David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer 395d

Clemson presents a chance to prove defense is not part of FSU's problem

College Football, Florida State Seminoles

Florida State's struggles on offense are well-documented and come with a good explanation: the quarterback.

As Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said earlier this week, the Seminoles lost a potential Heisman Trophy candidate when Deondre Francois got hurt -- just a bit of Swinney's rhetorical praise for FSU -- and the result has been a unit that has failed to top 28 points in any game this season.

But what about the other side of the ball? That's the real head-scratcher.

It has not been an outright disaster on defense, of course. Florida State ranks 28th nationally in yards per play (just behind Notre Dame) and allows 24.3 points per game, better than a year ago.

Look a little deeper, though, and there are red flags that help explain the 3-5 record FSU currently sports. The Noles rank 96th in sacks, despite a blue-chip defensive front that was among the nation's best a year ago. Opponents are converting more than 37 percent of their third downs, 60th nationally, including nine conversions on third-and-5 or longer by Syracuse last week. And perhaps most befuddling, the Noles have just six takeaways, the fewest by any Power 5 team and 128th overall.

The explanation, Florida State safety Derwin James said, is in the game plan, which has played it safe in a long series of close games, knowing the offense might not be able to put many points on the board.

"That's the mindset," James said. "Everybody wants to do their job. We do a great job of preparing, knowing situations. We play a lot of man. Sometimes, you have to just get the guy on the ground or knock the ball down. We know the scheme we're playing and we want to follow our identity."

This argument does seem reasonable. FSU ranks in the middle of the pack among Power 5 defenses in percentage of dropbacks disrupted (sacks, interceptions and pass breakups) but 60th among Power 5 teams in interception rate.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, however, chalks it up less to scheme than to execution. The problem, he said, is finishing plays.

"You've got to make turnovers, you've got to create pressure, you've got to hit your quarterback and when you get opportunities to catch a ball or strip a ball or get on a fumble," Fisher said. "We've had a couple opportunities, which we haven't [taken advantage of], and we've got to create some more situations where we pressure them, where guys make bad decisions."

This too is a legitimate concern. Florida State's highly regarded front ranks 59th among Power 5 teams in pressure rate, down nearly 40 percent from last year, despite returning the bulk of its starting lineup.

Fisher also suggested the quarterbacks that Florida State has faced play a part in the low rate of takeaways, and here he also has a point. Four opposing QBs rank among the best in the nation in interception rate, but others -- Miami's Malik Rosier, Duke's Daniel Jones, Boston College's Anthony Brown -- have been turnover-prone at times. Just not against Florida State.

All of that adds up to a defense that has been ... well, fine. Not great, not awful and certainly not enough to overcome the offensive woes.

"We haven't been playing Florida State football, but we still have more to play for," James said.

So for James, this Saturday's showdown with Clemson (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN App) isn't so much a chance to play spoiler against the No. 4 team in the country, but rather an opportunity to showcase what the defense really can be.

"You get that chip on your shoulder being an underdog," he said. "We'll come out and play hard. It should be a good game."

Fighting Irish eyeing big runs

Miami's defense is tough, that much is clear. But that doesn't mean Notre Dame doesn't have an opportunity to make a few big plays on the ground when the two top-10 teams meet Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

The Hurricanes' D allows 4.8 yards per carry (not counting sacks), which ranks just 54th nationally, but even that number is a bit deceptive. The Canes are 20th nationally in stopping nearly 24 percent of run plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. The flip side, however, is that they've also surrendered 52 runs of 10 yards or more, 16.3 percent of runs faced -- good for 102nd nationally. Meanwhile, the Irish have had 20.2 percent of their runs go for 10 yards or more, fourth best nationally.

So while this might not be a typically big day for the Irish ground game, expect a few big plays to prove critical for running back Josh Adams & Co.

Fitzgerald for the win?

Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald has racked up 817 yards on the ground this year -- not counting sacks -- which puts him among the most productive mobile QBs in the country. That could be critical against No. 2 Alabama this week.

Since 2008, Alabama has dominated everyone, but the defense has been just a bit less dominant against mobile quarterbacks.

Of the Crimson Tide's 105 Power 5 opponents since 2008, just 25 have had QBs rush 10 times or more against them (again, not counting sacks). Those 25 teams are a relatively impressive 7-18 against Alabama in that span. Comparatively, teams whose QBs run less than 10 times in a game are a woeful 5-75.

The funny thing is, it doesn't much matter how successful those QBs are running the ball. Just the attempts make a difference. When the QB runs at least 10 times, the Tide surrender 20.6 points per game and 5.13 yards per play -- both big increases as compared to when the QB runs less (12.9 points per game, 4.18 yards per play).

Four downs

  • There's an interesting debate between UCF and Wisconsin when it comes to the playoff committee's rankings. The Knights and Badgers are both undefeated, but committee chairman Kirby Hocutt noted that Wisconsin has the worst strength of schedule of any team the committee ranked this week. UCF, meanwhile, has a larger margin of victory, higher opponent win percentage and a roughly equivalent strength of record (per ESPN). And yet, the Knights are ranked 18th and Wisconsin is eighth.

  • Kenny Hill's accuracy is key for TCU. In games in which he has completed at least 70 percent of his attempts, the Frogs average 37.3 points per game and 6.2 yards per play. When he doesn't, those numbers drop to 27.5 points and 5.5 yards.

  • Georgia's defense has faced, on average, 60 plays per game this season, the seventh fewest in the country. Auburn, on the other hand, averages 73 plays per game. Notre Dame is the only Georgia opponent this season to run that many in a game.

  • The only Power 5 QBs to rack up at least 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns while coughing up five or fewer turnovers this season are Heisman favorite Baker Mayfield and Wake Forest's John Wolford.

Coach speak

All week Adam Rittenberg has been chatting with head and assistant coaches around the country. Here is the best of those conversations.

Before the season, Washington's secondary looked like a major stumbling block to its quest to repeat as Pac-12 champions. The Huskies had three defensive backs -- safety Budda Baker and cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones -- all selected in the second round of the NFL draft. While safety Taylor Rapp, the Pac-12's top freshman defender in 2016, and veteran safety JoJo McIntosh returned, there were questions elsewhere. No more. Entering the stretch run, Washington leads the Pac-12 and ranks third nationally in pass yards allowed (149.8 ypg). The Huskies lead the nation in net yards per pass attempt (4.33) and percentage of pass attempts resulting in a touchdown (1.9). Co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jimmy Lake attributes the sustained success to leadership from safeties Rapp, McIntosh and senior Ezekiel Turner. Younger players like sophomore cornerback Myles Bryant (six pass breakups, four tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery) have blossomed. "It's a desire to uphold the standard that was built by the ones before them," Lake said.

When Missouri had several young players beat out veterans for starting spots in preseason camp, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel grew optimistic about a strong start. It didn't come, but the Tigers are poised to finish strong after averaging 45.4 points in their last five games, with three winnable contests (Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Arkansas) remaining. Heupel has a better grasp of how to use personnel, especially some of Missouri's young offensive linemen, three of whom are only 19. "It's really subtle things," Heupel said, "what position you might put this left guard in in the run game. How will you handle protections against the personnel you see?" Heupel also can rely more on junior quarterback Drew Lock, who has 23 touchdown passes and only five interception the past five games. "He's got a lot more on his plate than he did a year ago," Heupel said. "He may check from pass to run or run to pass based on the box, or based on numbers and techniques and schemes. As much tempo as we play, he's still got a fair amount of command of the offense."

Michigan State had a leadership problem last season. Everyone could see it. Any chance for a Spartans turnaround would require a better locker room. MSU coaches credit sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke for helping to foster a better atmosphere. It doesn't hurt that Lewerke is playing his best football lately, recording back-to-back 400-yard passing performances with six touchdowns and two interceptions. "The quarterback becomes the leader as he's productive as a player," Spartans quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. "He was put in that position, and his personality, he captures the people around him. People have played very well and responded to him." Salem also has seen growth in Lewerke's schematic knowledge by the questions he asks in meetings. "He'll ask more, 'Should we do this or could we do that?" he said. "He's more intrigued by the design of what the defense is giving and some opportunities we can take as an offense."

Despite an offensive-minded coach in Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia has relied more on its defense in recent years. It happened again last week against Iowa State after the offense provided a 20-0 lead but didn't score for the final two and a half quarters. The Mountaineers defense, down four starters, allowed only one touchdown and forced two short field goals to hold off Iowa State's comeback. Led by cornerback Hakeem Bailey (3), seven WVU defenders recorded a pass breakup. "We challenged them and whoever was going to play needed to get in there and play with relentless effort and as much physicality as we possibly can," Holgorsen told me, Ivan Maisel and Chris Low on Tuesday's Campus Conversation podcast. "We basically shut them down in the first half and knew those guys are going to come back. ... But we did a great job of holding those guys to field goals, which is what we've been doing defensively around here for the last couple of years. I'm really proud of the whole unit."

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