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Can second-half improvement vs. JSU be validated by FSU defense against Irish, ACC?

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The Florida State defense hasn’t been great so far this season and it will need to get better and play better moving forward if this team is to maximize its potential. FSU ranks 48th of 74 teams in total defense, where it gives up an average of 420 yards a game. And in particular it needs to improve its pass defense, which ranks 53rd in the nation in yards allowed (279.3 yards per game) and 67th in completion percentage allowed (69.9 percent).

And things won’t get any easier the next couple of weeks with No. 5 Notre Dame and quarterback Ian Book up next for the Seminoles, only to be followed by No. 8 North Carolina and super sophomore quarterback Sam Howell. Of course, we can’t forget that Clemson and Trevor Lawrence still loom down the road on Nov. 21.

However, there could be signs of progress for coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller based on the defense’s second-half performance in FSU’s 41-24 win over Jacksonville State. In the second half against the Gamecocks the FSU defense gave up just 149 second-half yards and only three points. In fact, JSU gained 61 of its second-half yards on its last possession of the game with the outcome decided and FSU playing mostly second- and third-teamers during the series.

After allowing JSU to complete 11 of 12 first half passes, the Seminoles’ pass defense tightened up when it needed to the most. In the second half FSU held JSU to 139 passing yards and allowed them to complete just 63 percent of their passes. Still probably too high for Norvell and Fuller, but lower than the defense’s season average and certainly lower than the over 68 percent completion rate it allowed Miami and Georgia Tech to enjoy in FSU’s two season-opening losses.

And it is a trend that the FSU defense will continue to see if it is to slow down any of the high-powered signal callers and offenses it will face starting this weekend.

The FSU defense will also have to show that the 60 yards it allowed on the ground was a sign of improvement or just a sign of facing a less-talented opponent. Miami rushed for 200 yards against the FSU defense and Georgia Tech rushed for 161 yards a week earlier.

Both Norvell and Fuller think the defense’s second half against JSU should give the unit some confidence and something to build on moving forward. And the defense’s front-seven and back-seven will learn a lot about itself this week and next. Notre Dame has the 13th-ranked rushing offense in the country, averaging over 229 yards per game. North Carolina has the 28th-best passing attack, averaging over 264 yards per game through the air. The Tar Heels also average over 168 yards per game on the ground.

Norvell knows his defense needs to build off last week’s second-half success as they head to South Bend.

“I think you’re going to see our defense, and really all units, continue to grow through the course of this season,” said Norvell when asked about the unit’s performance against JSU. “I’m excited about seeing them have that success, but we’ve got to be better. Even the second half, there are things that showed up in the course of the game that we were able to address last night and guys were able to see.”

Fuller is in lockstep with his boss when it comes to the defense’s improved play.

“The team showed a lot of resolve,” said Fuller when asked about the defense’s second-half domination. “To be down the way we were, it was what it was and we had to respond. To see them come back and play the way they did in the second quarter through the second half was obviously a really good response. We think it’s hopefully a sign of things to come.”

He also knows that the carry over from that performance can’t wait until FSU gets to South Bend to be validated.

“It’s important that we carry that momentum over to practice and continue on that way,” said Fuller. “Really proud of the way they played the second half.”

Fuller also found the positive in Jacksonville State’s most successful drive the second half (61 yards), its last drive of the game, with FSU decidedly on top. And that is understandable as some of the more inexperienced players on FSU’s defense got a chance to prove themselves.

“That last drive, it was good,” said Fuller. “We were able to get Sidney Williams, Deonte Williams and Derrick McLendon and some other guys a chance to go out there and try to make a stop there. They drove the ball downfield at the end there but we were able to stop them there on fourth down. It was all an opportunity, all a chance to go out there and play on the last series. I was proud of the way we played there in the second half.”

The defense has been more of a work in progress than most people anticipated coming into the season and still has plenty of room for growth. However it did play in the second half of last week’s game the way an FBS team should play against an FCS team. The stats and the video of the game validate that.

The question now for the FSU defense is can it validate its performance in the second half of JSU against the rest of its schedule. I don’t think anyone expects this defense to shut down Notre Dame, North Carolina or Clemson the way it did JSU in the second half. But it at the very least has to show flashes of being able to do that. Improvement has to start somewhere. We saw some this past Saturday. The question now is, can this defense sustain more of this type of play against top-tier ACC competition? We will know more Saturday night and the Saturday after that. Time will tell us about this defense and so will its opponents.