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Clemson vs. Florida State Football Preview: Mike Norvell’s Got Something Here

You can build a lot of offense around a reliable running game, how far that takes the Seminoles is going to decide the game Saturday

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 05 Notre Dame at Florida State Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We went out and got rolled by Pittsburgh last week. This happened and everyone saw it.

They are pointing, they are laughing and I cannot blame them because I would be too. DJ Uiagalelei got pulled for Taisun Phommachanh after that play. Taisun Phommachanh tore his Achilles tendon in April. Behind him there are walk-ons. The only receiver who can reliably get open is Justyn Ross and defenses have keyed in on that for weeks. The interior of the offensive line is improving in the sense that you guess a screen window is better than no window during a storm. The offense is screwed and this is not going to get better before the end of the season.

It’s not fun playing against FSU with the creeping thought in the back of your head that this could be the tip of the iceberg here. I am a pessimist, I admit this openly, but even the sunniest disposition has to admit Clemson has enjoyed historic good fortune lately. It’s not long ago the ACC watched a national title winning team fall apart due to (in part) shitty offensive line play and failing to replace a generational quarterback. We have seen this movie before, and recently, we just have not seen it with Clemson in the role of faltering power. The sequel tends to suck.

Last year was year negative one in Florida State, with a ridiculously young roster limping their way to 3-6. The youth movement paid dividends, particularly in a stable of young dynamic running backs and second year QB Jordan Travis. This years offense has built on the strengths they showed in 2020, although it has not addressed several of that years weaknesses.

We can all laugh at the fact that the Seminoles lost to an FCS team, and how they did it, but outside of a loss to the undefeated Demon Deacons, Florida State has been in every game they’ve played this season. The running attack is one of the nations best and the team has won three straight.

It’s been two games since they’ve had a turnover, a major problem at the beginning of the season. After early season hiccups (and failed Milton experiment) with what is still a very young team it looks like head coach Mike Norvell is onto something in Tallahassee.

These guys run the hell out of the football, then run it again, and have play-action and screen plays based off of that. That’s more of an identity to build on the Seminoles have had in years now. The less said about the drop-back passing game the better. There’s a reason they are running counter on third and eight in the above gif. That’s service academy stuff.

The offensive line still cannot pass block worth a damn, but to the coaching staffs’ credit, they have largely abandoned trying to unless they have to. Jordan Travis’s (#13) skill as a runner allows the Noles to read a defender which gives them an additional number in the running game.

The Seminoles running game is diverse but like most teams they want to mainly run inside zone, power, counter, draw, and outside zone plays. This years iteration is particularly explosive running off tackle with power, counter and Travis keepers.

You can still stop this team in the backfield pretty often, especially by bringing pressure from the second level, but if your safeties are not sure open field tacklers you are going to get burned repeatedly.

The receivers aren’t good at getting open or catching the football, but they are big, experienced and (unlike the Tigers corps) block very well. TE Camren McDonald (#87) is a stud receiver who blocks adequately, backup Jordan Wilson (#4) is another big target and there are like fifteen backups vying for playing time.

The Noles like to run their tight ends to the flats to create space for QB keepers, then leaking the tight end for an easy pass to the flats if the defense doesn’t account for them.

Mike Norvell will call a tight end screen multiple times in one half if he has to. The tight ends are getting the ball come hell or high water. As I mentioned above, there really is not much in the way of receiver production to lean on.

The Seminoles passing game does just enough while talented backs like Jashaun Corbin (#0) and Treshaun Ward (#8), plus Travis, provide the running game that makes the team go. Both backs are currently ripping off 7+ YPC and Travis is averaging 7+ YPC when you remove sack yardage lost. This isn’t the most efficient running game, but it’s wildly explosive and that is by far an easier route to score on a Venables defense than putting together a fifteen play drive.

This is what Norvell does, going back to his days at Memphis he has found versatile RB talents and gotten them the ball every way imaginable to create explosive plays. Norvell is quite fond of calling screens to punish pass rushers used to teeing off on his offensive line. They also let Travis get easy completions without requiring many reads.

Clemson is still banged up at defensive tackle, and it feels like Skalski is always a bad play away from out of the game. The 2021 Tigers run defense isn’t what it has been historically. It’s still very, very good, it’s just not among the best in the country.

If the Noles are able to establish the run this is going to be a ballgame. Jordan Travis has the arm to (on his good days) hit multiple big shots downfield. Florida State does not need much production through the air to win a game. Their three victories have involved Travis passing for under 150 yards per game. On his bad days Travis is going to panic under pressure, sail the ball into the sideline or both.

The Seminoles can scrape together a hundred and fifty yards through the air through play-action, screen passes, sprint-outs and simple crossing concepts. You kind of have to admire a coaching staff that’s so willing to admit the offensive line cannot block and the quarterback cannot read a progression as to run an eight man protection sprint out with one, count them, one, receiving option play side.

Yes, the passing game is extremely limited. The running game is good enough it has not mattered recently. If the Seminoles have to pass, which Jordan Travis cannot do reliably, there’s a chance we see the delightfully named Chubba Purdy taking snaps. Purdy can’t run for much but offers a significant upgrade at drop back passing. If this boils down to passing I can’t say I think that Florida State has the receivers or pass blocking to do it. If the Seminoles can run the ball as often as they want (a decent bellwether is whether Travis runs or throws the ball more often) there’s every chance they put up too many points for a moribund Tigers offense to compete.