Florida State vs. Auburn: Defensive Halftime Adjustment That Saved 'Noles

Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterJanuary 7, 2014

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 06:  Wide receiver Quan Bray #4 of the Auburn Tigers is tackled by defensive back Lamarcus Joyner #20 of the Florida State Seminoles during the 2014 Vizio BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl on January 6, 2014 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

After allowing Auburn to jump out to a 21-3 lead during the second quarter, Florida State limped into halftime trailing 21-10. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt had his work cut out for him, and his team emerged from halftime better prepared having adjusted to get stops against the Tigers offense.

For the Seminoles, it was not so much adjustments, plural, as it was one major adjustment. Pruitt did not tweak his defense, change the alignments or tinker with the approach. Rather, he pushed the Florida State defenders to show a little more respect for the No. 2 receivers in Auburn's passing game.

Entering the game, it was understood that Pruitt wanted to force Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall to beat his Seminoles team by throwing the ball. However, giving Marshall easy pitch-and-catch scenarios was not part of the plan, and after several major failings, Pruitt's team had to show a new respect to the interior receivers, something Joe Dice of Pulse of the Chiefs points out.

That long touchdown by Melvin Ray was a prime example of the issues that Florida State battled early in the game: linebackers not expanding in zone coverage, cornerbacks rolling down to help with the run, safeties pushing toward the outside receivers while vacating the interior.

After halftime, Pruitt's defense conducted the delicate dance of honoring the interior threats while remaining dedicated to stopping the run. The game plan held steady at the core: Make Marshall beat you with his arm—the difference, of course, being forcing Marshall to make good throws, instead of giving him easy targets to hit.

P.J. Williams' interception came on Marshall being forced to make a tough throw.
P.J. Williams' interception came on Marshall being forced to make a tough throw.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Forcing Auburn's receivers to have to get themselves open, to have to get down the field to create space, allowed Florida State to force Marshall to make tougher throws and gave its pass rush time to be a factor. Although Florida State only sacked the quarterback once, the 'Noles did get pressure on him and force more errant passes than in the first half.

The players Pruitt wanted to get active against the run, Timmy Jernigan, Christian Jones and Mario Edwards, stayed the course. Meanwhile, guys like Nate Andrews and Lamarcus Joyner made run fits and still were bothers in the passing game. And those run fits were critical, because the first year defensive coordinator stuck to the plan, despite asking for more care to be paid to making sure Marshall at least had to make a good throw.

Gus Malzahn and the Tigers waited for the deviation, but the Seminoles never strayed from the path, a testament to Pruitt's plan. Moving away from the plan would have spelled disaster for the Seminoles. The 232 yards surrendered to Auburn on the ground would have ballooned toward the 300-plus numbers the Tigers have grown accustomed to over the season.

Pruitt's unit was solid in the second half.
Pruitt's unit was solid in the second half.Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State's defensive coordinator had a good plan entering the game: Make Marshall win with his arm. His big change came at halftime when he made sure his nickel, money player and linebackers were honoring the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers in coverage, instead of flying exclusively to the run game.

Although Florida State gave up 220 yards in the second half, a near-identical total to the 229 given up in the opening half, Pruitt's unit only surrendered two scores in the final 30 minutes. The second-half total is also deceiving because the two scoring drives covered 144 of the 220 yards. Throw in the 33 garbage yards to wrap up the game's desperation period, and the the 'Noles gave up 43 yards on the other four drives in the back half of the game.

Jeremy Pruitt did not have to revamp his entire defense to put his team in a position to win. The coordinator had to stop giving Nick Marshall the freebies and force him to make more plays with his arm. That simply meant paying more attention to the interior receivers, and as the Seminoles made that adjustment, it put them in a position to win.