In anticipation of this week’s rematch of the 2013 Orange Bowl between the Northern Illinois Huskies and Florida State Seminoles, I was able to chat with Dylan Kidd, a Florida State expert and writer for Tomahawk Nation, SB Nation’s FSU blog. And it turns out both Huskie fans and Seminole fans share a lot of the same struggles...maybe we’re not so different after all.
HB: After a disappointing 7-6 year last season when you almost missed making a bowl game, what were your expectations for this season? And, with the Seminoles struggling early on again this season, have they changed at all?
DK: Vegas had the Seminoles about 8-4 for Willie Taggart’s first season, and I thought that sounded about right. We did note in the pre-season that, if the ‘Noles suffered injuries on the offensive line, particularly at tackle, we’d have to adjust those expectations downward because they really had no depth at the position. Welp, that’s exactly what’s happened. But even still, I underestimated how long the transition from Jimbo Fisher’s offense to Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense would take. Conceptually simpler or not, the change represents a fundamental overhaul of what FSU was doing on offense, and they’re trying to carry this out with very little along the offensive line and a quarterback who isn’t a great fit for it. I think all those factors have combined to give us what we’ve seen from FSU early on, which has been nothing less than putrid. I have certainly reduced my expectations and believe the bowl streak is in serious jeopardy. I obviously hold out a faint hope they could get to 6-6, but for reasons I’ll discuss below, I don’t think a dramatic improvement is in the cards right now. I’d like to see the defense continue to play well and grow in its new scheme and hope the ‘Noles can hold it together on the recruiting trail, as that’s the only way out of where they are at the moment.
HB: Both teams have had issues moving the ball this season. The Seminoles have had a really rough go running the football, only averaging 3.4 yards per carry and just 96.7 yards per game, how has that affected your offense and what adjustments would you like to see made on the field?
DK: The lack of rushing output has been the most disappointing part of the early season. Taggart’s GCO is a run-first attack, and he prefers to be around 60% on the ground. The aforementioned OL issues have been the primary cause of the struggles, but there are other factors. All-world talent Cam Akers has tried to do too much too frequently rather than trusting the design of the play and staying in his track. The electric Khalan Laborn is out for the season after being injured on a kickoff against Samford. And quarterback Deondre Francois has not done enough in the running game to keep defenses honest. This certainly may be due to the injury he suffered against Alabama, which is a difficult one to come back from.
As far as adjustments go, there are only so many things you can really do if you are forced to play guys who just can’t get it done on the line. I think you may see them use some of the pistol formation to create more downhill runs, and I think you’ll see them try to lean on their inside zone runs. They’ve been emphasizing double teams at the point of attack this week, consistent with their IZ rules, and I think that’s the best thing they can do against a smaller front that will try to shoot gaps. The key to the whole scheme is winning first downs, and if they’re able to do so at some point, you’ll see it open up the rest of what Taggart is trying to do.
HB: NIU has had one of the best pass rushes and been one of the better defenses in the NCAA the past two seasons. How do you think FSU will attack this unit and how do you think they can they find success?
DK: Yeah, as I discussed above, I think the best way to mitigate NIU’s pass rush is to run the ball right at the Huskies and stay out of obvious passing downs. This is much easier said than done, but we’ll see. The Seminoles did use some max protection in the passing game last week and Taggart mentioned trying to move the pocket some, but these are things you can do every once in a while, not staples of the offense. If the ‘Noles can’t move the ball on the ground against the Huskies, it will probably be another long afternoon in Doak Campbell. I have a feeling NIU will follow the blueprint other teams have laid out against FSU in loading the box and trying to make Francois beat them in the passing game against a lot of pressure. The Seminoles need to be able to execute their bubble screens on the outside, which requires the receivers to block much better than they have. Having success on the outside is the way the offense is able to even up the numbers game in the box and is critical to its success.
HB: What players on the defensive side of the ball should Huskie fans be looking out for and is there a way that NIU might be able to move the ball against this defense?
DK: From what I’ve gathered, this isn’t really a drop-back passing kind of offense, so that might alleviate some concerns with FSU’s pass-rushers, like Brian Burns. On the interior, Demarcus Christmas can penetrate and blow up plays and big Marvin Wilson has also flashed early this season. I think you’ll see plenty of guys on the edges make plays against the Huskies’ jet action, particularly Kyle Meyers and Stanford Samuels III.
If NIU is going to have success against the ‘Noles’ defense, I think they’ll do it by picking on the linebacker position. This attack appears to have the ability to do that somewhat, as the lateral motion and run concepts can force the linebackers to have to make plays in space, and it can also isolate them against a back in the passing game. Dontavious Jackson has been pretty good, but we’ll see what happens with the other guys at the position.
HB: With road games against Louisville and Miami looming ahead for FSU, is there any chance that they overlook the Huskies this week?
DK: Normally I’d say yes, but I think they’re pretty desperate to see something go right at this point. They will take success against anyone at all right now, and I wish they were facing a less formidable team this weekend. It was either Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody or Shutdown Fullcast (the former will be thrilled with me conflating the two) who said NIU is FSU on purpose, meaning offensively challenged but nasty on defense by design. An excellent defense is not what anybody in garnet and gold wants to see right now. There may be an extent to which FSU players will always underestimate a MAC team but, if they do this weekend, they’ll learn that was a mistake pretty quickly. But I think and hope that they need a win so badly right now that they won’t be looking towards the future in any way.
HB: Alright, now the fun part...it’s prediction time. How do you see this game playing out?
DK: Fun is not the first word that comes to mind in thinking about FSU’s outcomes so far this year. Or this game, really. I think it’ll be a rock fight between two inept offenses and excellent defenses, so maybe bring a book if you’re going to Doak.
I think you might see FSU have flashes of competence on offense in breaking a few downhill runs, but they’re just not consistent enough to turn those into many points. I also think NIU might hit a gadget play or two. I’ll call it 20-13 FSU, which is more likely to come from the ‘Noles missing an extra point than successfully converting two field goals at this point.