Freeman, Wilder take the lead

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- For a time, Chris Thompson stood close to the sideline, eager to feel the action, even if his time on the field was done.

After a few plays, though, Thompson's pragmatic side won out. With crutches tucked under his arms, his limited mobility made such proximity to the chaos of the game a problem.

"He didn't want to sit by the sideline because he can't get out of the way," James Wilder Jr. said.

But Thompson felt every hit, saw every running lane and celebrated every yard.

Between drives, Wilder and Devonta Freeman returned to the bench and gathered around Thompson, who served as a de facto coach for the sophomore running backs, offering advice and insight that didn't exactly compare to the impact he'd made on the field for eight impressive weeks this season before tearing his ACL. His impact was felt nonetheless.

"I talked to Chris a lot during the game," Freeman said. "I was just telling him that I wish you were out here with me sometimes. He's a big leader."

Freeman and his fellow running backs might have missed Thompson, but for a week, at least, the Florida State offense wasn't hurt by his absence. The Seminoles racked up 261 rushing yards, their third-highest total of the season. Freeman and Wilder combined for three rushing touchdowns, and Jimbo Fisher relied heavily on the ground game to balance out the big plays in the passing attack. Even with Duke loading the box with eight and nine defenders on most plays, Fisher called for runs on 69 percent of Florida State's offensive plays.

If there were questions about what Freeman, Wilder and the replacement running backs could do, Saturday's win provided an emphatic answer.

"They were super," Fisher said. "Pass pro, running the ball. The only bad thing that happened was Devonta putting the ball on the ground at the end, but that sucker was running and had great balance, quick. And James was running for power. I thought they had an outstanding day."

Indeed, Freeman's second-half fumble provided a small asterisk on the performance, but even he's not entirely sure how it happened. It was a defender making a good play, he suggested, before assuring that it wouldn't happen again.

The fumble came at the end of a 10-yard run that gave Freeman 104 yards on the ground for the game. It was his first 100-yard performance since posting 102 yards against Maryland last season.

"I didn't even know I had 100 yards until after the game," Freeman said. "I wanted to get 100 yards, but I really just wanted to do whatever it takes to win."

The success on the ground is no surprise, though. Even before Thompson went down, Freeman, Wilder and fullback Lonnie Pryor, who got six carries Saturday, had proved their value with extensive success in reserve roles.

For the season, Freeman, Wilder and Pryor have combined for 1,125 yards rushing -- a figure that would rank fourth nationally if it belonged to just a single runner. As a group, the trio has averaged 7.2 yards per carry this season, and the 19 rushing touchdowns scored between them are more than all but two ACC teams have mustered this year.

What's perhaps most impressive is that without Thompson the trio hasn't missed a beat. In a little less than seven quarters of action since Thompson's injury, Freeman, Wilder and Pryor have tallied 343 yards, averaged 7 yards per rush and scored six times.

Even the details were executed flawlessly Saturday, and that had been Fisher's real concern. How would his reserve running backs hold up in pass protection? Would they make the right reads on blitz pickups? Would they be weapons as receivers, as Thompson had been?

"I was very comfortable with how they played in the game, all those little things," Fisher said.

In fact, perhaps the most impressive play of the game by any Florida State runner came on a pass. In the fourth quarter, Florida State faced a third-and-13. Wilder ran a flair route down the sideline. The linebacker was out of position, and Clint Trickett threw the pass high, where only Wilder could get it. The sophomore running back caught it and came down hard on his shoulder, but stayed in bounds.

The result was both a first down and a scary moment for the Seminoles. Wilder stayed on the ground for a few moments, his shoulder aching. In the span of 50 minutes of action, the concerns had pivoted from questions about Wilder's ability to step in for Thompson to worry that he might now be lost, too.

As it turned out, the injury was little more than a bruised shoulder. Wilder expects he'll be fine by the time Florida State travels to Virginia Tech in 11 days. And the running game should be fine, too, even if Thompson has been relegated to coaching duties while the replacements pick up the slack.

"I feel tremendously fresh," Freeman said. "I'm not tired. I still feel like I'm not giving my all out there sometimes, and I know I've got to get better."