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Clemson at Florida State Preview: Q&A with Tomahawk Nation

With the road trip to Tallahassee looming, we connected with a blogger at our FSU sister site to get another perspective.

Florida State v Clemson
CLEMSON, SC - NOVEMBER 11: Sean Pollard #76 holds up teammate Travis Etienne #9 of the Clemson Tigers after he scores a touchdown against the Florida State Seminoles during their game at Memorial Stadium on November 11, 2017 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In preparation for Clemson game at Florida State, we’ve connected with Dylan Kidd at one of SB Nation site’s premier sites, Tomahawk Nation, to help us preview the game. It’s a good one so we’ll dive right in!

STS: Clemson travels down to Tallahassee on Saturday for what has typically been the biggest game in the ACC, but this year is a bit different. FSU is 4-3 with three ACC losses so the division winner was likely decided in the Textile Bowl. Nevertheless, Willie Taggart’s group seems to have found some life after a 1-2 start. Do you feel they’ve turned a corner?

Dylan: Well, they’re certainly playing better than they did against Samford and Syracuse. I think they’re getting more comfortable in the new offense, as you’d expect, but I don’t think there has been or will be an exponential improvement this year. This is simply because the offensive line won’t allow it. There just isn’t much they can do other than try to mitigate it as best they can, but that’s not a fix. That will take a couple of recruiting cycles, and that’s if those go well.

On defense, they’ve been pretty good all year, but they’re probably improving a bit on this side of the ball too. This unit is also undergoing a significant schematic change from the prior regime, but they’ve stayed pretty healthy, in stark contrast to the offense. Defenses are just a quicker fix than offenses, in general, and they also had less room to improve anyway. So I’d go with moderate improvement, but I’m not sure about turning a corner.

STS: Florida State has a very talented duo of running backs with Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick, but the running game has been a major sore spot. The Seminoles rank 124th in rushing yards per game and are averaging only 2.9 YPC. It’s clearly a problem with the offensive line as they rank 126th of 129 in stuff rate with a whopping 27.5% not making it past the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile Clemson is only allowing 2.6 YPC.

From a big picture perspective, could you tell us has this problem developed over the years to this point? More specific to this game, do you think they’ll try to establish the run or avoid it from the start and try to beat Clemson with a one-dimensional game plan?

Dylan: A lovely combination of injuries, attrition, and recruiting misses have culminated in the daycare fire along the offensive line of scrimmage we’ve seen this year. They didn’t really have tackles coming into this year to begin with, as they moved Landon Dickerson out there to cover it, and then the guys they did have promptly got hurt. As a result, there are no tackles. Derrick Kelly is not a tackle, and neither is Brady Scott. Jauan Williams and Abdul Bello are not ready to play at an FBS level. Cole Minshew has battled injuries, Mike Arnold is raw, and Alec Eberle has bouts of being unable to snap at center. As I mentioned, there is no cavalry coming to fix this in 2018, and realistically, even 2019.

They’ll still run the ball against Clemson this weekend. I don’t expect any success, but a.) they need at least the semblance of a threat of run to give a lot of the rest of the offense a chance to work, and b.) it’ll help to shorten the game. I think the latter will be a real consideration for Florida State this weekend. You want to do that to begin with when you’re overmatched, and it also has the added benefit of keeping the score more respectable for those who might not watch, but will be interested in the outcome (read: croots).

STS: Last year the Seminoles’ offensive line struggled to keep QB James Blackman upright. This year they’ve allowed just 18 sacks which, although not great, it indicates some decent progress as they’ve moved from 108th in to 71st in adjusted sack rate. Has the line improved in this area or do you credit playcalling and/or QB play? Do you think they can give Deondre Francois enough time to find some success against the Tigers?

Dylan: That’s mostly a product of scheme, as Taggart’s offense gets the ball out a lot more quickly than Fisher’s did. For example, there are no more 5-7 step drops from under center. I have actually seen some evidence of improved pass sets from the OL in recent weeks, but overall they’re still not good in pass protection at all. Francois is also quite bad at getting the ball out quickly, no matter how many times Taggart explains the concept of a half-field read and then tuck and run. As a result, when FSU has been in obvious passing downs this year, it’s spelled near-certain doom. The weird exception was last weekend when the ‘Noles had 10+ yards per attempt in passing downs, but I’m pretty sure that’s just because Wake is bad, of which y’all are aware.

No, I don’t expect Francois to consistently have enough time to throw to really worry Clemson. He’ll probably hit a few nice throws, and I expect the ‘Noles to throw several trick plays at the Tigers, but on a down-to-down basis, I’m not optimistic.

STS: QB James Blackman started last season and despite freshman growing pains, represented himself well. Francois has earned the job back and Blackman has attempted just one pass all season. How do you assess the QB situation and Francois’ performance thus far?

Dylan: It’s been interesting, to put it diplomatically. Francois certainly has arm talent, but several of his weaknesses are pretty glaring in this offense. For one, he’s just not the same player in the running game that he was before his catastrophic knee injury, which is completely understandable. But the QB’s legs play a big role in Taggart’s offense, and he’s been completely ineffective in this area. He also really struggles to make zone reads, which are another huge part of the attack. He’s slightly better at RPO reads, but not much. And what’s more, Deondre’s growth in the system has been negligible. He’s not reading things much better than he was against Virginia Tech, which is baffling.

This makes you wonder if Blackman has just been atrocious in practice, or what. Personally, I find it quite hard to believe he’s a worse option than Francois at this point. I do think, however, that if Taggart named Blackman the starter, there’s a pretty good chance Francois would immediately transfer. That would leave FSU with one scholarship quarterback, with hopefully one more coming in for 2019. So it may be the depth concerns in what he knows is a lost year that’s keeping 12 in that starting role. But we can’t know for sure, as we’ve seen Blackman take 4 snaps in this offense.

STS: Although the offense has struggled (109th S&P+), the Seminole defense is ranked 21st by S&P+. The area where they’ve excelled most has been limiting explosive plays. Where do you think they’re best equipped to slow down Clemson’s offense?

Dylan: I hope to see the defensive line show up like they did against Miami. They were unbelievable in that one, with Demarcus Christmas and Marvin Wilson tearing things up in the middle. If they do, they can make life difficult for Clemson on the ground and force some passing situations.

The problem is, I expect Lawrence and his receivers to hit some of the open throws that other offenses have been unable to. Harlon Barnett’s scheme is pretty aggressive, and there are plays to be made in the passing game if you’re able to pick up the pressure. I am looking forward to some high-quality one-on-one matchups between Clemson’s wideouts and FSU’s DBs. There’s a lot of talent on both sides of the ball there that will be playing on Sundays in a couple of years. The Seminoles’ defense is going to have to dominate on Saturday to give them any kind of chance to win.

STS: Clemson’s defensive line gets all the headlines, but FSU’s Junior DE, Brian Burns, has as many sacks (9) as Clelin Ferrell (6) and Austin Bryant (3) combined. Can you tell us a bit about this Seminole star?

Dylan: He’s got great length and burst, which makes him a handful on the outside. Burns is a pure pass rusher who is ideal for the edges of Barnett’s defense. I’d selfishly love to see him come back next season, but he needs to go get his money, and I expect him to do so.

STS: When Clemson’s offense is on the field, what individual positional matchup concerns you the most?

Dylan: Probably either Tee Higgins against whomever or Travis Etienne against any of FSU’s linebackers. Florida State has athletes on the back end to battle Higgins, but his size is probably too much for any of them in repeated one-on-one situations. The Seminole linebackers are the weakness of the defense, and I expect the Tigers to take advantage of them a few times. I’m envisioning a wheel or two and some RPOs thrown in behind them to Renfrow. It bears mentioning that all of those concerns are also due to the Tigers having a good quarterback now.

STS: When Clemson’s offense is on the field, what individual positional matchup gives you the most optimism? Lastly, do you think the Clemson offense can be limited enough to keep this game within reach late?

Dylan: Optimistically, I’ll go with FSU’s defensive tackles against CU’s interior linemen. Florida State is very talented and deep at this position, and if they show up, they can have some success at a critical spot on the field. You’ll know pretty quickly, as Christmas in particular is the ultimate big-game player who looks either all-world or somewhat disinterested.

And well, let’s talk about just how limited they’d have to be. I think the ‘Noles will need a dominant defensive performance, a significant turnover margin, and probably a special teams score or two to win this one. Even assuming a best case scenario, you’re probably still looking at having to hold Clemson to fewer than 24 or so. It’s not impossible, but I don’t see it.

It’s obvious, but it just comes down to the line of scrimmage when Florida State has the ball. It’s going to be bad. It’d be nice if we got to see some meaningful battles between some of FSU’s wideouts, like Tamorrion Terry and DJ Matthews, and Clemson’s DBs, but I think they’ll be few and far between because Francois will have to get everything out so quickly. Same goes for Akers against the Clemson backers, as I expect him to have another rough afternoon.

I will say that, in 3 of the last 4 games, FSU has had a really good script to start the game on offense, so if they have a few things schemed up, chances are that’s where you’ll see it. I also have a hunch Akers throws the ball at least once Saturday.

In sum, FSU either mucks it up on defense and slows the game down to make it look respectable or is treated to a complete bloodbath if things spiral early.

A big thanks to Dylan for joining and shedding some light on this matchup that in his own words, could be a “bloodbath.” Let’s hope!

Be sure to check out the other half of this Q&A over at Tomahawk Nation.