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Are We Really Doing This?

Heaven help what’s left on defense in Tallahassee

Miami v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Welcome to Bowden Bowl, uhh, (Jim/Da)Bo Bowl, wait. No, this is merely the nameless Clemson-FSU game week. The conference game which used to mean everything. The 2020 Hellscape Edition brings with it the INSANE opportunity to secure a SIXTH straight win against what was once the most hated and toughest ACC rival for we millennial Tigers who grew up knowing nothing other than FSU in the ACC.

Sorry, old-timers who remember the original ACC and hold onto a special hatred for the first conference encroachers: Georgia Tech back in the 80s. Herein lies a primer for the next wave of ACC invaders; a wave all their own in the Seminole tribe which owned the league in their first decade plus in the fold from 1992 on through the middle of the aughts.

My, how juicy this weekend shall be. A hapless FSU program must face a healthy and HUNGRY Clemson Tiger team coming off a loss by its 2020 recruiting class in double overtime on the road against what is currently the 2nd (?!?!) ranked team in the land.

Don’t get me started on Notre Dame. I have some nuclear takes on them after they barely outlasted Diet Clemson in double overtime, thanks to the Game Of His Life from an average QB with a noodle for an arm, against almost nothing but reserve players forced into premature action. Notre Dame apologists or writers pining for a good narrative like to pretend Clemson’s freshmen and backups at large are as talented as Bama and Ohio State’s, but that’s horrible revisionism.

Clemson has indeed landed elite talent at QB, WR, DL, and CB for half a decade now (the most important spots in the modern game, to be fair) and gotten lucky with underrated evaluations at RB and LB. But elsewhere Clemson is nowhere near elite in recruited or even developed talent. And where did Clemson fail against Notre Dame’s senior-laden team? At OL, at LB with backups filling in for injured upperclassmen, and especially at safety, where we found 3 and 0-star starters and the fallback projects who replaced them due to injury. Even those elite WR and DL recruits were depleted and/or beaten by more seasoned opposition because Clemson exhausted its talented depth.

The injured freshman QB threw for 400+ yards anyway behind this (*gestures wildly behind a pinched nose*) offensive line, and the 3-star yet elite running back had the worst game of his career — all in a double overtime letdown on the road against a program desperate for any sort of affirmation.

So, good for the Irish OL and running back pass protection for swallowing Clemson’s last-resort blitzes and subsequently beating freshmen safeties in cover 0. But I’ll unload those takes before the ACC Championship Game. Lord, do I have them. For now I’ll take it out on FSU because we all know Clemson will too. And then blow out Notre Dame on December 19th. Everyone knows that’s coming, assuming health. The playoff committee, Brian Kelly, NBC, Ian Book — all of them know it’s coming.

Mike Norvell may ultimately prove to be the answer in Tallahassee. I find myself underwhelmed by his charisma and scheming to date, but it’s only year one — or perhaps year zero if I’m being fair — and he must undertake the actual cultural overhaul I admit I expected Willie Taggart would direct with far more success than he found. He has a long road to travel and I can at least respect him for not taking the Butch Jones approach early in his Tennessee tenure.

Yet I still wonder how Norvell ever interviewed effectively and earned such a coveted destination job. I’ve found myself wishing South Carolina had fired Will Muschamp 11 months earlier (something I’ve NEVER WANTED AT ALL) and swiped Norvell while he was the hot commodity, because I fear him far less than any of the names floating around the Columbia vacancy. That alone is the worst thing anyone could ever say about the FSU football program.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: The Noles remain in shambles. They meet Clemson after a week off to get healthier and to stew on what should have been an obvious loss on paper — when looking at the players left to throw at Notre Dame by the second half — yet should’ve been a win based on how the fourth quarter unfolded. These next few weeks, assuming a pandemic doesn’t further derail what’s left of this season, will be a reckoning. It begins with the worst program in the ACC — though they won’t be for long — before a steady build-up in quality toward the rematch.

Let me be the first to introduce STS to Mike Norvell’s tagalong from Memphis, defensive coordinator Adam Fuller. He is your stereotypically angry defensive or strength coach with no hair, and a generic persona to duly keep him from your long term memory cells. Case in point, I first thought he was Jimbo Fisher’s last DC at FSU, whom I only remembered was called Charles Kelly upon a Google search to confirm or refute my nagging suspicion they were the same person.

I’m not one to hate on a man’s hairline since I’m quickly approaching my 30s and may discover a bad batch of latent genes before long, but never in my countless Skyrim playthroughs for nearly a decade now have I ever created a character so hopelessly generic that I conflated two actual human beings like they were obscure video game characters.

I am inevitably stalled in a sneaky unarmed Khajiit “punch cat” build, based off my girlfriend’s cat, in my most recent Skyrim playthrough on PS4. So I’m going to load up a new character and name him ADAM FULLER and watch him go from a well-intentioned sword-spell Breton build into the inevitable, uninspired STEALTH ARCHER archetype into which every Skyrim or RPG player eventually falls. I have no control over this whatsoever despite literally holding the controller and choosing his level-up perks.

This is Adam Fuller and the FSU defense without Marvin Wilson: no matter your intentions, there is nothing you can do to stop your best-laid plans’ steady descent into game-breaking stealth archery. Is it effective though? That depends on your difficulty setting. You can play a stealth archer on Novice mode, put two perks into the the right skill trees, and one-shot everything in sight. Angry Clemson, with Trevor Lawrence on the depth chart for the first time in a month, will turn this up to Master Level.

Yes this metaphor is rather a self-own since it personifies me after Notre Dame

Fuller implemented your standard 4-3/4-2-5 blend with a dynamic weakside end in front of a hybrid defender at each subsequent level of the defense. The front aligns in an “Under” look, meaning the line is shifted toward the weakside or boundary, versus an “Over” front which does the opposite. This protects the aforementioned weakside DE and frees him rush or drop into coverage with more abandon, with a weakside 3 tech DT just inside of him between the guard and tackle instead of a weakside side 1 tech all the way near the center like in the Over. Without Marvin Wilson manning the 3 technique any longer though, it’s worth watching how well DE Janarious Robinson — one of the brightest remaining spots for the Noles — holds up when Clemson runs inside zone or power/counter into the boundary.

The back seven alignment is more or less what we see at Clemson in the Venables scheme: Two inside linebacker positions play in the box (though in different alignments given the differences in the front) while the hybrid strong side linebacker has to do anything and everything on the football field. The secondary employs your standard two deep shell with specific boundary and field corners and safeties, and safety rotation usually happens at the snap — prudent for necessary coverage disguises modern offenses require.

I wanted to dedicate most of this space to what FSU lost in Wilson’s injury, since it would provide a bit of optimism for Clemson’s struggling run game (or doom if it fails again!) but that would add insult to literal injury, and I’m more inclined toward defensive backfields and identifying/explaining coverages than I am fronts and leverages. Fuller again runs a lot in common with Clemson, with plenty of pattern match cover 4 as his shell would indicate. Most blitzes come from cover 3 or even disguised cover 0 behind that cover 4 shell, and nor is Fuller afraid to send boundary corner blitzes to help a front which is now even further overwhelmed against the run. Coincidentally, this is where we find FSU’s only remaining star: Asante Samuel Jr.

Easily mistaken for cover 3 because the boundary safety plays underneath rather than doubling the boundary receiver with the corner, this is cover 4 because the strong safety plays a quarter alongside Samuel (at field corner here) instead of a deep middle zone. Normally a wheel route against cover 4 works if you have a deep post or inside route like this to pull the corner out of his deep sideline zone, but Samuel didn’t bite and stayed in his zone for an easy pick. Good effort from the Sam linebacker to read and chase the wheel to boot!

FSU will also play man coverage, as their pedigree suggests, but apart from Samuel it’s been an underwhelming mix between Jarvis Brownlee, Jarian Jones, and Akeem Dent at the opposite corner.

Man cover 1 Robber, a perfect throw from (gags) Ian Book despite its weak velocity, the receiver won the route early and all Book had to do was get it outside the deep safety.

Against Clemson, I think we can expect to see many of the same man coverages opponents have run with relatively alarming success against Clemson, even with Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence has blistered zone coverages this season, and Clemson’s wide receiver group was horribly hobbled until Cornell Powell began to step up in Lawrence’s absence — these factors compounded into awful numbers against an increasing amount of man coverage even with the forthcoming #1 overall pick throwing that ball.

Clemson should be improved out wide this weekend, but Fuller needs to trust Samuel to hold up against Joe Ngata or Powell outside (which FSU should bet he can do not matter if he ultimately does or not) and throw bodies at the run. Basically the same approach Clemson hasn’t been able to overcome with much desired consistency all year! Fuller though will bring in more fire zones and pressures from all angles than we’re accustomed. Any rust from Lawrence will be evident early.

The bad news for the Noles is they had one of the worst run defenses in the nation before Wilson’s injury, now it’s easily the worst in the league on a per carry basis. And though Clemson may be overwhelmed up front, the bye week was hopefully used to better teach some young linemen when it’s time to get off a double team and climb to meet a filling linebacker or three — this has been the culprit in the run game, and we can only hope the center’s inability to climb to the linebacker was a mental error rather than an athletic limitation. Regardless, there’s no better remaining or recent opponent to try and run on than FSU, and we’ll see just how much self-scouting and improvement came from two major tests and two weeks’ rest.

The stretch run is here. How many points Clemson ultimately scores depends upon the run game, since Clemson will only pile on the points late in the game if they can run the ball. I’ll wait to see it before I believe it, no matter the opponent, so I hedged on the margin here...

Clemson 45, FSU 10