Florida State Seminoles: jalen ramsey
(Last week’s rankings in parentheses)
1. Jameis Winston (1): With Johnny Manziel and Bryce Petty both losing Saturday, the Heisman race is pretty much over, as long as Winston’s legal difficulties don’t scare voters away.
3. Timmy Jernigan (3): If Jernigan was the only player on the field for FSU’s defense, he still would have won a majority of the battles. He dominated Idaho’s O-line, racking up six tackles, 4.5 for a loss and 2.5 sacks in less than a half of action.
4. Devonta Freeman (4): His chase for 1,000 yards is back on after a stellar 11-carry, 129-yard day against the Vandals.
5. Telvin Smith (6): Four tackles and a pick-six. A fitting send off in front of the home crowd for one of FSU’s most vocal leaders.
6. Rashad Greene (5): Another quiet day for Greene, who had just two catches for 29 yards. But while teams focus on him, his counterparts are racking up a myriad of big plays.
7. Jalen Ramsey (8): If you ranked the five biggest hits delivered by FSU defenders Saturday, Ramsey would’ve had at least three of them.
8. Kenny Shaw (NR): Finally hit the 100-yard mark, catching five passes for 107 yards and two scores. Shaw, like Greene, is on pace to top 1,000 receiving yards this year, but he’s already over 1,000 all-purpose yards.
9. Christian Jones (7): Relatively quiet day for Jones, but that’s to be expected given how little time the first-team D spent on the field.
10. Nick O’Leary (9): Just one catch for 13 yards, but O’Leary continues to be a huge weapon over the middle.
Honorable mentions: S Terrence Brooks, WR Kelvin Benjamin, RB Karlos Williams
On the field, Smith had been a bundle of energy on an afternoon highlighted by his 79-yard interception return for a touchdown. By the second half, however, he was stuck on the sideline in a uniform still caked with sweat, and it was cold.
“I stayed by the heater,” Smith said, “but I was ecstatic.”
This has become commonplace for Florida State of late. Veterans on the sideline, huddling for warmth, while the youngsters rack up valuable playing experience throughout the entirety of the second half.
In four of the Seminoles’ last five games, the starters haven’t played more than a series in the second half. Meanwhile, Levenberry and the rest of Florida State’s young defenders are getting a nearly even split with the starters when it comes to game-day reps.
That’s not ideal for stars like Smith, Lamarcus Joyner and Timmy Jernigan, who’ve lost out on valuable opportunities to pad their stats. But when it comes to building a foundation for the future, it’s been a perfect scenario for Florida State.
“The young guys are growing and making big contributions, so we’re adding depth and creating competition in practice,” coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Florida State lost seven defensive starters to the NFL draft from last season, but the talent Fisher had recruited in years past allowed coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to plug in a new batch of defenders with little drop-off. Where concerns persisted, at least initially, was the depth.
FSU’s two-deep to open the season included 12 first- or second-year players on defense, including a handful of players who few outside the program expected to see significant action this year.
As it turns out, Levenberry, Nate Andrews, DeMarcus Walker and others have been second-half stalwarts, and they’ve got the numbers to prove it. Andrews leads the team with four interceptions. Levenberry, Reggie Northrup and Jalen Ramsey all rank among FSU’s top 10 in tackles. Four of the nine fumbles forced by FSU’s defense this year are by freshmen.
“Just to see them grow from when they first got here to now -- and to know what they're going to become -- that's just tremendous,” Smith said.
Of course, the progress for FSU’s young defenders hasn’t been without a few growing pains.
The Seminoles’ starters smothered NC State in the first half of a blowout win, then took a seat on the bench for the entirety of the second half. Those latter 30 minutes looked ugly. The Wolfpack rushed for just 39 yards on 21 carries against the starters in the first half. In the second half, they tallied 149 yards on 21 carries against the second-string defense. In the first half, NC State averaged 2.3 yards per play. In the second, 6.1. In the first half, FSU pitched a shutout. In the second, the Seminoles were outscored 17-7.
In practice the following week, the starters were angry.
"You've got to look at it like it's your only shot, you're a starter when you get on that field,” Smith said. “Don't take plays off, don't slack off just because you're not on the field at the first snap of the game. Because that snap means just as much as this snap. And I think they really bought into it and now obviously you're seeing they're playing harder."
In the past three games, FSU’s backups have allowed just 13 points total and accounted for five takeaways, five sacks and two touchdowns, playing nearly all of the second half in each game.
The playing time for the backups has paid dividends. FSU has 23 interceptions this year, tops in the nation. But more impressive is that they’ve been made by 16 different players. Twenty-five players have recorded at least 10 tackles, 16 have recorded a sack and 26 have a tackle for loss.
Sure, the starters would love to stay warm by staying on the field, but when the season is finally over, as many as eight more of FSU’s veteran defenders could be headed to the NFL, and the reps their understudies are getting now could mean another smooth transition for the defense in 2014.
Before the Boston College game, Hunter’s anguish rattled the entire team, Smith said. Since then, eye contact is dangerous, a trigger for all the emotions they’ve worked to suppress. But when Smith wandered into the players’ lounge before the Seminoles’ showdown with Miami earlier this month, finding Hunter slumped in a chair, head in hands, he couldn’t help but put an arm around his friend and promise things would get better.
This wasn’t how the season was supposed to go for Hunter. No one embraced defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s new system with more ferocity than he had, spending countless hours studying game film and teaching his teammates the intricacies of the scheme. He’d organized FSU's seven-on-seven drills over the summer, mentored his young teammates in advance of fall camp, then nailed down the starting safety job with little fanfare.
And then with one seemingly insignificant hit against Bethune-Cookman in September, it was all over.
“It’s still hard for me,” Hunter said. “Seeing them make all those plays in the secondary, wishing I was out there and knowing I could be making plays, too. It’s hard for me to watch every week.”
Hunter was born with a condition called cervical spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spine near the neck. Over the course of his career, enough big hits had left the area vulnerable. Against Bethune-Cookman, the ticking time bomb finally exploded.
It wasn’t that Hunter was in pain, he said. In the immediate aftermath of the hit, he assumed he’d miss just a week or two of action. It felt like a stinger, some numbness in his hands and legs that wouldn’t dissipate. An MRI revealed the extent of the damage, though, and doctors initially wondered if Hunter would ever play again.
“The doctor showed me the MRI, and it was just — I don’t know,” Hunter said. “It looked bad.”
That was a low point, but eventually Hunter made his way to Chicago, where he met with Dr. Julian Bailes, who recommended a surgical procedure to remove some of the discs and fuse a metal plate to strengthen the area.
Hunter now has a jagged scar on the front of his neck and a second chance at playing the game he loves.
“He kept his mind positive," Smith said. "He’s staying with it. He’ll be back, give all he’s got and lead this team again.”
Still, Hunter won’t be able to return to the field until the spring, and even then, he expects his contact to be limited. Now, he’s stuck on the sideline, tossing footballs during warmups and serving as a de facto coach during the game.
It’s hardly an ideal role, but it’s one he’d prepared for long before the injury.
When Pruitt took over for Mark Stoops in January, Hunter was rehabbing another surgery. A knee injury kept him off the field during spring practice, but Hunter was ravenous in the film room.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a guy who was in the office studying more on his own,” Jimbo Fisher said.
Hunter would arrive on campus around 1 each afternoon, then spend the next six to seven hours studying the playbook or watching game film — usually from Pruitt’s old stomping grounds in Alabama.
“What we did in the spring, there was a lot of messing up going on, so I couldn’t really watch that,” Hunter said.
Hunter was the wise, old scholar. Ramsey and Andrews were his eager students.
“At first they struggled with the system, but just watching them in seven-on-sevens, I knew they had ability to get out and be able to play,” Hunter said.
Ramsey opened the season as the starter at corner, but when Hunter went down, he slid to safety and has been nearly flawless. Andrews saw his role expand after Hunter’s injury, too, and he now leads the team with four interceptions.
Even without Hunter in the lineup, Florida State leads the nation in passing defense and interceptions. For Hunter, that offers both reward and heartache.
“He’s like having another coach. He knows it all inside and out, and those guys ask a lot of questions,” Fisher said. “But at the same time, you’re disappointed to not be out there with your teammates because of the competitor in you.”
It’s hard knowing what this year might’ve been, Hunter said, but he doesn’t feel alienated. The emotions overwhelm him at times, and his teammates have been there to pick him up again. Smith scribbles Hunter’s name on his gloves before games, and the freshmen pat him on the back afterward, his reward for their job well done.
Florida State’s success this season was built on a selfless approach, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said, and no one has embodied that more than Hunter. It’s hard to see him struggle with his emotions on game day, but it’s been inspiring, too.
“Every second in the locker room on game days, we can look him in the eye and see he wants to be out here as much as us,” Joyner said. “And even though he’s not, we still have the spirit of Tyler Hunter out there with us.”
(Last week’s rankings in parentheses.)
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): Here’s the list of quarterbacks since 2000 to have two games in the same season with at least 15 completions in which they completed at least 90 percent of their throws: Winston. That’s it. That’s the list.
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (2): Four more tackles, 1.5 more sacks. Joyner is making a strong case to be named the ACC’s defensive player of the year.
3. DT Timmy Jernigan (5): Of course, if Joyner’s not the ACC’s top defender, maybe Jernigan deserves the honor. He had six tackles (one for a loss) all in the first half, and he now has 37 tackles on the season. While he was in the game, Syracuse had five yards rushing on 18 carries.
4. RB Devonta Freeman (3): A few weeks ago, Freeman’s quest for 1,000 yards looked like a sure thing. After two blowouts in which he’s carried just 10 times, he now needs to average 75 yards a game to make 1,000.
5. WR Rashad Greene (4): He’s suffering a similar fate as Freeman. He’s had just 87 receiving yards in his last two games -- a total he’s topped in a single game five times this season. Still, Greene is just 140 yards shy of 1,000 for the year.
6. LB Telvin Smith (6): Four tackles, one for a loss, and a pass break-up -- Smith’s draft stock is rising by the week.
7. DE Christian Jones (10): His move to the line has been huge, and he finished with four tackles (one for a loss) against Syracuse.
8. S Jalen Ramsey (7): Three tackles, a QB hurry, and another terrific performance from one of the country’s most consistent true freshmen.
9. TE Nick O’Leary (NR): His third-quarter touchdown reception from Sean Maguire made O’Leary Florida State’s record holder for career TDs by a tight end.
10. S Terrence Brooks (9): He returned from a concussion with four tackles as FSU’s secondary was once again dominant.
Honorable mentions: DB Nate Andrews, WR Kermit Whitfield, RB James Wilder Jr., WR Kelvin Benjamin, WR Kenny Shaw, RB Karlos Williams, DT Eddie Goldman
It was a good speech, Telvin Smith admits, but it wasn’t the only one delivered before that game. Lots of players stood up, said their peace. It’s just that Winston’s the star, so the media gave him all the love.
Winston's star power has driven the FSU storyline. He’s a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and his gregarious personality has endeared him to fans and media alike. The past few weeks, however, the narrative has begun to change just a bit.
While Florida State cruised to another dominant win last week at Wake Forest, Winston and the rest of the offense spent the bulk of the game standing on the sideline, huddling for warmth rather than scripting the next play.
“It was cold,” tackle Cameron Erving said. “It got cold. We started sweating then just sat on the sideline.”
The game belonged to Florida State’s defense, which has quietly become one of the most dominant units in college football.
Down two senior safeties, FSU still racked up seven turnovers, held Wake to just a field goal, and, in what was perhaps the most impressive feat of the day, completely overshadowed Winston.
In the locker room, the balance of power never tilted too far toward Winston, a fact he has always been quick to point out to anyone pressing him for details on his own performance. On the practice field during the week, Florida State’s defense has provided the star QB with his biggest tests, and Smith’s crew has won more than its share of those battles.
But when the season began, Winston proved a quick study, lighting up Pitt in his debut performance and riding a wave of popularity from there. The defense, on the other hand, took a little longer to coalesce.
“It took us a little bit before we understood how the defense was supposed to operate,” defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. said.
When former coordinator Mark Stoops left at the end of last season -- followed by seven defensive starters in the NFL draft -- Florida State began a rebuilding job. Jeremy Pruitt was brought in to revamp the scheme, installing a defense that more closely resembled the one he helped run at Alabama.
The scheme required a group effort, though, and not everyone was on the same page.
“Early in the year, we played a little selfish,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We were trying to force the game, trying to make a play and there’d be a gap there.”
That started to change after Boston College piled up 200 yards and 34 points, a tally that still represents nearly half the points FSU's first-team defense has allowed all season.
In fairness, it wasn’t a good measure of how far the Seminoles had come. This was still the infancy stages of Pruitt’s new defense. Edwards was out for that game after surgery on his hand. Christian Jones was still working as a hybrid linebacker/pass rusher, his role still vague. Terrance Smith was in a supporting role, Jalen Ramsey was in his first game as a starting safety and the defensive line was rotating routinely.
The product looked shaky, but it also helped to uncover what needed to be fixed.
“We watched film and it just started clicking,” Edwards said. “It’s one of those things where you had to be a visual learner, see what your mistake was.”
Almost overnight, things began to change. Edwards got healthy, and he has been exceptional. Jones moved to defensive end permanently, and his athleticism has helped seal the edge of the line. Terrance Smith became a fixture at linebacker, and he’s now Florida State’s third-leading tackler. Ramsey and fellow freshman Nate Andrews have acquitted themselves nicely in the secondary.
The early season was trial-and-error. The past five games have been pure success.
“They just got the puzzle, and they put all the pieces together," Telvin Smith said. "Now we’re making the perfect picture out there.”
The numbers are eye-popping. In five games since Boston College, Florida State’s first-team defense has surrendered just 21 points. It has also scored 21 points on two interception returns and a fumble recovery. It’s allowing nearly a yard less per carry and has racked up a whopping 17 takeaways in its last five games.
Against Wake Forest on Saturday, that meant Winston barely saw the field for three quarters of the game -- first because of a plethora of defensive touchdowns and short fields, later because Florida State was well on its way to another blowout win.
And after it was over, the tables had turned, with Winston quizzed on how well his defense had played.
“From the beginning of the season I’ve said we were the silent killers,” Smith said. “We can give them all the credit. That’s them. They’re going to make big plays, score the touchdowns, bring the fans. But hey, we’re making noise even though we’re being quiet out there.”
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): It wasn’t Winston’s sharpest performance, but who could blame him? The offense barely saw the field in the second quarter, and it was incredibly difficult to get in a rhythm. The question is, given the remaining opponents, when will it be easy to get into a rhythm?
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (2): Four tackles, including assisting on a TFL. Another solid performance from Joyner, who somehow managed to finish without a pick in a game when FSU defenders had six of them.
3. RB Devonta Freeman (3): Slow going for Freeman, who found little running room. He had just 11 yards on six carries -- a long of 3 -- but did score for the ninth time this season.
4. WR Rashad Greene (4): He was FSU’s leading receiver (5 for 47 yards) but it wasn’t a big day for any of usual the offensive stars, and Greene did have a key drop.
5. DT Timmy Jernigan (6): Six tackles by halftime, dominating the line of scrimmage, and utterly stuffing Wake’s run game up the middle.
6. LB Telvin Smith (5): Three tackles, but like most of the starters, he didn’t need to do much.
7. S Jalen Ramsey (NR): For the most part this season, Ramsey has been so good he’s gone unnoticed. His scoop and score on a fumble Saturday was a highlight, but really, Wake didn’t test him much. It’s saying something that a true freshman is earning real respect from the opposition.
8. DE Mario Edwards Jr. (10): Since he returned to the lineup following hand surgery in Week 6, FSU’s first-team defense has allowed 21 points in five games. Edwards picked off a pass against Wake to go with a TFL.
9. S Terrence Brooks (7): Brooks missed Saturday’s game with a concussion, but that may have actually been a nice contribution. Brooks’ replacement, Nate Andrews, created three turnovers and scored on one.
10. DE Christian Jones (9): His impact at rush end has been big, and he was in the backfield often Saturday, despite finishing with just one tackle.
Honorable mentions: Andrews, TE Nick O’Leary, RBs Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr., LB Terrance Smith, WRs Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin
Winston not finishing strong: Perhaps it’s nitpicking after a 59-3 blowout, but Jameis Winston wasn’t exactly sharp. It was similar to his game against NC State: Winston looked good enough on early drives but struggled to maintain the same focus after Florida State built a big lead. For the third time this season, his last pass was an interception. Overall, Winston has thrown four picks in his last 58 attempts after throwing just three in his first 182 passes of the year. Again, it’s hardly any indication that Winston is slipping. It’s more about the pace of the game. FSU has built big leads, the defensive scores have limited offensive possessions and Winston has struggled to get into a groove. The problem, however, is that trend figures to continue in coming weeks, with FSU expected to be a heavy favorite in each of its three remaining regular-season games.
The mindset hasn’t changed: Yes, the Seminoles crowded into hotel rooms Thursday night to watch the end of Oregon’s loss to Stanford. Yes, they were excited about the outcome. Yes, they’re enjoying their place in the driver’s seat for a trip to the BCS title game. But no, nothing’s changed other than the standings. If anything, the strong start and dominant victory over Wake Forest underscored how focused Florida State is on its own agenda, rather than worrying about what might await at season’s end. On a chilly afternoon before a sparse crowd with little expectation of anything other than an easy win, Florida State did what it was supposed to do. That might not seem like much, but when evaluating the maturity of this FSU team against the program’s recent history, it’s an enormous test to pass.
Boston College running back Andre Williams. The best rusher in the ACC topped himself in a 48-34 win over New Mexico State. Williams ran for a career-high 295 yards, setting the school single-game rushing record. Montel Harris set the old mark of 264 yards in 2011. Williams now owns two of the top three single-game marks in school history. His performance late in the game was outstanding. With the game tied at 34, Williams scored the game-winning touchdown on an 80-yard run. He added a 47-yarder on the next possession to officially put the game out of reach. Williams has three 200-yard games this season.
Duke safety DeVon Edwards. The redshirt freshman became the only FBS player in the last 10 years with three non-offensive touchdowns in a game in a 38-20 win over NC State. Edwards scored on a 100-yard kickoff return and then returned two interceptions for scores on back-to-back offensive plays. The 100-yard kickoff return tied for the second longest in Duke history. His 218 total yards ranks second all-time among Duke freshmen in a single game (Desmond Scott, 259 yards against Wake Forest in 2009).
Florida State defense. The Seminoles had perhaps the most dominating defensive performance in the ACC this season, forcing seven turnovers and scoring twice in a 59-3 win over Wake Forest. The Noles tied a school record with six interceptions -- one returned for a touchdown. Jalen Ramsey also returned a fumble for a touchdown, giving the Noles five defensive scores this season, tied for the most since 2007. Freshman safety Nate Andrews, making his first career start, had two interceptions (including the score) and forced the fumble Ramsey returned for the TD. Wake Forest had a Total QBR of 0, the only team this season with a team Total QBR of 0 in a game. Florida State has now forced a turnover in 14 straight games.
North Carolina QB Marquise Williams. North Carolina players dedicated their game against Virginia to quarterback Bryn Renner, lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Williams paid the ultimate tribute, wearing Renner's No. 2. He then went out and had a monster game, with passing, rushing and receiving touchdowns in the 45-14 win. Williams completed 15 of 28 passes for 185 yards; rushed 16 times for 46 yards; and caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Quinshad Davis. He is the first Carolina quarterback to catch a touchdown pass since Kevin Anthony in 1984 -- against Virginia.
Pitt safety Ray Vinopal. The Panthers may not have beaten No. 23 Notre Dame 28-21 without Vinopal, who had two critical interceptions in the fourth quarter to key the impressive win. On the first, Vinopal intercepted Tommy Rees in the end zone to end one drive. On the second, he returned his interception down to the 5, setting up the game-winning Panthers score. Vinopal also had a forced fumble early in the game, making him solely responsible for all three Irish turnovers.
Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas. For the second straight week, Thomas had over 400 yards total offense. But in a 42-24 win over Miami, the number that stood out was zero. Thomas combined his terrific passing game -- 25-of-31 for 366 yards and two scores -- with no turnovers. That has been the familiar bugaboo the last two weeks, both losses. Thomas had eight turnovers next to his name. But against Miami, he had his best game of the season with his team's Coastal Division hopes on the line. Thomas came through big time.
The freshman safeties: No Tyler Hunter? No Terrence Brooks? No problem for Florida State. The Seminoles started two true freshmen at safety, and they were both exceptional. Nate Andrews, getting his first career start in place of Brooks (concussion), picked off two passes, forced a fumble and scored a touchdown. Ramsey recovered the fumble and scored, too. By halftime, FSU’s freshman safeties had created more turnovers (three) than Wake Forest had completions (two). Ramsey was a five-star stud coming out of high school, and his success was expected -- albeit a bit sooner than Florida State might’ve anticipated. Andrews has been a revelation. The three-star recruit now leads the team with four interceptions this season, despite a small role so far.
DE Mario Edwards Jr.: It’s no coincidence that the emergence of Florida State’s defense has coincided with the improving health and productivity of the sophomore defensive end. Edwards had just two tackles on Saturday, but he was a fixture in the Wake Forest backfield, and he added an interception for good measure. Since returning from a hand injury against Maryland, FSU’s first-team defense has allowed 21 points in five games.
RB James Wilder Jr.: Someone on offense has to get a pat on the back, and it might as well be Wilder. The junior tailback finished with 49 yards on six carries, but his 22-yard run was the longest play of the day by the FSU offense. He scored one of the team’s five offensive touchdowns, and he converted three third-and-short carries. In all, it was a lackluster day for the FSU offense; its 296 yards were FSU’s lowest output since the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl against Notre Dame. But when the starters rarely see work in the second half, it’s hard to find much fault.
Hat tips to: Christian Jones continues to shine at defensive end; Karlos Williams and Devonta Freeman each found the end zone again, giving them 17 between them on the ground, tops for a pair of teammates in the ACC; Jameis Winston set the ACC record for touchdown throws by a freshman with his 26th of the season, passing NC State’s Philip Rivers.
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- There’s family history here, Mario Edwards Jr. said. In fact, his father had reminded him just hours before Florida State kicked off against Wake Forest on Saturday.
It was 1998 when Mario Edwards Sr., currently a member of FSU’s support staff, picked off four passes against Wake Forest, tying an ACC record.
“He said we were walking into his house,” the younger Edwards said of his father's pregame speech.
On Saturday, 15 years after his father’s record-setting performance, Edwards added to the legacy.
Demon Deacons starting quarterback Tanner Price threw just four passes before being pulled. Three were intercepted. His backup, Tyler Cameron, didn’t fare much better. In all, Florida State’s defense and special teams accounted for 224 yards and 21 points, dwarfing Wake’s offensive output for the game.
The dominant defensive performance was a tribute to Florida State’s depth. With senior safety Terrence Brooks out with a concussion and junior Tyler Hunter done for the year with a neck injury, the Seminoles started two true freshmen as the defensive backstops Saturday. Jalen Ramsey has been starting the entire season and was joined Saturday by Nate Andrews. The pair accounted for two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two touchdowns. By the time the starters were all on the bench in the fourth quarter, Wake had just 16 yards through the air.
“Two true freshman safeties and both scored touchdowns,” Jimbo Fisher said. “I mean, they can play the ball, they can tackle, they can run, they can play multiple potions. They’re very good football players.”
Edwards, Terrance Smith and Christian Jones had picks too, while another true freshman, Marquez White, added the game’s final takeaway. Thirty-eight of Florida State’s 59 points followed Wake Forest turnovers.
But if the defense dominated, the offense never quite found its rhythm. Chalk that up to another blowout. Jameis Winston threw for just 159 yards, and for a 15-minute span midway through the first half, he threw just one pass. For the third time this season, Winston’s final pass of the game was an interception, and for the second time in three weeks, he saw just one drive’s worth of action in the third quarter.
None of that mattered much, Winston said. The defense set the tone, and Florida State rolled to another easy win. It’s become habit, and that’s the idea -- particularly with the Seminoles now comfortably in command of their destiny in the BCS title picture.
“The way we’re playing right now, we’re playing like a championship team,” Winston said.
Indeed, it was a championship moment for Florida State on Saturday, though few realized it.
When the game was over, the Seminoles filtered into their locker room and found a trophy waiting. With Saturday’s win, FSU clinched the ACC’s Atlantic Division title and a trip to the conference championship game.
“We saw the trophy, and we were like, ‘OK, this is nice,’” Jones said.
The accomplishment, however, had been a complete afterthought. Florida State’s goals are set so much higher.
After Saturday’s big win, coupled with Oregon’s loss Thursday, those goals are well within reach. Now, Edwards said, it’s simply a matter of following Fisher’s one-day-at-a-time mantra and continuing the dominance.
“Everything is falling into place now,” Edwards said, “just like Jimbo said it would.”
1. Winston’s rebound. OK, so Jameis Winston’s “bad” game wasn’t actually too bad. He completed all but two throws in the second half last Saturday against Miami, and Florida State won easily. Still, he did throw two interceptions in the game, which represented the closest thing he’s had to a struggle. Winston doesn’t figure to run into many stumbling blocks this week, but a big game statistically could be significant in the race for the Heisman Trophy. After Marcus Mariota’s struggles Thursday against Stanford, it could a two-man race between Winston and the reigning winner, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.
2. Youth in the secondary. Terrence Brooks will sit out of Saturday's game with concussion symptoms, though Jimbo Fisher said the senior is recovering well and it’s not expected to be a long-term concern. In the short term, however, two true freshmen are likely to see a heavy workload in the secondary. Jalen Ramsey continues to shine at safety in place of injured Tyler Hunter, and Nate Andrews has been exceptional in reserve duty. He picked off a pass in the second half against Miami, subbing for Brooks. Keelin Smith figures to get some work, too. Against a better passing offense it might be a concern, but with Michael Campanaro out for Wake Forest, the test won’t be quite so big.
4. Avoid turnovers. Two years ago, Florida State went to Winston-Salem, N.C., and lost a game it had no business losing. The difference in that 35-30 Wake Forest victory was turnovers — five of them in total. That hasn’t been an issue for the Seminoles at all in 2013. They’ve gone nine consecutive games without losing the turnover battle, and FSU’s eight turnovers lost is tied for the fifth-fewest in the nation among AQ teams. The Seminoles have the better talent in this game by a wide margin, but losing the football too often is the great equalizer.
5. Stay focused. The Seminoles have had doubters to fight against all year, but no more. Their destiny is in their hands, and that’s the one hurdle we haven’t seen Fisher’s crew overcome yet. If this really is a new, more mature Florida State team, it will have no problem throttling Wake Forest early and moving on to the next challenge. If the Seminoles read too many of their own headlines, then the national title game appearance is anything but secure.
Lamarcus Joyner was jubilant, pronouncing FSU’s secondary the best in the country. His rationale, he said, was simple.
The self-deprecation was intended as a joke, but Joyner knows his height is a weapon used against him by the opposition and talent evaluators in the NFL. That’s why he was pegged as a mid-round selection had he entered the draft following the 2012 season, and that’s why he switched from safety to corner this year.
Joyner’s height sets him apart from his more imposing counterparts, but he’s using this season to showcase a plethora of skills that more than make up for his stature.
In Saturday’s win over Clemson, Joyner was the catalyst. He finished the game with eight tackles, while creating three turnovers. Each one underscored Joyner’s versatility.
On Clemson’s first play from scrimmage, Boyd completed a short pass to slot receiver Stanton Seckinger. Joyner closed quickly, walloped the receiver and stripped away the football. The forced fumble shocked even Joyner’s teammates.
“I had to do a double take,” said safety Terrence Brooks, who recovered the fumble. “I looked at it one time and said, ‘OK, that can’t be the ball.’ ”
Joyner’s second takeaway came on a corner blitz. It’s a new role for the senior this season. He had just one sack in his career prior to this season, but his speed makes him a weapon off the edge, and on Saturday, he pounced on Boyd with such instantaneous fury, the Clemson quarterback had no chance to prepare for impact. The ball tumbled away, and Mario Edwards Jr. scooped it up and rumbled into the end zone for a score.
The final addition to Joyner’s turnover hat trick came on a play he’d flubbed all week in practice.
All those corner blitzes had gotten the attention of the opposition, and coordinator Jeremy Pruitt knew Clemson would be looking for it. The plan was for Joyner to show blitz, then drop into coverage and hope Boyd would fall for the trick. Over and over in practice last week, Joyner failed to execute the play, but Pruitt told him to keep at it.
On Saturday, things hardly went according to plan. A miscommunication on the sideline meant only 10 players were on the field, but Joyner sold the blitz so effectively that it didn’t matter. Boyd’s pass found Joyner’s hands, and the misery for Clemson’s quarterback continued.
“I dropped into my zone and on that particular night I just seemed to do what I was coached to do,” Joyner said. “I was able to bait Tajh into throwing an interception.”
The first play was a product of Joyner’s strength. The second, his speed. The third, his smarts. It was precisely the type of showcase he’d hoped for when he decided to return for his senior season.
“I’m at nickel, I'm at corner, I get to blitz, I get to play man-to-man,” Joyner said. “I get to do all those things I wanted to do coming back for my senior year. When he sold the defense to me, I just committed myself to it."
The expanded role has meant more measurable production. Joyner is second on the team with 33 tackles and is on pace to shatter his previous career high. His three sacks and four takeaways leads the team. NFL scouts are taking notice.
"He's got tremendous range and ball skills and brings the right kind of mentality to support the run,” said Phil Savage, a longtime NFL talent evaluator and current executive director for the Senior Bowl. “The way the league is now, everybody's looking for three and four corners at least. There's going to be a bigger market for him at that position than there would've been at safety most likely. The big question is going to remain his height, going against the Calvin Johnsons and Andre Johnsons and the guys that are out there that have just that overwhelming size. But hey, they make 6-foot corners look bad at times."
Of course, by the time the 2014 draft comes around, the Clemson game will be ancient history and Joyner will still be 5-8. That much, he can’t change.
But while the behemoth receivers at the NFL level figure to have a distinct advantage, the guys who go up against Joyner every day know it won’t be so simple.
“It don’t matter how big he is,” said 6-5 receiver Kelvin Benjamin. “He is going to compete. He is like a dog. If you got that bone in your hand, he’s coming to get you.”
There are some skills that aren’t measurable, Jimbo Fisher said. So much of what sets Joyner apart isn’t his size or speed or smarts.
“He’s short, he’s not little,” Fisher said. “He packs a big punch, and his heart’s as big as the world.”
Florida State is 6-0 and has played as well as any team in the country.
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): We're running out of adjectives to describe how great he's been, but here's a stat that helps: Winston has accounted for 23 touchdowns in six games so far. E.J. Manuel, the first QB taken in this past April's NFL draft, recorded his 23rd touchdown for FSU last season ... in Game No. 12.
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (5): It's fair to say the new defensive scheme agrees with Joyner. He recorded eight tackles, a sack and forced three take-aways, including a tempo-setter on Clemson's first offensive play. He's on pace for 77 tackles and seven sacks this season.
3. LB Telvin Smith (6): It's possible there were three or four guys wearing No. 22 jerseys on the field Saturday. That's about the only way to explain how Smith managed to be in on virtually every play. He finished with 11 tackles, including one for a loss.
4. WR Rashad Greene (4): In three career games vs. Clemson, Greene has 20 catches, 280 yards and four touchdowns.
5. DT Timmy Jernigan (3): His sack Saturday was his lone tackle, but Jernigan flat out ate up Clemson's interior line, opening up room for Smith and the other linebackers to have a field day.
6. RB Devonta Freeman (2): Quiet day for the FSU running game, as Freeman finished with 84 yards on 21 carries. The bulk of his production came on a handful of long runs, but there was little room the bulk of the time. That's a slight concern for FSU, which is averaging just 4.1 ypc against ACC teams. Take away Freeman's 17-yarder and Winston's 18-yarder Saturday, and the Noles managed just 3.3 ypc (not counting sacks).
7. LB Christian Jones (NR): This was the breakthrough game Jones was looking for in FSU's new defensive scheme. The 3-5-3 FSU ran much of Saturday is perfectly suited to his skill set, and Jones responded with eight tackles, including two for a loss and one QB hurry.
9. WR Kenny Shaw (7): He was overshadowed by his fellow receivers Saturday, but Shaw's body of work this season is still exceptional.
10. TE Nick O'Leary (NR): Five catches, 161 yards. That's not a line you'll see from tight ends at FSU often. It included a 94-yard reception and one of the biggest hits an FSU offensive player has delivered in a long time.
1. The quarterbacks: The showdown between Heisman contenders Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston has been discussed at length this week, and for good reason. Boyd's legacy might be on the line in this one. He has won big games before, but a loss would put Clemson's ACC title hopes in peril, and Boyd would hate to spend his final two seasons with the Tigers finishing in second place. Winston, meanwhile, faces a test unlike anything he's seen during his impressive five-game run to start his FSU career. Will Boyd's veteran savvy overwhelm Florida State? Will Winston live up to the moment the way he has at every turn thus far? Odds are, neither quarterback will disappoint, but only one of them can come out on top.
2. FSU's ground game: Lost in the talk of the quarterbacks is perhaps the more substantive issue of Florida State's ground game against a Clemson defense that has been feast or famine vs. the run this season. Clemson looks decent overall, ranking in the middle of the pack in rush yards allowed and racking up a national-best 61 tackles for loss. But dig deeper, and the Tigers don't look nearly so imposing. Against FBS teams, not counting sacks, Clemson is allowing 5.62 yards per rush -- good for 107th nationally. Meanwhile, FSU rushed for 287 yards in last year's win without this year's starter, Devonta Freeman, getting a single touch. Freeman, Karlos Williams and a healthy James Wilder Jr. could do a lot in opening things up for Winston in this year's game.
4. Ramsey's test: Jalen Ramsey opened the season by becoming the first Florida State freshman to start at corner since Deion Sanders. He acquitted himself nicely, but when Tyler Hunter went down with a season-ending neck injury, Ramsey was shuffled to safety, where he also has managed to hold his own. Of course, none of those games involved Boyd or Sammy Watkins, which makes this week's test a whole different animal. Last season, Terrence Brooks was burned for a long touchdown early, and that memory has lingered ever since. This season, both Ramsey and Brooks figure to be tested downfield. Boyd has 23 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more since the start of 2012 -- four more than any other quarterback in the nation.
5. The special teams: It has been 25 years since the famous "Puntrooskie" play that helped Florida State topple Clemson in 1988. But the significance of special teams in this rivalry shouldn't be lost to history. Perhaps the biggest play in last year's Florida State win was a 90-yard kickoff return by Lamarcus Joyner that swung all the momentum to Florida State's side midway through the third quarter. Clemson was up 10, but Joyner's return set up an EJ Manuel TD pass to ignite a 28-6 FSU run to end the game.
Last week's rankings in parentheses.
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): Seven more touchdowns, another acrobatic escape act turned highlight-reel TD, and another big win. Ho-hum. But how about these numbers: This season, on the final drive of the first half and first drive of the second half, Winston is 26-of-30 for 493 yards and seven touchdowns. FSU has scored on all 10 drives, including nine TDs.
2. RB Devonta Freeman (5): It has been 17 years since an FSU runner went over 1,000 yards. Freeman is currently on pace for 1,001.
4. WR Rashad Greene (3): There may not be another player in the country who so easily floats under the radar after putting up 108 yards on four catches.
5. CB Lamarcus Joyner (2): Just one tackle, but he got solid pressure on Maryland quarterbacks throughout and forced a fumble.
6. LB Telvin Smith (6): The success from the D line opened things up for Smith, who created significant chaos in the Maryland backfield. He finished with five tackles and a PBU.
7. WR Kenny Shaw (4): What's a guy have to do to get a 100-yard game? Shaw has been between 89 and 96 each time out this year.
8. S Terrence Brooks (8): No one played with more ferocity Saturday than Brooks, who has come into his own as a force in the FSU secondary.
9. DB Jalen Ramsey (7): Another strong performance from the freshman in his new role at safety. Given the concerns about Tyler Hunter's neck injury, Ramsey's presence looms large with Clemson on the horizon.
10. WR Kelvin Benjamin (10): Fisher pushed Benjamin to do the little things better this year. He has responded, as evidenced by his five-catches, 60 yards and two TDs against Maryland.
Honorable mentions: Tackles Cameron Erving and Bobby Hart, DTs Jacobbi McDaniel and Eddie Goldman, DE Chris Casher, RB Karlos Williams, K Roberto Aguayo, CB P.J. Williams.
C.J. Hampton Discusses College Decision
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