While the saying is normally reserved for the holiday season, this is quite honestly “the most wonderful time of the year.”
That classic Andy Williams song focused on jingle bells, mistletoe and caroling, but right now the average sports fan has unwrapped a point in the year where Major League baseball is on its grand stage, the NFL’s contenders and pretenders have shown their faces, college basketball is dribbling into the picture and college football is down to its must-win scenarios.
At 4-3 on the season, every remaining game is a must-win situation for the Florida State football team. Coach Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles are currently in a two-win, three-loss, two-win pattern that they hope to break this Saturday in a high-noon kickoff against the North Carolina State Wolfpack.
Seminole fans have been treated to an offensive explosion in the most recent two-game win streak. Back-to-back blowouts of Duke and Maryland accounted for 82 points and a slew of confidence in both the offensive line and the running game. Sure, the success of one most naturally affects the other, but for an offense that sputtered on the ground through the first five weeks and saw quarterbacks E.J. Manuel and Clint Trickett sacked repeatedly, the 'Noles welcome the recent surge in positive performance.
A combined 460 yards rushing in two games has the FSU attack confident that it can score on anyone. The 'Noles have shored up their non-existent running game and allowed what appears to be more creativity in Fisher's playcalling.
I must admit, it’s good to see the 'Noles running again, especially after the criticism the stable of running backs had to endure through the first five weeks. The running game was anemic against Oklahoma (27 yards on 26 attempts), Clemson (29 on 15) and, to a lesser extent, Wake Forest (110 on 27). But I don’t fault running backs coach Eddie Gran or even offensive line coach Rick Trickett for early-season shortcomings in the ground game.
Instead, I fault one of the most basic principles in football.
The biggest and toughest obstacle to establishing a good running game is when your own defense gives up early touchdowns and you have to play catch-up. When you trail by 14 points, the football philosophy gets tailored to a pass-heavy game plan in order to conserve time on the clock. All of those brilliantly-orchestrated running plays that have been rehearsed over and over in practice to eat away chunks of yardage on first or second down now get pushed down in priority on the playlist in favor of out routes and shots deep down the field.
Of course, the change in playcalling is an attempt to get back into the ballgame, counter the opposing team’s early success and prevent too much time from running off the clock.
And when opposing defenses realize they have a favorable lead, even the worst of defensive coordinators start having fun with their blitz packages. The 'Noles were sacked 10 times during the three-game skid. In those losses to Oklahoma, Clemson and Wake Forest, FSU abandoned a balanced attack in an attempt to stay within striking distance of a team that quickly took advantage of its defense. Passing plays were called much more frequently than running plays.
During the three-game losing streak, the 'Noles called 118 passing plays to just 88 running plays. In the loss to Clemson, where enemy defensive coordinator Kevin Steele knew the 'Noles were going to go pass-happy in Trickett's starting debut, FSU ran the ball just 15 times while calling 38 pass plays. As bad as the offensive line seems from the outside, it allowed just two sacks in that Clemson loss despite having a relatively immobile pocket passer in the huddle.
The shift to the passing side of the playbook also shifted the personnel in the backfield.
More experienced tailbacks like Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas were being used over talent-laced true freshmen Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. Everyone with a garnet-and-gold brain can see that both Freeman and Wilder are game changers. However, as true freshmen, neither standout stands out when it comes to pass blocking and fully comprehending the pass-protection schemes. With the 'Noles playing catch-up and needing to pass their way back into their battles against the Sooners, Tigers and Demon Deacons, both freshman stars became casualties of FSU’s altered game plan.
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In wins against Duke and Maryland, an early lead translated into the opportunity to feed the beasts. The tailbacks galloped all over the Blue Devils and Terps. The playcalling changed, as well. After just 88 total carries in three losses, the Seminoles pounded the rock 89 times in the two most recent wins. The result was 460 total yards, two victories, and back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances from Freeman.
Just as the wind changes the direction of a blowing flag, so too does the scoreboard change the direction of an offense. The Seminoles passed the ball 30 more times than they ran it while playing from behind during their three-game losing streak. Conversely, FSU ran the ball 49 more times than they chucked it in the two recent blowout victories.
Bottom line, if we see Thomas, Freeman or Wilder running wild Saturday at Doak, it’s because the scoreboard has already turned in Florida State's favor.
Elton Gumbel is a sports anchor and reporter for WCTV in Tallahassee, as well as a regular contributor to NoleDigest.com.