Seven wins. Bowl eligibility. A shot at an ACC championship game berth. A 3 game winning streak. These are all things that most people did not see coming this year. Most people, myself included, expected us to be improved over last year. But this? Nope.
The Hoos are 7-3, 4-2 in the ACC. They are 1 game behind Virginia Tech in the ACC Coastal division. They travel to Tallahassee this weekend to face the Seminoles, who sit at 7-3, 5-2. The Noles, however, have been eliminated from the Atlantic Division race, and have little to play for at this point. They also have Florida coming up next week, which is a bigger game for them.
The Hoos have never won at Doak Campbell stadium, and frankly have never come close. The past two games have finished 33-0 and 36-3. The Seminoles are favored by about 17 points. So, in a season full of surprises, can the Hoos deliver perhaps the biggest surprise of the year, and knock off the Seminoles?
Virginia on Offense
This past week, the Hoos offense looked out of sync for much of the game. They tallied just 357 yards of total offense against one of the worst defenses in the ACC. Both the ground game and the passing game were below average. They still managed to put together 24 points including 2 Michael Rocco TD passes. Considering that this ranks among the teams worst performances of the season, we can live with it.
If the Hoos are out of sync this week, I would not expect 357 yards, 24 points and a victory. The Seminoles defense is very, very good. They rank 4th in the nation in rushing defense, and 5th in total defense. They are also 6th in scoring defense. They even held the high powered Oklahoma offense to just 23 points.
The strength of the Seminoles defense begins up front. The DL is big, strong and fast. The two ends are sophomore Bjoern Werner and junior Brandon Jenkins. They both go 6'3" or 6'4" and about 270 pounds, and both can run. They have 6 and 4.5 sacks, respectively. Jenkins was on a lot of preseason award watch lists. The other man to watch at DE is JUCO transfer Cornellius Carradine, who has 4 sacks in a reserve role.
The Noles have a bunch of 300 pound athletes on the interior. The starters will be a pair of juniors, Everett Dawkins and Anthony McCloud. The third guy we will see is freshman Cameron Erving. None of the 3 are really great pass rushing threats, but they are all tough to handle on the interior against the run. They will plug holes and they are tough to move. Running inside against the Noles is tough.
As always, Florida State has a ton of speed at LB. The star of the group is senior WLB Nigel Bradham, and he leads the team in tackles by a lot. He is also second in TFLs and has 2 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 4 passes defended. He is all over the field, and is somebody who must be accounted for on every single play. Bardham is one of the top LBs in the nation. The other OLB is sophomore Christian Jones. Jones is almost a duplicate of Bardham, but doesn't have the same game experience. Jones will spend of a lot of time in the Virginia backfield.
The FSU MLB is junior Vince Williams, although sophomore Telvin Smith will see extensive playing time there as well. The two are 4th and 7th on the team in tackles, and add in 5 combined sacks and an interception apiece. Williams is the bigger of the two much more of a fill the gap run stopper, while Smith is fast and can run sideline to sideline.
The Noles secondary has had to deal with injuries, but they are still very good. The starters at CB this week figure to be senior Mike Harris and junior Greg Reid. Last year's ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Xavier Rhodes is questionable with a knee injury. Harris is actually 2nd on the team in tackles and first in passes defended. Reid gets a lot of hype as a punt returner, but he is also a pretty good cover guy. Reid is probably among the fastest players in the nation.
The safeties are junior Nick Moody and sophomore Lamarcus Joyner. Moody has dealt with injuries, but is appears to be healthy now. If Moody can't go, or is limited, we will see senior Terrance Parks in his place. Parks actually came into the season as the projected starter opposite Moody, but was beaten out by Joyner. Joyner is small for a safety, at 5'8" and 204 pounds, but he has very good cover skills. Moody and Parks are more traditional safeties, and both can really hit. If we are having success running the ball, look for Moody and Parks to be on the field together as both are better against the run. Joyner will likely find himself facing Perry Jones in pass coverage a lot, and that matchup may be a key one. Joyner is a very good cover safety, but there are few RBs with the pass receiving skills that Perry Jones has.
To reiterate, the FSU defense is very, very good. The Hoos offense is good, but not very efficient. We will need to take advantage of every opportunity we get. FSU relies on pressuring the QB, and will send their LBs on blitzes a lot. The CBs are good, but with the talent we have at WR, we can beat them. The key will be Michael Rocco making good reads, being willing to throw the ball away when under pressure. We can't afford to take sacks, because getting behind the sticks means FSU can be even more aggressive against in its pass rush. Screen passes are, as always, a good way to slow down a pass rush. We have seen Kevin Parks, Perry Jones, Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings all have success with screens this year. Any one of them might get a look there this week. Also, Max Milien has been hot lately, and he might be an option that FSU doesn't see coming.
On the ground, the key is going to be finding any crease you can, and picking up whatever yards you can get. We aren't likely to get a lot of 8 and 9 yard gains, but if we can consistently pick up 3 and 4 yards on the ground, we'll limit FSU's aggressiveness. If the OL is getting blown up, and the RBs are getting stopped before they can get going, we may be in for a long game. Running to the perimeter isn't a whole lot better because of the speed of the FSU OLBs and the tackling ability of their CBs.
Virginia on Defense
Junior QB E.J. Manuel is already in his 3rd year of action on the field. He is beginning to live up to the high expectations he had coming out of Virginia Beach. Manuel has thrown for over 2000 yards this year, and rushed for another 160 (that includes over 150 yards lost to sacks). Manuel is a very fluid runner, who can run for yards, but can also buy time and make plays with his strong arm. He is still prone to making bad decisions, and trying to force passes. He has a 15:8 TD:INT ratio, but seems to throw his interceptions in bunches. Changing up coverages will be a key, but keeping containment on him will be as well. Manuel isn't easy to bottle up, but that is the key to shutting down the FSU offense.
The reason that Manuel is the key is that the FSU ground is surprisingly weak. As a team, the Noles have rushed for just 1200 yards on the year (the Hoos have rushed for nearly 1900). That isn't to say that they don't have talented RBs, because they do. In fact, they may have too many talented RBs. The leading rusher is true freshman Devonta Freeman, a 5'8" 200 pound speedster from Miami. Freeman is the leading rusher, despite FSU having 3 very good backs returning from last year. One of them, Chris Thompson, is out for the year after suffering a major neck injury against Wake Forest. Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas are both seniors and both had had a lot of success in the past. They combined for over 1000 yards and 11 TDs last year. I wonder how they feel about losing their job to a true freshman. Thomas is actually listed as a co-starter with Freeman, and Ty Jones is a short yardage specialist, who may get goalline touches.
Coming into the season, FSU had reason to worry about their WRs. Again, they have a lot of talent there, but there were questions about their consistency and productivity. As it turns out, they needn't have worried. Senior Bert Reed was the team's leading receiver the past two years, and he is the 4th leading receiver right now, with 23 catches. Junior Rodney Smith and freshman Rashad Greene lead with 29. Smith is 6'6" 215 pound, and was one of the top rated HS receivers in 2009. Smith started coming into his own at the end of last season, and has continued his progression. After seeing what Miami's tall WRs did to us, I am terrified of Smith. Greene doesn't even start, and in fact is listed 3rd on the depth chart. A true freshman, Greene has done all his damage in just 6 games due to injuries. Sophomore Kenny Shaw and redshirt freshman Christian Green round out FSU's quintet of talented WRs. Shaw has 28 receptions and Green has 21.
FSU also has a weapon in freshman TE Nick O'Leary. Senior Beau Reliford is the starter, but is more of a blocker and has just 35 catches in his 4 years on the field. O'Leary will be the TE in passing situations. Although to be honest, FSU mostly goes 4 and 5 wide in passing situations. None of the RBs are particularly good receivers out of the backfield, but that doesn't mean they won't look that way if necessary.
The other reason that FSU has had to rely on Manuel is that their OL has been spotty, at best. Part of that is due to losing a couple of very good OLs to graduation last year, and part of it is due to injuries. Senior starting LT Andrew Datko is out for the season, forcing senior RT Zebrie Sanders to slide over. Sanders is a big guy, and sometimes has trouble with quicker pass rushers. Cam Johnson could have success with speed rushes if Sanders is left alone. Sanders' move means that true freshman Bobby Hart has had to play RT, and he has had some growing pains. He is improving and has been better of late. Senior RG David Spurlock is also out with a knee injury, and that has caused even more movement on the line. Sophomore Garrett Faircloth has been starting, and has been adequate. The starting C is Bryan Stork, who began the year as the LG. JUCO transfer Jacob Fahrenkrug began the year as the starting C and has now moved to LG. It should be noted that freshman Austin Barron has started at C the past two games, with Stork out, but Stork is expected back this week.
The Hoos will have to get pressure with their front 4, because they really can't afford to have a lot of man coverage in the secondary. Obviously, Chase Minnifield can handle himself, but the other DBs will get burned by FSUs fast, talented WR corps. If we can get pressure on Manuel, and force him to back poor decision, we may get some turnovers. We also much watch the ground game. While FSU hasn't had a lot of talent there, the backs that they have are capable of breaking a long run at just about any time.
Manuel is the type of dual threat QB who has given our defense fits the past couple of years. Just this year, Miami, Indiana and Southern Miss have hurt us with dual threat QBs. We play so tentative in the secondary against these guys that they end up having huge games through the air. I want our secondary to play the same game they have been playing, and rely on the front 7 to contain Manuel. Easier said than done.
FSU also has some of the best special teams in the nation, with Greg Reid returning kicks and senior punter Shawn Powell. Our special teams haven't been great this year, and this could be a big factor in the game. A big punt return from Reid could easily swing things, and another turnover by our punt return team would be killer.
FSU's defense is very good, but our offense has been hot lately. I think we will move the ball on FSU, and score some points. Turnovers will kill us. Punts won't, assuming we bottle up Reid. FSU's passing offense scares me because we have been prone to giving up big plays. We will probably play a fair amount of nickel defense as well as a lot of deep zone. We may see Chase locked up with Bert Reed on one side with the safeties flowing the other side to help out Tra Nicholson.
The 17 point spread seems high to me, but FSU is more talented and playing at home on national TV. I think it'll be a game, but I don't know that we have enough right now.
Prediction: Seminoles 31, Hoos 17