all season.

And for what it's worth, Northern Illinois' pass D ranks 15th in the nation in fewest yards per attempt -- better than anyone else FSU has played this season with the exception of Florida.