By JOE REEDY
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — At the midway point of the season, Florida State’s improvement on run defense has gone mostly under the radar. That progress will be put to a big test on Saturday against Georgia Tech.
The ninth-ranked Seminoles (6-0, 4-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are 19th nationally in run defense, allowing 113.5 yards per game. That is a marked improvement from last season when they allowed nearly double that at 226.8. Five of the top 20 worst run defense games by the program since 2000 happened last season, including 331 yards allowed in the ACC Championship Game against Georgia Tech.
But the Seminoles had their struggles against the Yellow Jackets’ spread option in that game. Florida State won 37-35 but allowed 331 yards on the ground. The Yellow Jackets (2-5, 0-4 ACC) have three of the top six rushing games against Florida State’s defense since 2000.
Despite losing five straight, the Yellow Jackets lead the ACC at 286.6 yards per game. During his weekly press conference, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said the biggest challenge isn’t with the backs, but with Georgia Tech’s blocking scheme.
"You’ve got to play those cut blocks and that’s what this offense is based on, and years ago that’s what football was across the country (with option and wishbone offenses)," Fisher said.
Adding to the challenge is that Georgia Tech is not a yearly fixture on the schedule. Due to being in different divisions, this is the first time the two have faced each other in the regular season in 2009. The previous two matchups have been in the ACC Championship Game. Fisher said that during the bye week last month, they did practice a little bit against the triple option and had more cut blocking drills than usual.
Florida State has allowed only one touchdown rushing this season, which came in the second quarter of the opener against Texas State. They also haven’t allowed a run over 30 yards this season and only two over 20 yards. Last season they allowed 17 runs of 20-plus yards.
For the third straight week the Seminoles will be facing a back that is among the ACC leaders as Georgia Tech’s Marcus Mitchell is eighth. Last week Louisville’s Lamar Jackson was held to 32 yards and on Oct 10 Miami’s Joseph Yearby gained just 33. Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas ran for 104 yards in last year’s game but is averaging only 44 yards per game this season.
This will be third running quarterback that Florida State has faced this year as Fisher said Thomas does have some similarities to Jackson and South Florida’s Quinton Flowers.
"You’ve got to have leverage on the ball. You’re got to tackle well and you’ve got to get people to the ball," Fisher said.
Florida State’s biggest challenge going into the week is trying to retool their secondary. Safety Tre Marshall is out for the remainder of the regular season due to a torn biceps and safety Nate Andrews remains limited due to a knee injury suffered on Oct. 3 at Wake Forest.
With their highest ranking since the preseason poll, Fisher is pleased that his team is starting to get more recognition. But Fisher also knows there is a lot of football to be played, including a key matchup on Nov. 7 at No. 6 Clemson.
"I am very pleased where we’re at. Now we just have to keep evolving. We just keep getting a little better in execution, keep getting better and adding little packages," he said.
With a win, Florida State would tie the ACC record for consecutive conference wins at 29. They set the earlier record from 1992-95.
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