Ground game could be key for Florida State

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was perhaps the signature play of running back James Wilder Jr.'s career, and he's gotten to watch it over and over this week.

Florida State clung to a four-point lead as the fourth quarter began in last season's game against Clemson, and Wilder had carried the ball just twice. His third run, however, changed the entire dynamic of the game.

Wilder took the handoff from EJ Manuel, barreled over defenders, stiff-armed another and broke free for 35 yards to the Clemson 9-yard line. Two plays later, he scored, and Florida State cruised to a 49-37 win.

In the week leading up to this season's game, friends and fans have reminded Wilder of that run repeatedly, sending pictures and videos to his phone along with a message.

"'Do this again,'" Wilder said. "Everybody tells me every day, 'Stiff-arm them like last year.'"

As Florida State preps for this week's top-five showdown against Clemson, Wilder is finally feeling like that might be a possibility. Through the first five games of the season, his longest run is 24 yards -- 11 shy of his highlight against the Tigers in 2012 -- and he has been hampered by a sore shoulder since the opener.

But after a lighter workload early in the season and an off week to heal up, Wilder said he's finally feeling ready to run with that same bruising power he displayed last season.

"My shoulder is OK, full and back again," he said. "I feel more comfortable running the ball, not holding my arm up or nothing like that, using it like I’m supposed to. No hesitation."

That's good news for a Florida State running game that has flashed plenty of potential in the early part of the season but still hasn't clicked on all cylinders.

Against two overmatched nonconference opponents, FSU averaged a stellar 8.4 yards per carry, scoring 10 times on the ground. But in its three ACC games, Florida State is moving the ball at a far more pedestrian rate of 4.4 yards per rush with just six touchdowns. That's more than a yard per carry less than the Seminoles averaged in ACC games last season.

"There is definitely room for improvement," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We feel we've left a lot out there every week."

If Florida State plans to improve those numbers this week, Clemson figures to provide an interesting challenge.

The Tigers rank in the middle of the pack in the ACC in rushing defense, allowing an average of 3.9 yards per carry this season. That's actually a solid improvement from a year ago, when FSU ran for 287 yards against them. What's more, Clemson leads the country in tackles for loss with 61, with its defensive line making a slew of big plays behind the line of scrimmage.

But break down the numbers a bit more, and there does seem to be room for optimism for Florida State. Against FBS teams, Clemson is 12th in the ACC, allowing 4.43 yards per rush. Factor out yardage lost on sacks and examine only running plays, and opponents are averaging 5.62 yards per rush, 19th-most in the nation. And on all plays in which a runner makes it across the line of scrimmage, Clemson's defense has been gouged for 6.6 yards per rush.

"It seemed like they were kind of struggling to stop the run [against Georgia and Syracuse]," Wilder said, "but they're at home, and you can't really look at that."

Rather than worry about Clemson's stats, Florida State is focused on improving its own fundamentals. Erving said the tailbacks have worked to be a bit more patient, and Devonta Freeman, who didn't have a touch in last year's win, said a few new wrinkles were worked into the ground attack.

Freeman thinks the two weeks FSU has had to prepare against its own defense in practice should have the Seminoles ready.

"They're a very aggressive team. Their D-linemen and linebackers play as a whole unit," Freeman said. "But I feel like we see that every day in practice with our defense. It's going to be great competition to be out there."

Wilder has had plenty of reminders of what's expected, and he has passed along that motivation to his teammates in the Florida State backfield.

Last season's game showed the potential, but this season has shown there's still more work to be done.

"We’re definitely nowhere near satisfied, nowhere near our expectations running the ball," Wilder said. "We definitely are trying to pick it up this week.”