Can Florida State weather the Oregon storm long enough for Jameis Winston to take over?
The Ducks like to put teams on the mat at the opening bell. The Seminoles like to go all 12 rounds. Who wins the Rose Bowl (New Year’s Day, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN) and advances to the title bout?
No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State follow similar national title formulas, relying on athletic quarterbacks executing passing games that are insanely difficult to stop, particularly in the second half.
Although FSU’s Jameis Winston threw 17 interceptions and didn’t match his 2013 Heisman numbers, he was terrifying all year at the end of games while nearly single-handedly carrying his team past opponent after opponent. His first quarter passer rating is 118.13, outside the top 100 nationally, but he reaches 167.04 in the fourth and 194.26 when trailing by more than two scores. There was a lot of Brett Favre to his performances, as he would climb out of deep holes over and over (several of which he played a part in digging).
Florida State is both an appealing and terrifying Playoff target. On the one hand, any team with a pulse can push the Seminoles to their limit. The only bowl teams they beat by more than a score were Louisville and NC State, and both of those held surprising leads at times.
On the other hand, FSU has time to get healthy. The reshuffling of the Noles’ offensive line and insertion of younger players across the depth chart, like RB Dalvin Cook, shows their roster has untapped upside. Conversely, the Ducks lost All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to injury two weeks ago and are hoping to finally get their own OL healthy.
Winston’s counterpart, Marcus Mariota, shredded opponents with relative ease all season, accounting for 53 total touchdowns, 4,478 total yards, and two interceptions as the Ducks won by an average of 23.8 points. If Winston struggled to outpace teams like Georgia Tech or Boston College, can he be expected to drag the Seminoles past Mariota’s Ducks?
With Ekpre-Olomu out but Mariota leading a better offense than any Florida State has faced this season (No. 2 in Football Outsiders’ F/+), the Ducks will throw all kinds of junk defenses at Winston early. They want to put the Seminoles in a hole like many other teams have, then count on Mariota as Winston figures it all out.
The ‘Noles know that’s coming. They will look to keep Oregon from pulling away so Winston can take over late. That means the flow will depend on how Oregon treats Winston and whether the ‘Noles defense can handle the Ducks’ option attack better than they did Georgia Tech’s.
Putting Winston in a hole
It’s hard to overstate how grievous a Ducks loss Ekpre-Olomu is. Oregon’s favorite defenses are backed by middle-of-the-field-closed coverages (which means a safety is covering the deep middle), like cover 3. Ekpre-Olomu’s role is to play man coverage while the Ducks use four linebackers or three linebackers and three safeties (nickel package) to lock down the middle.
Oregon is strong up the middle in their nickel packages, especially when subbing in linebackers Derrick Malone and Johnny Ragin III and bringing in 6’4, 200-pound Tyree Robinson as a fifth DB. He allows senior safety Erick Dargan to play the nickel spot.
Losing Ekpre-Olomu hurts the Ducks in controlling career FSU receiving leader Rashad Greene. But stopping Winston is really about playing tight matching coverage and filling passing lanes in the middle of the field. That’s where Jimbo Fisher’s ball control passing attack can chew up yardage in a hurry.
A likely answer for the Ducks will be to ignore the threat of the FSU run game (No. 70 in yards per carry), play coverage backers Malone and Ragin and a nickel, and roll safeties to Greene’s side (the X below) of the field:
All-America tight end Nick O’Leary is the Y in this diagram. Oregon can play three deep pass defenders and trust their boundary corner (over X), nickel, and two linebackers to make good drops underneath. The safeties and other corner keep the ball in front of them. Greene can be bracketed with this coverage, forcing Winston to either make throws on a dime or look elsewhere.
The Ducks may struggle to get a great pass rush. They are, in general, a weak team on passing downs (No. 64 in Football Outsiders’ Passing Downs S&P+). That should make Winston and Fisher salivate. If Oregon’s outside linebacker (J) can’t get consistent pass rushes, they may as well use that player to jam O’Leary on every play before they rush Winston, in order to allow the linebackers to get in position against the big fellow.
Florida State has been able to punish some teams for playing defenses designed to attack Winston and the passing game with stud freshman Cook, a terrifyingly explosive runner who shredded Louisville, Florida, and Georgia Tech for a combined 541 yards. If Florida State can get Cook going on early downs from the start, there may not be much Oregon can do on defense.
Mariota, dragon slayer?
The unfortunate truth for the massive percentage of the football-watching population that has been waiting for Florida State to lose and has pinned its hopes on Mariota? The Ducks aren’t optimally designed to beat the ‘Noles.
Oregon is built around speed. Fast DBs playing off man coverage, 3-4 linebackers blitzing and dropping into coverage, explosive edge players on offense, quick OL executing reach blocks, dual-threat QBs … the entire roster is designed to give the high-flying Ducks speed advantages.
But the way to attack Florida State is not on the perimeter with speed. It’s with power up the middle. Replacing nose tackle Timmy Jernigan from the 2013 championship team has been one of the greater challenges for the ‘Noles. But their nickel packages allow them to fortify their edges with athletes like back Jalen Ramsey and rusher Mario Edwards Jr.
Oregon makes its living with outside zone. It recruits its offensive linemen looking for quicker players that can execute reach blocks. Against FSU, this base play may struggle. It’s hard to win the edge against a terror like jack linebacker Edwards, who has absurd quickness and power to beat blocks at 6’3, 294.
FSU also prefers to play cover 3 and fill the middle of the field with athletes who can run sideline to sideline. Oregon is going to have to mix in downhill runs up the middle to overstretch the ‘Noles. That can make FSU susceptible to the Ducks’ pace.
To do this, the Ducks have to ask their OL to get low on double teams and open inside lanes for their bigger back, 229-pound freshman Royce Freeman. The best way to accomplish this is with the ubiquitous zone read play, with an arcing block by the TE or H-back.
Oregon can do it in a few different ways to create additional stress on FSU. One effective strategy would be using unbalanced formations that pull nickel Ramsey (N) away from the action:
If the unblocked corner (the C on the right) can’t tackle Mariota in space (and he probably can’t), or if left tackle Jake Fisher wins the edge, then this play becomes a problem for FSU.
One of the Noles’ favorite tactics for handling zone read is to bring a defensive back off the read side (the C on the right). They ask the end or outside linebacker (J) to crash inside to stop the running back:
Against this set, FSU is unable to blitz Ramsey, which he excels at. The ‘Noles have to rely on outside corners. This blitz also puts a lot of pressure on their defensive backfield, both in making tackles and in preventing big plays.
Oregon can pair the zone read with a bubble screen on the perimeter to stud slotback Byron Marshall (H) and present the linebackers and free safety with extreme stresses on both sidelines.
If the DBs can’t corral Marshall, they’ll have to chase him down before he gets too far. But if the corner can’t tackle Mariota on the blitz, he’ll be flying down the boundary sideline in a flash.
A safer approach on this play would be to have the outside linebacker play containment so that Mariota hands the ball off inside to Freeman. It’s a slow death if the ‘Noles defenders can’t beat blocks inside and bring the big freshman down. But forcing Oregon to win the slow way matches the FSU strategy to keep the game in reach in the fourth quarter, when Winston goes wild.
Florida State has played talented young players at safety, running back, receiver, and offensive line all year while relying on Winston’s talent to keep them in games. After some bowl practices and time for weakened linemen to get healthy, the ‘Noles might prove to be a more worthy contender than their detractors imagine.
If Mariota gets loose and starts making plays early in the first quarter, Florida State will probably finally find itself in a hole too deep to escape from. However, don’t be surprised if their athletes prove to be prepared for the Ducks’ speed of play and keep the game tight until the end. If so, we all know how that will end.