Thursday night's primetime contest between No. 2 Florida State and No. 25 Louisville (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) is filled with so much drama, it's a shock they aren't airing it on TNT. Jameis Winston, Bobby Petrino, and Louisville's 2002 Thursday night upset of FSU should be more than enough to keep the storylines coming.
In terms of actual football, perhaps the most fascinating storyline of the game is how Winston will handle a Louisville defense that's ranked 6th overall in S&P and is largely comprised of athletes from Florida State's own backyard. When the Seminoles come out in their favored 11 personnel formations (one tight end, one running back, and three receivers) and Louisville matches with its nickel package, there will be six Floridians on the field for FSU and seven for Louisville.
Bill Connelly's S&P rankings tell an interesting tale of a 'Noles offense that is only ranked 14th overall and an FSU team that lands 22nd, as opposed to Louisville's 13th. Considering that this is a night game in Kentucky, the data would seem to suggest that the Cardinals should be the favorite, and movement on the spread reflects that thinking.
But Jameis has kept alive Florida State's title defense and undefeated stretch of play with a quietly brilliant season that has maintained the Seminoles' status as a Playoff contender. If he's going to protect that status against the Cardinals, he'll have to handle these three challenges.
1. Winston vs. coverages
What has made the Seminoles an elite team over the last two years, other than a tremendous and athletic defense, is Winston's ability to hit windows downfield to excellent receivers. The FSU passing game has a lot of ball control elements, but many of the throws are in the 8- to 15-yard range, and many create opportunities for yards after the catch.
Notre Dame was largely done in by its soft zone coverage deep, which Winston picked apart while throwing to receivers who excel at finding soft spots:
Winston is good enough at making reads and zipping the ball in on these throws that it is able to serve as the main thrust of the entire offense. However, Todd Grantham's defense at Louisville will present a different challenge in the form of more precise pattern-matching zone coverages.
This is Louisville's version of cover 2, which features match-up zone coverage underneath and two-deep safeties sitting on top. It's the nemesis of Florida State in this contest.
The Cardinals excel at matching and trading off receivers underneath while using eye discipline to track route distributions and the QB's eyes. Everywhere the QB looks, he's going to find the zone defense shifting to take away the easy reads and windows.
Louisville's free safety, Gerod Holliman, has eight interceptions in this new scheme. And the front is able to collect a lot of sacks due to QBs having to hold onto the ball and try to reach their second or third reads.
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Louisville is pretty complex in its base defenses and can also bring in quarters and cover 3 to get extra help against the run or change things up for the offense. But four years of Charlie Strong coaching evidently laid a great foundation for Grantham's pattern-matching schemes, and there are very few busts for this group.
How will FSU's reliance on Winston's execution of the passing game hold up against such coverage?
2. Florida State's run game vs. the Louisville front
Jameis is unlikely to get much help in this game from the Seminole runners. The Florida State run game is ranked 17th in the nation in S&P, somehow, but has largely disappeared against better defenses. FSU backs (not including quarterbacks) ran the ball 26 times for 97 yards against Oklahoma State (3.7 ypc), 20 times for 62 yards against Clemson (3.1 ypc), and 21 times for 45 yards against Notre Dame (2.1 ypc).
The OL can only be described as mediocre and has serious struggles executing its main running schemes. On their zone plays they consistently fail to get movement or control DL at the point of attack.
In this instance, virtually nothing goes right for FSU. The double team on the nose tackle accomplishes very little movement, and the playside guard is unable to release up to the linebackers. The defensive end beats right tackle Bobby Hart and is able to come off and blow up the fullback's lead block. The playside linebacker and safety are totally free to get the running back.
The Seminoles also really struggle to execute their power schemes, often allowing the backside defensive tackle to follow the pulling guard into the backfield and make devastating tackles for loss.
Young center Ryan Hoefeld is often put on skates on Florida State's zone schemes against better tackles, and the unit simply fails to get much push when matched by a good front.
Louisville's front will eat this group alive. The Cardinals scheme involves two-gapping with their tackles in order to free up DE/LB hybrid Lorenzo Mauldin or inside linebackers James Burgess and Keith Kelsey to fly to the ball.
Louisville has some stout fellows in 6'2, 305-pound Sheldon Rankins and 6'1, 306-pound nose tackle DeAngelo Brown, who won't struggle to get low and stop up the works for Florida State. The linebackers have some serious speed and athleticism to take advantage. In the clip above, Burgess is able to plant and go upfield like a running back and blows by two OL en route to meeting the RB well behind the line of scrimmage.
3. Winston vs. pressure
In addition to being poor at run blocking, the Seminiole OL is also poor against a good pass rush. Notre Dame did great damage to FSU, which finished two-of-eight on third downs, with a variety of overload zone blitzes and disguises that regularly got free rushers into the backfield.
The only solution that Florida State was able to find for Brian VanGorder's blitzes was for Jameis to identify the blitzes and get the ball out within about two seconds whenever the Irish brought pressure. He did so particularly well in the second half.
Louisville will actually tend more towards relying on coverage and the base pass rush, but the Cardinals do have their own collection of zone blitzes to throw at this porous OL.
They'll use the same overload blitz tactics as Notre Dame, showing a fake pressure from one direction before bringing two from another place in order. That's to try and either get three pass rushers vs. two blockers or at least get one-on-one match-ups, in which a running back has to block someone he can't handle:
Louisville should be able to get pressure on Florida State when it wants to mix things up, although perhaps the more pressing concern for the 'Noles is if Louisville can get pressure without having to bring disguise or an extra man. In that instance, Winston's ability to recognize the blitz and get the ball out quickly will not save them.
This is by far the stiffest challenge for Winston and Florida State. They'll have to play in a hostile atmosphere and against a defense at least as good as the Irish unit that gave them no small amount of trouble in Tallahassee. In this contest, expect the Cardinals' defense to be a step too quick and too skilled overall for Winston to simply outscore the opponent.
If Florida State is going to continue its undefeated run, it's going to need some help from its defense against Petrino's young charges on the other side of the ball.