In less than two weeks, the Seminoles of Florida State will assemble in Doak Campbell Stadium for their annual Garnet and Gold game. It's expected that Mark Stoops’ defense will be looking stout and impressive, with arguably the finest pass rush in the entire country. FSU’s special teams will also be ready—Dustin Hopkins, FSU’s placekicker, will probably be the preseason front-runner for the Lou Groza Award—and the Seminoles have a stable of return men for both punts and kickoffs.
However, none of that will matter if Rick Trickett’s offensive line cannot run-block or pass-block for E.J. Manuel and his tailbacks. It doesn’t matter how suffocating Stoops’ defense is or how talented Eddie Gran’s special teams are. If FSU cannot execute on the offensive line, there will be no ACC title and certainly no BCS National Championship appearance.
Or is there a way?
In December of 2011, before the FSU-Notre Dame game, I wrote an article about what kind of offensive game plan FSU would have to follow to beat the Fighting Irish. I said FSU’s rushing attack would be atrocious, the offensive line would not be able to block, and Manuel would basically be getting flushed out of the pocket right after every snap. Sadly, I was right, and my suggestion on how to adjust to this reality was to run a pass-heavy offense that spread out the field and made the Irish corners beat the Seminole receivers.
Florida State ran this type of spread offense in the second half of the bowl game, and it worked. The Irish secondary could not contain FSU’s speedy receivers, pressure was taken off FSU’s terrible offensive line, and Stoops’ increasingly violent defense contained everything Bryan Kelly dialed up. The Seminoles won an incredibly frustrating bowl game, 18-14, with all 18 of FSU’s points coming after Fisher abandoned his clock-draining, conservative offense and let Manuel air it out. Again, it worked—and it might be the only way FSU can live up to this year’s expectations.
The optimistic FSU fans are hoping Trickett will develop the young line and turn the players into nasty blockers who refuse to let Manuel get pressured and who break their backs to open creases for FSU’s unproven tailbacks. The less optimistic FSU fans are preparing for the worst—which is more of the same.
I’m preparing for more of the same, and that’s why I think Fisher has an opportunity to really earn his paycheck this year. In the spring game, if he sees that his offensive line simply cannot block, particularly run block—and considering he will have a championship-caliber defense—he must try to restructure his offense. The stakes are too high, and if he fields the No. 1 defense in the country but cannot capture an ACC title because of yet another terrible offensive line, his job security might be in question.
Here’s what I think could work.
When Manuel is under center, FSU primarily should use a single-set back formation. I’d like to see Fisher abandon the I-formation and take advantage of his talented tight ends and countless receivers. In Nick O’Leary, the grandson of Jack Nicklaus, Fisher has a kid who is money when the ball is thrown to him. His gloveless hands do not drop balls and he is a load to tackle. In the other tight end, the reformed defensive end Dan Hicks, Fisher can have a great blocker. Line him up to protect Manuel for play-action and O’Leary will certainly draw away some linebackers from the line of scrimmage.
Another option for Fisher is to line up no tight ends (or one tight end) and have Manuel go to his platoon of receivers, in three- and four-man sets. This would probably involve some changes to the playbook, but his receivers are talented, fas, and should be able to learn some new routes and formations before September.
The key again is to spread out the defense, go pass-heavy and take as much pressure off the line as possible. The big offensive line should be able to block four pass-rushers, which potentially could lead to some good rushing gains—open up a little running game—as long as the receivers and tight ends do their job in keeping the defense off balance, and by this I mean getting separation and catching the ball.
In the shotgun, Manuel will once again be forced to pass a lot and hope that his receivers earn their scholarships. Fisher should dial up some running draw plays, but it will only work if the linebackers and safeties are too busy being occupied with a potent passing attack. The rushing attack, at least until Trickett’s boys learn how to run-block, will once again be held to a minimum, and this is why this offense is so risky.
With such a weak offensive line, it will be so important for Manuel to be able to thread the needle. He’s going to be throwing into some thick coverage, but then again, his receivers should be quicker than almost every ACC cornerback they line up against.
Those are just a few ideas, but the main point is that FSU will not be able to rush the ball like a normal team can. The offensive line in a traditional offense—I hope I’m wrong—will not be able to block at a
level that will help FSU secure an ACC Championship or a BCS National Championship
appearance. Dustin Hopkins, FSU’s placekicker, will also have to play a crucial role in the offense, as it will be hard for FSU to score in the red zone.
However, perhaps I’m wrong about this offensive line and Trickett will have everything corrected. I suppose we’ll know in about two weeks.