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4 keys in the Notre Dame vs. Florida State put-up-or-shutup game

Through some combination of injuries and immaturity, Florida State has reached mid-October undefeated but disappointing. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is unbeaten and in the top five, but still somehow flying under the radar. (8 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC.)

No one can promise an unforgettable time when FSU and Notre Dame kick off in Tallahassee on Saturday evening. But at the very least, this game reeks of importance.

It's a helmet game of the highest order, fitting the this-just-feels-important bill. It's a big game that gets much of its gravitas from a generational divide, as Michael Weinreb covered this week.

It is a potential Playoff elimination game. Both teams are flawed but undefeated, with FSU (6-0, No. 2) dealing with injuries and inconsistency (and a tendency to only look good when it absolutely has to) and Notre Dame (6-0, No. 5) flirting with disaster before getting bailed out by quarterback Everett Golson.

The numbers don't love either team -- in the most recent F/+ rankings, Notre Dame comes in 13th, Florida State 14th -- and this game will help us figure out the narrative for the second half of the season. Is this where FSU finally finds its groove? Is this where we figure out exactly how seriously we should be taking Notre Dame? Are these teams what we thought they were two months ago?

The advanced-stats glossary is here.

1. Giving Greene the Montgomery treatment

Key stat No. 1: Florida State runs just 48 percent of the time on standard downs (109th in the country) and 25 percent on passing downs (99th).

Key stat No. 2: Opponents run against Notre Dame 54 percent of the time (92nd) and 31 percent on passing downs (68th).

Key stat No. 3: Florida State's offense ranks 22nd in Passing S&P+ (sixth in passing success rate), and Notre Dame's defense ranks 53rd in Passing S&P+ (81st in passing success rate).

Due to either strengths (Jameis Winston to Rashad Greene) or weaknesses (Karlos Williams averaging just 4.8 yards per carry), Florida State has passed with a higher frequency this season than in 2013. The Seminoles have been pretty good at it, though Winston got a little bit careless with the ball against NC State and Oklahoma State (five touchdowns, four interceptions).

On standard downs, Winston has targeted Greene frequently (37 targets, 23 catches, 337 yards) while still feeding efficiency targets Nick O'Leary (21 targets, 17 catches, 187 yards) and Jesus Wilson (18 targets, 13 catches, 124 yards). On passing downs, it's been Greene or bust -- his 30 passing-downs targets (with 21 catches and 346 yards) are more than that of the next three targets (O'Leary, Wilson, Travis Rudolph) combined.

Meanwhile, without the fear of either a decent pass rush (Notre Dame is 73rd in Adj. Sack Rate) or suspended cornerback KeiVarae Russell, opponents have felt comfortable airing the ball out. Or at least, they've felt more comfortable doing that than running against a pretty good defensive front.

That hasn't always been a successful tactic, but it's had its moments. Michigan and Stanford combined to complete just 54 percent of their passes with no touchdowns and five picks -- Stanford's Ty Montgomery was targeted 10 times but caught just four passes for 12 yards while sophomore corner Cole Luke had two picks, a break-up, and a sack -- but Rice, Purdue, and North Carolina managed a 62 percent completion rate, seven scores, and four picks. Last week, North Carolina's Marquise Williams spread the ball around well, averaged 12.6 yards per completion, and took no sacks in 41 attempts. (Williams also rushed 18 times for 132 yards, and Winston isn't much of a threat to do that.)

Basically, Notre Dame is on average worse against the pass than against the run, and Florida State is more than happy to pass 60-plus percent of the time if it needs to. FSU will occasionally try to run, and the 'Noles will have Williams back after he missed the Syracuse game with injury. (His backups, Dalvin Cook and now-injured Mario Pender, were actually more efficient and explosive than Williams had been.) That probably means a lot of passes to Greene, the best receiver Notre Dame has faced this year, but if Notre Dame blankets him like it did Montgomery, that will put pressure on not only Winston, but also O'Leary, Wilson, and others in a high-ceiling, low-experience receiving corps.

2. All eyes on Everett

Key stat No. 4: Florida State's defense ranks 81st in Rushing S&P+ (37th in rushing IsoPPP), and Notre Dame's offense ranks 26th in Rushing S&P+ (87th in rushing IsoPPP).

Key stat No. 5: Notre Dame runs just 52 percent of the time on standard downs (94th) and 36 percent on passing downs (40th).

Key stat No. 6: Opponents run against Florida State 62 percent of the time on standard downs (41st) and 36 percent on passing downs (40th).

The narrative for Notre Dame's offense is the same as that of Florida State's: through both strength and necessity, the Irish are throwing. The difference is that FSU's defense is more adept against pass than run. NC State backs combined for 120 yards in 21 carries, and not including sacks, Jacoby Brissett threw in nine carries for 76 yards. Syracuse backs combined for 131 yards in 25 carries. Oklahoma State's backfield (again, not including sacks) had 184 yards in 40 carries.

You can run efficiently against FSU's banged-up defensive front, even if the Seminoles don't allow many big plays. (FSU is hoping the addition of previously suspended linebacker Matthew Thomas will aid.) Meanwhile, adjusting for opponent, Notre Dame runs efficiently, even if the Irish have no big-play threats whatsoever.

Regardless, if Notre Dame wins, it will be because Everett Golson had a lovely game with his arm.

In the absence of suspended former leading receiver DaVaris Daniels, sophomore William Fuller has emerged as a quality No. 1 guy, averaging 10.0 yards per target over about 8.3 targets per game. If the run is working at all, he and Corey Robinson can provide play-fake threats on standard downs, and Fuller, Robinson, and C.J. Procise have combined to average a decent 8.0 yards per target on passing downs.

FSU's pass defense has been a bit unstable. Four of six opponents have produced passer ratings under 130.0, and in the last two weeks, Wake Forest and Syracuse found little to no success through the air. But both of those teams stink at passing, and two offenses that don't (Clemson and NC State) found a little success: 54-for-83, 665 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, albeit with five sacks.

Golson is the best passer Florida State has seen so far. We'll see what he can do, and we'll see what damage Fuller might do against P.J. Williams and a talented FSU secondary. It's a nice test for everyone involved.

3. The size of the field in front of you

Key stat No. 7: Florida State ranks 97th in Field Position Margin (83rd on offense, 102nd on defense), and Notre Dame ranks 26th (27th on offense, 40th on defense).

No fanbase in the country complains more about its punter than Florida State's. Last year, it was because Cason Beatty was almost literally the only weakness FSU had, ranking 111th in Net Punting while rarely punting. This year, it's because FSU could use a little extra help in the field position game.

Because you can run on FSU, and because FSU can't always run on you, the Seminoles are vulnerable to field flipping, and while Beatty has improved (FSU ranks a mighty 89th in Net Punting), he still leaves something to be desired. Punting is the primary reason why FSU ranks just 57th in special teams efficiency despite having an incredible place-kicker in Roberto Aguayo.

As a whole, Florida State's offensive stats look worse than they should -- Jameis Winston missed the Clemson game, and FSU has faced solid run defenses. The Seminoles have advantages to exploit, but if they're working on a field that is 10 yards longer than the one on which Notre Dame is working, it will be difficult to make up the advantage. FSU doesn't have to win the field position battle, but the 'Noles can't lose it too badly.

4. Always be closing (drives)

Key stat No. 8: Notre Dame allows only 3.0 points per scoring opportunity (sixth), while Florida State averages 5.0 (27th). Meanwhile, FSU's defense allows 3.7 points (26th), and Notre Dame's offense averages 4.8 (40th).

* As always, scoring opportunities are defined as drives in which the offense either scores or has a first down inside the opponent's 40.

Looking at last week's advanced box scores, it seemed that every close game was decided by which team finished drives in the end zone and which one blew opportunities. Finishing drives is always a major key (you might call it one of college football's most important factors), but in a game that is so tightly matched on paper, it becomes doubly important.

Both of these defenses have shown bend-don't-break tendencies. Neither is as efficient as is could be, but both come up big when the goal line is in sight. Here, the Irish could again derive an advantage. Their defense is one of the best at keeping teams out of the end zone, and while the offense has only been decent for the season as a whole, the Irish went 7-for-7 last week against UNC -- seven opportunities, seven touchdowns.

I expect FSU to create a couple more opportunities than Notre Dame, simply because I think FSU's offensive advantage is bigger than Notre Dame's. That probably means that this category is more important to the Irish. It's hard to imagine Notre Dame winning this game without averaging more points per opportunity.


If anything else, this game will clear some things up.

I've been having fun sparring with FSU fans over the fact that the Seminoles have yet to actually look like a true top-four team, but to the extent that injuries, suspensions, and inexperience have been issues, FSU is slowly rounding into form. And nobody really knows how good Notre Dame actually is. Beating Stanford is still an accomplishment (the numbers love Stanford), but beating Purdue and UNC by a combined 23 points at home and getting outgained by Michigan (while winning comfortably) are less than ideal. (So is reaching mid-October without yet playing a true road game.)

If Florida State is going to start proving the unimpressed numbers wrong, it will begin on Saturday. The Seminoles don't have to beat the Irish by five touchdowns to prove something, but they could start by showing that they have matchup advantages the numbers haven't seen yet. If they slow William Fuller down and prevent the Irish run game from doing much of anything, that will be a good sign. If they run successfully, that will be even better.

My gut says this is the week we do start seeing the real FSU, so to speak, and that the 'Noles make a pretty nice statement. But my gut's been wrong a lot about FSU this year.

As a double-digit underdog, Notre Dame manages to come to Tallahassee as a top-five undefeated with nothing to lose. That's a rare place to be, especially when you wear Notre Dame's helmet, but it wouldn't take too many surprises for the Irish to not only prove themselves as a potentially elite team, but also threaten to leave town still undefeated. It's time to figure out some answers.