Noles insist run game 'fixable'

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The noise in the stadium overwhelmed Jimbo Fisher's frantic shouts from the sideline, but James Wilder Jr. got the message.

Wilder needed 1 yard to keep a drive alive, one yard to keep Florida State's quest for an ACC title going. But through one of the worst nights for the ground game in Florida State history, 1 yard might have seemed like a mile.

The Seminoles finished Thursday's game with minus-15 yards on the ground, and Wilder finished the night with just four touches. Two of them had gone backward. But on fourth-and-1, with the season resting in the balance, he got 7 yards.

"When it counted," Wilder said.

In just the second game without injured starter Chris Thompson, Wilder and fellow tailback Devonta Freeman did virtually nothing, combining for five yards on 11 carries. Despite FSU clinging to a fragile lead, Freeman and Wilder were virtually absent in the second half. In school history, only three games ended with fewer yards on the ground than Thursday's negative total. By any measure, it was dreadful -- until it really counted.

So what's to be made of Thursday's ugly performance from Florida State's ground game?

"I like the games like that, when I'm not just getting 10 yards a carry," Wilder said. "It sees what you have inside of you when you're struggling like that. You have to fight for it."

With the game on the line, Fisher still put the ball in Wilder's hands, and he fought. He hit contact in the backfield, but broke the tackle. The run crawled to a stop near the first-down marker, and he kept pushing. After 7 yards, he went down to preserve the clock, having secured FSU's first fourth-down conversion of the season. Two plays later, Rashad Greene raced into the end zone with the go-ahead score.

Celebrations ensued, but on Monday, it was back to the business of finding out what had gone wrong during all those ugly runs stopped in the backfield prior to the final drive.

"There were some technical things that we haven't been doing that just got out of whack, and it wasn't always the same guy," Fisher said. "A lot of very technical things. Sometimes it's just one of those days, and you've got to get it fixed. Things are fixable."

That was the message from those who contributed to the problems, but finishing a game with negative rushing yards is a tough stat to gloss over.

In fairness, a hefty chunk of the problem was pass protection, and EJ Manuel's five sacks accounted for 44 lost yards on the ground. But even there, the running backs have to take some blame. Missed blocks and failed blitz pickups cost FSU badly, and Virginia Tech was only too happy to keep testing them again and again.

"They were blitzing us on every play," Wilder said.

Some of the blame falls on Manuel, who failed to recognize some of the blitz packages in time. Some falls on the offensive line, which struggled with protection. Wilder admits the running backs failed to make the proper reads too often, too.

And then there was Freeman's flubbed play in the fourth quarter, when he took a handoff, went backward into his own end zone, then tossed an illegal forward pass at the last second in hopes of avoiding a safety.

"I told him before the play, 'Just don't go backwards,' " Manuel said. "He had no other choice."

Therein lies the biggest problem. More often than not, Florida State's ground game never had a chance.

For much of the first half, Fisher stuck with slower developing counters and draws, and by the time Florida State's runners took the handoff, a defender was standing in the backfield waiting to make a tackle.

"When [they are] bringing linebackers, safeties, corners, all at the same time, it narrows out the playbook a little bit," Wilder said. "That's plays that are too long to develop. But if they keep bringing the blitzes and we pick them up, it can be dangerous for the defenses, because there's going to be a hole somewhere."

This provides some hope, Wilder said.

Moving forward, Wilder expects the game film from Virginia Tech will provide a template for other coaches to attack Florida State's ground game, which had entered play as the second-most effective unit in the country based on yards per carry.

That would be a mistake, he said.

"The coaches will watch film and say, 'Wow, they can't run against us if we send the blitz,' " Wilder said. "But we left a lot out there on the field."

This week, Florida State will get its chance for some redemption, but the task won't be easy.

Maryland's run defense ranks second in the ACC, allowing just 112 yards per game. Statistically speaking, it's easily the best unit the Seminoles will have faced this season. The question then is which version of Florida State's running game will show up -- the one that torched Duke in its first game without Thompson, or the one that hangs its hat on a 7-yard run at the tail end of a historically bad performance?

"It's not as bad when we got to watch it on film," Wilder said. "Everything is fixable, and we were working on it."