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Bend but don’t break: FSU defense plays well in situations

Florida State’s defense turned in a bend-but-don’t break performance on Saturday. For a young defense that had often broken along the way, the Seminoles finished like they hadn’t in September.

“I love this team,” defensive end Keir Thomas said. “Pissed that we gave up 30 points again. But we got the win. Happy with that. Back to the drawing board, get ready for UNC.”

There were clear positives in FSU’s 33-30 win over Syracuse — a trio of fourth-down stops, including one on the goal line, holding Syracuse to 2 of 12 on third down and the Seminoles forced the Orange to punt six times. There were also clear negatives — missed tackles, chunk plays and three Orange scoring drives late in the game.

For an FSU defense that was one of the worst in the FBS on third-down defense, the Seminoles have climbed to 88th and are allowing conversions at 40.7 percent, playing well in situations was a bright spot.

“I think that we played on third down like we finished the game a week ago on third down,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said. “Guys were very locked in. Situational awareness was one of our keys for today. Every play matters, but we’ve got to understand the situations that we’re in, make sure we have great communication. Coach (Adam) Fuller, I thought had a really good plan for how we were going to attack in those situations, changing up some looks. 

“We’ve got to do a better job of tackling on some of the explosive runs, but you’ve got to give credit to them. That’s a team that has done a nice job of running the football. Things we can definitely get corrected that will put us in a better position, but I thought our guys did a nice job in that situational ball.”

A win, even against a Syracuse team that wasn’t expected to do much in the preseason, can be valuable for the Seminoles’ confidence and build some momentum as the schedule gets tougher. Thomas in part set the tone early with four tackles, including a third-down stop of quarterback Garrett Shrader on Syracuse’s first drive and a tackle for loss on fourth down of the Orange’s second drive when he wrapped up tailback Sean Tucker.

“We’re definitely improving,” Thomas said. “We’ve just got to clean up some of the little things and we’ll be fine. I’ve got faith in the guys I go to war with on Saturdays. I think we’ll be alright.”

A pivotal play in the game was the fourth-and-goal stop at FSU’s 1 in the second half. The Seminoles’ defensive line got a good push up front, and Shrader ran toward the goal line but was met initially by linebacker Kalen DeLoach before Sidney Williams and others converged.

Said DeLoach: “The defense, I’m telling them, ‘We have to get off the field, we can’t let them get in the end zone. It’s fourth and 1 and the ball is right here on the end zone. We got to bow up and don’t let them get in our end zone and that’s the mindset we carried on that fourth down.’ ”

Thomas said that moment was about DeLoach, as well as the defense, making a stop in a bend-but-don’t break situation. Syracuse racked up 239 rushing yards but was held to 150 passing yards. For all the mistakes and missed tackles, the Seminoles can return to practice with a win and some confidence.

“We definitely have the capability of playing lights out on defense, we just have to eliminate the mistakes and take care of the little things,” Thomas said. “… I honestly feel like, don’t get me wrong, the win is great. It’s hard to win. But I honestly feel like we’ve got a lot more to show y’all. We’re not done yet.”