If anything can be taken from Florida State’s latest loss—a 49-44 triple-option tutorial taught by Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech—it’s that Jimbo Fisher’s offense isn’t the problem in Tallahassee.
As Bobby Bowden’s critics have grown in number over the past few weeks, so have Fisher’s. Many have cited FSU’s offensive struggles against Jacksonville State and South Florida as evidence that Fisher is not qualified to be the Seminoles’ next head coach.
Coming into Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech, others believed that FSU’s dismal start was every bit Fisher’s responsibility as it was Bowden’s, and that little would change if Bowden stepped down and Fisher was allowed to take over.
I argued, however, that these critics should also consider what Fisher has accomplished thus far at Florida State. Saturday night, Fisher’s offense did the talking for me, and in the process, singled out FSU’s most glaring weakness and renewed hope for Florida State’s future.
Led by standout quarterback Christian Ponder—whose play has been nothing short of Heisman worthy through six games this season—the Seminoles were nearly perfect out of the gates in the first half, scoring five touchdowns on five first-half possessions.
For the game, Fisher’s offense racked up 539 total yards, rushed 30 times for 180 yards, and converted 10 of 13 third downs. Ponder, who Fisher has groomed since he arrived at Florida State, completed 26 of 36 passing attempts for 359 yards and five touchdowns to five different receivers.
In short, Fisher’s offense came ready to play Saturday night. As for Mickey Andrews’ defense, well, not so much.
In fact, Florida State’s defense played like it had never seen the triple option before Saturday night, nevertheless prepared to stop it. Georgia Tech ran and scored at will against Andrews’ defense, which looked absolutely helpless en route to giving up 401 rushing yards to the Yellow Jackets.
Georgia Tech scored six of its seven touchdowns on the ground, completed just four passes the entire game, and was never forced to punt. Yet, Andrews' defense looked almost identical through four quarters.
The Seminoles did the same thing over and over again and somehow expected different results. This frame of mind has seemingly come to identify Mickey Andrews’ defense—old school football that looks, well, old.
While much of the blame for FSU’s defensive struggles this season have been placed on the team’s porous secondary, there were clearly more profound problems in effect against the Yellow Jackets.
Saturday’s defensive struggles were such that they could not simply be blamed on any one player, position or unit. Instead, they pointed to an outdated system and a defensive coaching staff that—much like its head coach—has fallen behind the times.
After the game, Bowden’s reaction was once again telling of a coach who has lost clarity and control over the years, and who continues to favor cronyism over accountability.
Bowden said his team simply could not stop Georgia Tech, and that the only way to beat them was to outscore them. His solution going forward was to avoid playing offenses that operated out of the wishbone.
While there is no denying Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense has been successful, certainly it is not unbeatable, and FSU fans can’t be happy with Bowden’s passive response.
Perhaps that very attitude is why the Seminoles have fallen from grace. Instead of proactively strategizing and finding ways to win, Bowden is now content to let the program go wherever the wind takes it.
After the game, Bowden said the defense “never could get in a position to make a play.” To me, that’s the defense, not the player, and the defensive coordinator’s responsibility.
When asked what he could do about the defense, however, Bowden went on to say, “The big thing is quit making errors...Sooner or later the things got to gel. You got so many young guys on the defense.”
So basically, through six games and four losses, Florida State is just waiting for the defense to gel. To Bowden, it’s that simple.
The coach has so much faith and trust in Andrews—just like he did in his son and former offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden—it never crosses his mind that anything other than the players could be to blame for the defense’s struggles.
Meanwhile, Andrews said the game plan was deliberately kept simple in an attempt to get his players to execute better. He also said the Yellow Jackets were forced to punt just once.
But they weren’t—not even once.
While I believe Saturday’s loss was a very accurate depiction of FSU’s situation going forward, it is by no means the only piece of evidence.
For example, a Boston College team that scored 21 first-half points last week against Florida State’s defense, trailed 34-0 at the half against Virginia Tech on Saturday.
BC freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie, who threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Seminoles last week, finished 1 for 12 for four yards and two interceptions before being replaced against Virginia Tech.
The Eagles also rushed for nearly 200 yards against Florida State, compared to the 45 rushing yards they earned Saturday against the Hokies.
While Bobby Bowden continues to give the credit to other coaches and other teams for their superior performances, teams like Virginia Tech continue to credit themselves and come out winning.
The evidence is also there for Jimbo Fisher. Fisher’s offense has averaged 426 yards and 30 points per game in the first half of a schedule ranked the second toughest in the country this season.
FSU’s offense has also converted 50 percent of its chances on third down—a marked improvement from the Jeff Bowden era—and has coached the Seminoles’ best quarterback since Chris Weinke.
Through six games, Ponder has completed 68 percent of his passes, averaged nearly 300 passing yards per game, and has thrown nine touchdown passes to just one interception.
Moreover, Fisher has proven himself to be an effective recruiter and has built quality depth at every position on offense.
Ponder is backed up by redshirt freshman and four-star recruit E.J. Manuel.
Despite losing two of the team’s top receivers last season, four receivers have caught 20 or more passes through six games in 2009, and seven different players have been on the receiving-end of Ponder’s touchdown passes.
In the backfield, Florida State boasts five capable running backs—not to mention Ponder—and three of them have scored two or more touchdowns so far this season.
Lastly, FSU’s offensive line also has depth this season and continues to be a strong point for the team despite its relative youth.
I say all this to contend that thus far, Jimbo Fisher has done his job and done it well, and I find little reason to believe he won’t continue to do so as Florida State’s next head coach.
Many believe the Seminoles have begun a downward spiral this season and will be forced to endure a long rebuilding process thereafter. I am not one of them. I believe FSU is a new defensive coaching staff away from reemerging in the national spotlight under Fisher’s leadership.
So hang on for the rest of the season, Seminole fans, and continue to support Bobby Bowden for all that he's done as the student section did so vocally Saturday against Georgia Tech. Good times are just ahead for Florida State, and our patience will be rewarded.