ATQ: Florida State has had some close calls all season. Their margin of victory this season ranked 20th, well outside that of the other teams in the playoff. Is this a concern when facing one of the top teams in the nation?
TN: While there is certainly significant merit to finding a way to win all of one’s football games in a given season against a pretty decent schedule, I am on board with the idea that overall performance is the best indicator of the quality of a particular team. It’s a basic tenet of advanced stats, which show FSU to lag behind the other three teams in the playoff in total performance over the course of the season coming into New Year’s Day. It’s definitely a concern to be facing a team rated five spots higher in season performance, but in a single-game setting I think it’s more about looking at individual match-ups. I think the time off has been huge for FSU. It has allowed them to get healthy (or at least healthier) at key positions, including nose tackle and linebacker, both of which will be extremely important in defending an excellent Ducks’ attack. It has also given the ‘Noles a month to prepare for Oregon’s tempo, which while not as fast as years past, is still a significant facet of what the Ducks do on offense. I think having what’s much closer to a full complement of depth at these key positions and a rested, well-conditioned team will give the Seminoles a fighting chance to slow the Ducks on offense and make for an excellent game on Thursday.
ATQ: Jameis Winston is an incredible quarterback, but has struggled with his accuracy and decision making, throwing 17 interceptions. What impact will that have in the Rose Bowl?
TN: To beat Oregon, the FSU offense is going to have to do two things that it hasn’t done particularly well thus far this year: start quickly and protect the football. One of our esteemed members of #FSUTwitter put together a video of all of Jameis’s interceptions this season that I’m sorry I can’t find to link, but it was eye-opening to watch. While there were instances of bad decisions and a couple of inaccurate throws, a lot of them stem from tipped balls or young receivers not being where they should. Winston is different from most college quarterbacks in that his throws are made on recognition and anticipation to an unmatched extent, and he’s typically very accurate in putting the ball where his guy is supposed to be. Now, the guys haven’t been where they’re supposed to with nearly the frequency that they were a year ago when Greene was joined by Kelvin Benjamin and ultra-reliable senior Kenny Shaw. There’s one throw in particular, the corner route/smash concept throw to the sideline against Louisville intended for freshman Travis Rudolph, who quits on the route. The throw was on an absolute dime in between three defenders, and while that was arguably ill-advised, the line between that great throw and the interception is often a fine one, and Fisher praised the decision and throw. I’m not really worried about Jameis as it pertains to decision-making and accuracy in this game, because lapses therein just aren’t characteristic of what he does over his career. I’m more worried about the fast start, or lack thereof. There isn’t a particular reason for a slow start to happen against the Ducks, but there haven’t been in any of the other games in which it’s been seen. I don’t think the Seminoles will have the success playing from behind against Oregon that they have against the other teams on their schedule. The Ducks have lit up the scoreboard on teams that have performed better on defense to date than the Seminoles, and it’s not realistic to expect FSU to hold Oregon to a low offensive output. The ‘Noles won’t survive a 21-0 deficit (Louisville) or three first quarter interceptions (Florida) on Thursday.
ATQ: Dalvin Cook has been a huge key to the offense as of late. In previous years, teams like Stanford and Arizona that had success running the ball against Oregon wound up on top. How do you see that playing out against the Ducks?
TN: Dalvin has provided a huge lift to the FSU offense this season as a true freshman. He’s got speed, quickness, great vision, and understands what he’s being asked to do within the scheme. He’s also been lethal as a receiver, particularly against Louisville out in the flats. I think he’ll be very important to FSU’s chances of pulling the upset over Oregon. Now, I’m not sure that FSU will be able to effectively run its outside zone stretch plays agains the Ducks, as Armstead and Buckner have excellent length and set the edge extremely well. I do like the Florida State offensive line’s ability to get to the second level on the inside against Oregon’s nose tackles, however, so I expect to see a lot of inside zone runs as well as power/counter between the tackles. Josue Matias, Cam Erving, and Tre Jackson are as good of an interior OL trio as you’ll find in the nation, and they’ll need to play a big game for the Seminoles to have sustained success. For these and other reasons, I want to see FSU utilize a lot of its 11-pistol set. I think the ‘Noles’ run game has been most effective when it’s been downhill, but you have to look at the balance between wanting to create that and wanting to spread the Ducks’ defense out, which is what the teams that have had the most success against them have done this season. The pistol allows for both and I hope to see it, but I’m sure we’ll see a lot of shotgun as well. It’s also important to note that FSU will have its short-yardage back fully healthy and available against Oregon in Karlos Williams. He’s been very good in such situations, and they will certainly arise on Thursday. I’m interested to see what the loss of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu causes Oregon to do in coverage. The Seminoles have been very good against zone coverage with Jameis at quarterback, and the backs are particularly dangerous against zone if the Ducks don’t quickly recognize them in the flats and get to the football. If the Ducks are forced to play more zone than they have previously (though they have played a good bit of it this year), look for Cook and Williams to pose a threat beyond merely the running game on Thursday.
ATQ: With two talented offenses, this game could very well turn into a shootout, much like the 2012 Rose Bowl with Oregon and Wisconsin. Do you think Florida State has a better chance at beating the Ducks by trying to outgun them on offense, or slow the game down and methodically trying to beat them in a field position battle.
TN: There are two competing trains of thought on this, and frankly our writers are divided on which we think the ‘Noles should go with. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense to try to limit Oregon’s opportunities to run its offense by trying to sustain long, methodical drives on offense and keep Mariota and the Ducks off the field. That could be a frustrating strategy for Oregon’s offense to deal with and would put more pressure on them to come away with points on each possession if the Seminoles are scoring. There’s also the idea that you don’t want to go away from what you do on offense for the sake of an opponent, as you’re trying to maximize your output. Now, I think there’s room for a happy medium here, because even at FSU’s typical pace of play on offense we’re not talking about anything approaching a hurry-up-no-huddle attack. There are times in which FSU will not huddle, but very rarely do the ‘Noles snap the ball early in the play clock. Jameis is always scanning the defense, giving dummy counts, making checks, etc. I don’t really think the ‘Noles need to make a concerted effort to go slower in this game, but I do think the emphasis on efficient methodical drives is the way to have a chance to beat Oregon. I do not believe FSU wins a game that features 15 possessions for each side. If the Seminoles can run the ball effectively, march down the field, and most importantly, score touchdowns rather than field goals, they’ll have a chance.
ATQ: Florida State’s defense is perhaps the most complete the Ducks will face. Who is going to cause the biggest headache for Marcus Mariota?
TN: I’m very interested to see how the ‘Noles will try to defend Mariota and this excellent offense. The angle blocks and specific iteration of the veer concepts the Ducks employ are unlike anything else the Seminoles have seen this year. As with any game, the key to the match-up is on the line of scrimmage. Oregon’s offensive line is very good at what it does, but a couple of things give me hope that the Seminoles can pose some problems for the Ducks up front. First, the aforementioned rest has allowed Eddie Goldman to get healthy, who is a terror at defensive tackle, particularly against the run. Mario Edwards Jr. is a strong-side defensive end who is an excellent player against the run as well, and he’s lost a lot of weight over this period for reasons on which I’m not quite clear. It has also allowed for contributions from Nile Lawrence-Stample, FSU’s starting nose tackle who went down for what we believed to be the season in the Clemson game with a pectoral injury. Fisher says he’ll play, though I’m not sure how much or to what level of effectiveness. I have to believe he lost a lot of upper body strength during the rehab period, although we were never told exactly what the pectoral injury was. Coming into the year, Lawrence-Stample was the one guy FSU could not afford to lose because his backups were not very good, and though Derrick Mitchell has improved significantly over the season, a return of NLS in any capacity would be a major lift for FSU.
The emphasis for the FSU defense will first be on slowing the Oregon run game. The Seminoles will need to do what Armstead and Buckner do so well for the Ducks in setting the edge. This diverts the angles of Oregon’s outside run plays and gives the linebackers and safeties the ability to fill and stop the play. Probably most importantly, the ‘Noles’ tackles will need to anchor in their lanes and eat up blocks on the interior, allowing the linebackers to keep the inside runs from popping free to the second level. Against Mariota, the Seminoles need to push the pocket while containing him within it, something they’ve had to do against several mobile quarterbacks this year. While Mariota is clearly better than any of them, they’re familiar with the principles and need to execute them. When FSU blitzes, it must get home and get Marcus on the ground, because bad scary things happen when he sheds a tackle and breaks contain. I think Jalen Ramsey could be the biggest individual headache for Mariota because of his versatility. He’ll blitz, cover, and generally be a thorn in Oregon’s side, and he’ll probably need to make a big play or two for FSU to beat the Ducks.
The most important thing for the ‘Noles to do on defense is to limit the long plays for TDs. The Seminoles have been very good on defense in the redzone this season, and they’ll want to make the Ducks finish drives in this area. FSU has excellent size on the defensive line, as well as in the defensive backfield. The big FSU DBs don’t have to worry about Oregon wideouts getting behind them in the red area and can use their physicality to make life more difficult in the passing game. If Florida State can reduce this game to redzone performance they’ll feel much better about their ability to keep Oregon within striking distance.
ATQ: The Ducks are favored to win by nine points in the Rose Bowl. Jameis Winston said being an underdog is good motivation for the team. Florida State isn't used to being the underdog. Do you agree that it’s good motivation, or do you think it doesn't have an impact on the players?
TN: I’m not really one for motivational edges in a game like this. I don’t think anybody needs any help getting up for this game one way or the other, as it just doesn’t get any bigger in this sport. I do think the players have taken notice of the underdog status, but I don’t really notice any sort of change in demeanor because of it. If there’s one thing this FSU team is, it’s confident. They sort of live in their own compartmentalized world, which is probably for the best. To some extent I think you have to in order to consistently come back from the dead over the course of a college football season in the manner that the Seminoles did in 2014. We heard a lot last year about how Auburn was "battle-tested" having won all these close games, and we rolled our eyes and saw FSU deal the Tigers their lone one-possession game loss of the season in Pasadena. So while it’s hard for us to consistently say that "battle-tested" performance is the be-all/end-all in big games, I think we’re still probably a lot more confident in such situations this season.
ATQ: This is Florida State’s second straight trip to Pasadena, just a little bit earlier this time around. Do you think being familiar with the routine helps the players focus more easily leading up to the game?
TN: I do think it helps. Some FSU fans were expressing a preference to play in New Orleans in the semifinal game because of its proximity to Tallahassee, and it certainly would have been nice from a convenience and fan support perspective. But I think in the trade-off between playing Alabama off of 3.5 weeks of preparation in New Orleans vs. playing Oregon with 3.5 weeks of preparation in Pasadena, FSU got the better deal. I’m not concerned about crowd noise in the Rose Bowl, and FSU has a routine in Pasadena that makes the travel much less of a big deal. I just like the match-up between FSU and Oregon much more than FSU-Bama, particularly with the long rest component thrown in. I think this is going to be a fantastic game, and as a football nerd I can’t wait to watch the contrasting styles battle it out in the best setting for college football when the stakes couldn’t be higher. Of course we want to win, but we’ve said from the beginning of the year that if the team makes the playoff, everything else afterwards is gravy. It doesn’t mean we won’t be nervous wrecks throughout the game, but I’m excited to see FSU play with house money as an underdog against a great Oregon team.