Can improving run defense help FSU finish season strong?

When your record is 2-6 and you’re ranked 103rd in the country in total defense, 104th in passing defense and 102nd in scoring defense, you will look for and take improvement anywhere you can find it. For FSU coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller, that has come in the form of defending the run the last two weeks in games against Pitt and NC State.

FSU entered the Pitt game two weeks ago giving up an average 237.8 yards per game to its ACC opponents. However, Pitt gained just 148 yards on 37 attempts, and NC State was also held to 148 yards on 39 attempts.

And while giving up 148 yards on the ground may still be more than Norvell and Fuller would like to surrender it stands out given its almost 100 yards per game less than the defense was giving up in its first five conference games. The improvement in the last two games also came without having defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, who will miss the remainder of the year with an injury, on the field. And the Seminoles were also without Cory Durden at NC State.

“I think it always starts up front,” said Mike Norvell when asked about his team’s run defense over the last two games. “You’ve seen some real improvements with our fundamentals. Guys like Dennis Briggs, Fabien Lovett, Robert Cooper has played probably his best two games back to back. But those guys are doing a better job of being accountable and working to win their gaps. It’s showing up at a higher rate. JRob (Janarius Robinson) and (Josh) Kaindoh, that first group and those guys who are working in, just continued push throughout the course of the week. I think guys like Stephen Dix, Emmett Rice, they’re continuing to come along. Amari Gainer there at linebacker. Jaiden (Lars-Woodbey), we made the transition to kind of get him down at that position as well. So I’m liking the depth that I’m seeing at that position and those guys are just getting better with each rep in, understanding our fits and continuing to clean that up in all aspects. Once again it’s not where we need it to be, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction. And we just got to continue to eliminate the missed tackles, that are allowing some of the explosive runs to show up.”

With Clemson coming to town this weekend, bringing quarterback Trevor Lawrence and college football’s sixth-best passing attack, FSU’s continued improvement against the run will likely not be enough to help pull off an upset against the Tigers. But it could keep the Seminoles in the ball game for a while. Clemson is ranked just 80th in rushing offense (150 ypg) despite having one of the best running backs in all of college football in Travis Etienne, who has 634 yards in eight games.

“The biggest thing is we’ve been consistent being inconsistent,” said Fuller when asked about improvement against the run. “But we’ve had some players, at least the last two games, playing together for the first time over the course of a time. That’s part of it. Last week against NC State, I thought we did a better job for the most part in the run game. There was a lot of seems late in the game. As things were getting a little bit towards the end, we let a few balls get out. That didn’t help it. But overall I thought our effort was playing better up front. I thought our fits were a little bit tighter.”

More importantly the continued improvement against the run could help FSU finish the season strong and with wins in games against Virginia and Duke, where it will be more evenly matched than this weekend.

The Cavaliers are 60th in rushing offense, where they average 39 rushes a game for 171 yards but they only complete 56 percent of their throws in a passing attack that ranks 62nd in the country. Shutting down the run against the Cavaliers and forcing them to be efficient in the passing game gives FSU its best recipe for a win over Virginia.

The same things can be said about what FSU needs to do against Duke. The Blue Devils have college football’s 65th-ranked passing attack but they complete just 55 percent of their passes and, like Virginia, have been more efficient and successful running the ball. And FSU should have better personnel across the board on the defensive front than Duke’s offensive line, despite the Seminoles’ relative youth and inexperience.

Stopping the run is a big thing. But Cooper, who is now one of the elder statesmen on FSU’s defensive front, knows concentrating on the finer points of defending the run will bring about continued improvement.

“Really, just putting more focus on details, the little things,” Cooper said. “You just focus on the little things and you’ll see big results. Focusing on what we need to focus on and doing everything to full effort, full speed.”

For a defense that has struggled the vast majority of the season, FSU’s relative success over the last two weeks against the run is one late sign that improvement is coming on that side of the ball. That continued improvement will be challenged against Clemson but it must be built upon and validated for FSU to finish the 2020 season with a win or two.

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