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Ground game finally has legs

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It has become ritual before every game.

A receiver will seek out Chris Thompson in the locker room and offer a promise. If he can bust a run into the secondary, he won't have to worry about a defensive back bringing him down.

A little later, an offensive lineman will put his arm around Thompson and assure him the running lanes will be there.

And just before kickoff, fullback Lonnie Pryor will make his way over to Thompson and remind his fellow senior that he doesn't have to worry about Pryor missing a block.

"It's a great feeling knowing you have that as a family," Thompson said.

The weekly assurances from his teammates might have something to do with Thompson's history, the knowledge that he has fought his way back from two broken bones in his back and the desire to protect him now that he's healthy.

But the more likely scenario, Thompson said, is that this is simply the way it was always supposed to be, all the pieces of the puzzle finally fitting into place, transforming the Florida State ground game from last year's afterthought to the foundation of this year's offense.

The numbers speak volumes. Through four games, Florida State leads the nation in yards per rush (7.49) and rushing touchdowns (20). The Seminoles have racked up 1,124 yards on the ground so far -- just 334 shy of their total from all of last season and more than 800 yards more than they'd mustered through four games in 2011.

It's an improvement that begins with the line.

Florida State entered the season with just one lineman who had started more than one college game, but the unit quickly has evolved into a strength for the offense. They've allowed just four sacks through four games -- down from 12 in the first four games of 2011 -- and opened huge running lanes for the tailbacks.

"There aren't a lot of carries that we're stopped at the line," said James Wilder Jr., who had two touchdowns against Clemson on Saturday. "We're usually 5 yards past the line of scrimmage before we get touched."

Florida State is allowing just 3.5 negative plays per game thus far, tops in the ACC and among the best in the country.

Beyond simply having the room to run, the running backs are making the most of the opportunities. The Seminoles runners have racked up 31 runs of 10 yards or more and 11 of at least 20 yards. Last season, the Seminoles had just 12 rushes of at least 20 yards.

Chalk up the big-play numbers to Thompson, who already has mustered five runs of at least 20 yards, including two long touchdown runs against Wake Forest.

It's not simply that Thompson has returned from the back injury that nearly ended his career last season. It's that he's even better than before.

"He's a man," Jimbo Fisher said.

But while Thompson has added the flash, Wilder has been a battering ram.

The sophomore running back is built like a linebacker and enjoys contact. His 35-yard run in the fourth quarter required seven Clemson defenders to bring him down.

The thunder-and-lightning combination has been a revelation.

"It wears you out," Fisher said of going against Wilder. "You don't like tackling that guy. After a while, that gets old. Then you put Chris back in the game and it's quick again."

It has been a perfect storm for Florida State -- an improved offensive line, exceptional downfield blocking, a healthy Thompson and a more mature Wilder.

A year ago, safety Lamarcus Joyner said, the defense would wait on the sideline, crossing its fingers that the offense could make something happen. Now, there's a renewed excitement, an anticipation of what magic might come next.

It's amazing the difference a year can make, Thompson said. There are no doubts about what the running game is capable of doing, and what that can do for the offense.

More than the running lanes and the rushing yards and the touchdowns, that's the most striking difference. There's a confidence that every carry can turn into a big play.

"It's an added confidence for sure," Thompson said. "Once I break into the open field, I know."