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Repost: My NoleDigest FSU-BYU Preview

After so many on the national scene have been surprised by Florida State’s beatdown of BYU in Provo this weekend, I thought it might be appropriate to reprint my FSU-BYU Friday NoleDigest subscribers-only preview to show that what we saw was exactly what should have been expected. I was a bit conservative with my prediction, trying to account for possible bias in what I thought after doing some initial scouting should be a total beatdown:

Friday Scouting Report: BYU

After watching the UM-GT game last night, I think my early season sense of how the ACC stacked up was more or less correct (and with FSU catching a pass in the end zone, would be pretty much exactly how I had things starting out). Miami is a top ten football team this year, and to be honest might be better than that. After watching them for their first couple games, I think they would probably beat either USC or OSU based on what I saw last week. At the very least, those would be very good games. Miami is the class of their division (much better than everyone else’s preseason favorite VT, who will likely finish third in that division), while FSU is the class of theirs. Finally the ACC will get their desired FSU-UM ACCCG.

And after winning their first two games, Miami’s schedule looks a whole lot better: by playing GaTech on a Thursday (which gave them a week and a half to prepare for the Jackets after beating FSU), they now have an extra couple days of preparation for Virginia Tech, who will be in a very physical game against Nebraska. Advantage ‘Canes. Then they get the OU game, which is a coin flip at that point as far as I can tell.

Miami’s win last night also suggests better things for FSU than their showing against Jacksonville State would suggest as well. That was a clear case of a hangover game and a trap game rolled into one, and the ‘Noles were fortunate to win it. But I spent a while watching the replays of the BYU-OU game last night to get an idea of how that game would play out and found myself surprised at the conclusion that FSU really should win this game. My scouting report of BYU and final prediction is below:

BYU Offense

I’m actually most worried about BYU’s running game. Their offensive line is huge and zone blocks pretty well, giving their very physical downhill runners a chance to get some yardage. If FSU doesn’t get after the running game early, this will be a very long night. Because FSU’s defensive front is so small (and so far this season, poor) inside, I would expect BYU to try to push that advantage as much as possible. The ‘Noles interior linemen need to play low and create some piles, or they’re just going to get pushed around.

In terms of the passing game, the one good thing is that BYU doesn’t throw downfield all that well. Most of their stuff is thrown underneath or in the intermediate area, though they usually have a guy in the deep area, usually functioning as a clear-out unless there’s a bust. Their lack of a downfield threat is the result of several factors:

• Pass protection. Their offensive line is not especially nimble, being better suited for quick set pass blocking, especially with the gargantuan splits they like to play (around 24″ splits as opposed to more standard 12–18″ splits).
• Max Hall’s skill set. Hall is very accurate when he can set his feet and does an excellent job of putting the ball in a position where his receiver can run after the catch, but he doesn’t have an especially big gun. The ball floats on him a bit when he throws more than about 15 yards downfield. With a little pressure, he shows a tendency to throw off his back foot, and he doesn’t have a big enough arm to do that with much zip.
• Their receivers aren’t especially big, though their lead WR is a mighty-mouse package who can really run. They’re better suited for run-after-catch scenarios
• Scheme. This looks like a hybridized version of the Air Raid, mixed with some power football due to personnel. That scheme is built to get the ball out of the QB’s hands as quickly as possible.

The Air Raid puts a good bit of emphasis on the screen, and BYU ran about 4 or 5 variations of screen plays in the OU game. They’ll throw to the RB out of the backfield, the RB lined up in the slot, the jailbreak to an outside receiver, and a standard bubble screen or flare screen.

Another big concern BYU presents for a defense that likes to play a lot of man coverage is the “shallow cross,” in which a slot receiver runs a crossing pattern “in the heels of the DL”—that is, about three yards past the line of scrimmage. This is very difficult to defend in man coverage, because if the QB puts the ball in position, the receiver (BYU likes to run this to their RBs, who would then be running away from a safety or LB) is running away from the defender with a lot of grass ahead of him. You can see an example of this here:

They will also run a “mesh” concept with their outstanding Tight End (All-American caliber Dennis Pitta) crossing the field, “meshing” with a wide receiver or slot receiver (again, BYU often uses their RBs in the slot for this), rubbing off the defense or providing space against a zone. This is hard to cover, and Hall is very accurate and quick on the trigger on these routes.
(Image courtesy of SmartFootball.com)

Against Oklahoma, they also did a lot of “angle” routes to the TB or slot receiver, again hitting a player running free in the short middle/curl area. Chris Brown at SmartFootball has a good writeup on how these angle routes are set up in BYU’s scheme.

Against the blitz, they defaulted to a hot slant; if I were Mickey, I’d try to trap cover that a couple times to see if I could turn up an INT by getting a player underneath the slant (this is what Virginia Tech did to Ponder two years ago at Lane Stadium, for what it’s worth). Since BYU isn’t much of a threat to “sluggo” that (turn the slant into a slant-and-go to beat the trap coverage), I’d definitely give it a shot.

Formation Tendencies:

They show a tendency to throw this the “angle” concept to the “trips” side, using one of the two inside receivers (one of which is sometimes lined in the backfield) for that angle route. When they go to a more balanced formation, they’re more likely to run a mesh concept or high-low on a flood. They tip off when they’re going deep by keeping two backs in the backfield for protection. This line isn’t outstanding in protecting deep drops. When they’re in the pro-set shotgun with three wide (or a TE flexed), look for a deeper throw.

They will also “zap” motion away from trips to throw the jailbreak screen, throwing that to a two-receiver side, and when the RB is in the slot, he is often the primary target/first read. On short yardage, they like to motion a receiver into the box for an additional blocker.

FSU Defense vs. BYU Offense: Matchups

FSU’s biggest weakness on defense is their lack of size and physical presence up front. This is not a good matchup for the ‘Noles in the running game, but that might even out in the passing game. This is certainly a game in which FSU should run more odd fronts and have Dakota Watson rushing off the end—BYU’s tackles are not very quick and can be speed rushed. On most passing downs, I would have Watson coming off the end and Nigel Carr playing behind him. As good as he is, Hall shows a propensity to throw off balance and let the ball float when he gets pressured, especially when pressured from inside the tackle box, and a few of those pressures should turn into a turnover or two. In the first quarter alone against OU, he made three very ill-advised throws under pressure, one of which was picked (the other should have been a grounding call, and the other was nearly intercepted).

This is not a good matchup for Kendall Smith, who is not a good cover guy. BYU throws to their backs a lot, and they do a good job of matching them up on the LB they want through formation tweaks. It would be better to have Smith off the field most of the game, staying in a nickel look with Watson off the edge, Carr and Bradham behind as LBs, and Greg Reid as the extra DB. As long as FSUs DTs don’t get destroyed on run plays, the quickness of that front could give BYU a lot of trouble in pass pro (FSU’s DT quickness helps a lot against the wider splits in pass rush scenarios).

As for FSU’s secondary, this is actually a decent matchup in terms of how the corners on the outside match up against BYU’s outside receivers. The bigger question is how the safeties and linebackers cover the inside guys—and even more important, how well they tackle. By the nature of their offense, BYU counts on a lot of yards after the catch, and if FSU tackles well in space, they could surprise some people in this game. This is where FSU’s speed (and if you don’t believe how fast FSU is this year, look at how slow UM made GaTech look and then remember that FSU and Miami looked about equally fast two weeks ago) can make a big difference, as it will be hard for BYU to run away from them on those crossing routes, etc.

This is one game where being physical with the receivers on the line should be a very good play, and the more aggressive FSU is in defending the middle early, the better. Playing strictly man coverage is a very bad idea, as BYU will simply run crossing routes and screen their way to a win, but FSU can get away with playing a lot of man as long as they’re mixing coverages and bringing pressure from different angles with their speed.

Overall, I see BYU scoring in the mid 20s with a couple turnovers. FSU is likely to have some trouble stopping the run enough to keep BYU bottled, but I do think they can pressure Hall enough to force some mistakes. The impact of those mistakes will have a lot to say in determining the final outcome of the game.

BYU Defense

This is a very disciplined defense and much faster than their reputation (yes, they’re mostly white—hence the reputation—but that is a fast defense on par with the speed of most ACC squads), but they’re not especially big. They play mainly odd fronts (3-4 base) and bring people from a lot of angles (usually with a zone behind it), but I saw no reason to think FSU’s OL would have a lot of trouble in the passing game. Despite Bradford’s injury, OU was able to keep him clean through most of the first half, and I like FSU’s OL better than Oklahoma’s. Because of the nature of BYU’s outside run defense, Caz Piurowski’s ability as a run blocker on the outside is a huge factor in this game—if he is able to seal the edge, the ‘Noles will have a huge advantage in that facet of the game.

But the main thing FSU needs to do in this matchup is throw a lot—the ‘Noles passing efficiency has been much higher than their run efficiency so far this year, and the best way to increase that run efficiency is to get even more aggressive in the passing game. As long as the ‘Noles force BYU to defend the whole field, using bubble screens and other “constraint” plays to keep BYU in simpler coverages, the BYU secondary should struggle—they’re not as good as the Miami defense the ‘Noles carved up a couple weeks ago.

The biggest concern has to be ball security—BYU does an excellent job flying to the ball and creating turnovers. On the other hand, because their safeties are so aggressive against the run, there should be some opportunities for play-action passes downfield. Again, Ponder should have plenty of time to throw in this game, so there is little reason to think the ‘Noles won’t move the football. Again, BYU plays a lot of zone, so there should be space for throws, but it will take some patience and toughness to drive down the field against them. As BYU’s punter is outstanding, I would anticipate most of FSU’s drives will be of the longer variety.

Conclusion and Prediction

I see no reason to think FSU can’t (or won’t) score 30 points on this defense, so I’ll go on record with FSU winning, 34-24. I think Ponder will have an outstanding game, and the defense will give up some points and yardage but have a key takeaway or two, leading to a close win. I didn’t think I’d take FSU in this one, but after watching BYU more closely, I’m convinced FSU is actually the better team in this game.

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