Veteran offensive line key to Florida State's success; Walkthrough
Zebrie Sanders must have felt like a babysitter that night in Orlando. On Dec. 29, 2011, in the Champs Sports Bowl, Sanders started his final game as Florida State's left tackle alongside four true freshmen. Five season-ending injuries had decimated the Seminoles' offensive line, so Sanders and the band of youngsters were all that stood between quarterback EJ Manuel and the Notre Dame defense.
In the first half, Florida State's offensive line was overwhelmed. The Fighting Irish sacked Manuel four times. But the freshmen -- either because of their natural athleticism, or because they didn't know enough to realize they were outmanned -- played much better in the second half, giving up only one more sack. The baby 'Noles -- seriously, right tackle Bobby Hart had turned 17 less than five months before the game -- gave Manuel enough time to throw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, and Florida State edged Notre Dame 18-14. Afterward, Sanders predicted the future for his freshman linemates. "They all have a knack for getting on their blocks and maintaining leverage," he said. "They're great players, and they're going to keep getting better. ... It's going to be good. The more film study, the more years of experience they get, the more dangerous they'll be."
Sanders' prognostication has proven to be correct. Three of those four freshmen -- Hart, Tre' Jackson and Josue Matias -- currently start as juniors on one of the nation's most dominant offensive lines. The fourth, Austin Barron, is a key backup who has ably replaced banged-up teammates when called upon. The group that once played like deer caught in the headlights of a truck now plays more like the truck itself, and it's a Peterbilt barrelng down a two-lane road. "That was a golden experience," Matias said this week of the line's trial by fire in the Champs Sports Bowl. Those early sacks don't seem so horrific given the circumstances. "We sit down and we just laugh about it," he said. "They just threw us in."
Now teamed with center Bryan Stork -- one of the linemen who missed that bowl game with an injury -- and left tackle Cam Erving, the group protects redshirt freshman phenom Jameis Winston and blows open holes for running backs Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Karlos Williams. The quality of Florida State's line is a major reason why the Seminoles are three-touchdown favorites against fellow undefeated Miami in Tallahassee on Saturday.
On that 2011 night at the Citrus Bowl, the line couldn't even lead the Seminoles to three touchdowns. But the group steadily improved. Stork returned to health and took his place in the middle. Erving moved from the defensive line to offensive tackle in the spring of 2012. Hart, who played quite a bit as a freshman, sat and stewed behind future second-round NFL draft pick Menelik Watson in 2012 before realizing he needed to work harder to get back on the field. He did just that this past offseason. A year ago, Florida State's defensive line dominated its offensive line at practice. Over time, those matchups became more competitive. "Back in the day, they used to beat us up in practice," Matias said. "Then it kind of evened out. One day they'd get us. One day we'd get them. That's when we knew we had something special."
How dominant has the offensive line been? Consider this: The Seminoles have already faced Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, Maryland's Marcus Whitfield and Clemson's Vic Beasley in 2013. Beasley is tied with Missouri's Michael Sam for the national lead with 10 sacks. The trio has combined for 25.5 sacks this season. How many came against Florida State? One. Pittsburgh's Donald got to Winston in the second quarter of the teams' Sept. 2 season opener. While it's tough to find any flaw in Florida State's offense -- which also has excellent receivers in Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin and cyborg/tight end Nick O'Leary -- the consistency of the line has been critical to a unit that ranks behind only Baylor in yards per play (8.2).
Winston predicted that consistency at Florida State's media day in August. "Look at Johnny Manziel," Winston said. "Didn't he have an offensive lineman drafted in the first round? Well, I've got five of them." Winston may not prove to be the next Mel Kiper Jr., but the linemen have rewarded his faith in them with plenty of time to throw. Of course, those linemen admit that Winston's skill set makes the quarterback tougher to track, but easier to protect. "I rarely know where he is," Erving said. "All I know is he told us 'If you don't get beat inside, I won't get sacked.' He's been a man of his word."
The results have been nothing short of explosive. "It's really exciting," Hart said. "You know if you do your job, Jameis is going to annihilate people."
• Ohio State at Purdue: As discussed in this week's Power Rankings, Ohio State cannot win in the court of public opinion. If the Buckeyes squeak by the Boilermakers, it means they are not very good and thus undeserving of a shot at the national title. If they crush Purdue, it means they are simply running up the score in the hunt for style points. The scenario that will ruffle the fewest feathers this weekend would involve Ohio State heading into the half with a 49-0 lead followed by Braxton Miller watching the third and fourth quarters from a Barcalounger on the sideline. I'm probably supposed to mention here that Ohio State hasn't won in West Lafayette since 2002, but the teams haven't played annually and Drew Brees isn't walking through that door.
• Wisconsin at Iowa: Iowa has declared this a blackout game and asked all fans to dress in their funereal best. Apparently, the Hawkeyes have not been informed that the football gods -- of which Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God is probably one -- despise these shenanigans. This is especially true when the opposing team averages 6.9 yards a carry and is coming off a bye week.
• Mississippi State at South Carolina: South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw missed Tuesday's practice because of a virus. He still plans to play on Saturday. Here is the complete list of ailments that will keep Shaw from telling coaches he can play:
Death. (We think.)
Shaw is college football's version of this guy -- but he's far more successful.
• Michigan at Michigan State: Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard refused to utter the word "Michigan" when he met with reporters this week. This must have been a difficult stance to maintain when Dennard wanted to identify his own school, but it's a great example of how the Spartans always seem more fired up for this matchup than the Wolverines. Michigan players won't give Ohio State the satisfaction of uttering the second half of that school's name, but they don't really make any special effort to insult the Spartans. It's as if they don't care enough. That has to drive Michigan State people crazy. That, and all the state road signs that use Michigan's block M.
• Northwestern at Nebraska: The Wildcats are winless since scaring but ultimately falling to Ohio State in prime time on Oct. 5. The Cornhuskers are reeling after a loss to Minnesota that, judging by the reaction of the local columnists, seems to have been a referendum on the tenure of coach Bo Pelini. At the end of his press conference on Monday, Pelini said, "I don't believe the state of our program is any different than it was a week ago." He's probably correct. But the perception of the program changes with each game. This matchup has a strange dynamic. Nebraska is in a much better place with respect to record, but Pelini is probably on the hot seat. Northwestern is desperate for a victory, but Pat Fitzgerald's job couldn't be more secure. So which team wins? Is it the floundering bunch fighting for bowl eligibility with the safe coach? Or the halfway decent group with the coach fighting for his job?
• Georgia vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Fla.): With these two teams this season, it seems no amount of good news can come without an equal or greater dose of bad news. Georgia gets receiver Michael Bennett and safety Tray Matthews back? Swell. Receiver Chris Conley is out. Florida might get hybrid quarterback seeker Ronald Powell back? Awesome. Offensive tackle D.J. Humphries is out. At least the Bulldogs should have tailback Todd Gurley available for the first time since Sept. 28. Given the events of this year, that has to make everyone in silver britches wonder what calamity will balance the scales. Only the winner of this one will stick around in the SEC East race, but let's hope both of these teams can make it through a game largely unscathed for once this season.
• Auburn at Arkansas: Who will win this one? Probably the coach with the team that executes a better smashmouth inside running game. So I guess we know who that is.
Now I'm just going to drop these stats right here.
-- Arkansas: 209.9 rushing yards a game (fourth SEC, 28th nationally)
-- Auburn: 315.4 rushing yards a game (first SEC, fifth nationally)
• Tennessee at Missouri: Missouri will face another backup quarterback this Saturday, but there is no chance the starter will come off the bench to lead a furious rally this time. Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley underwent thumb surgery this week, and he's out indefinitely. True freshman Josh Dobbs will get the start for the Volunteers, who, along with every other SEC East team but Kentucky, remain mathematically alive in the division race.
• Oklahoma State at Texas Tech: I have no clue which team will win, but this kid has Texas Tech as the Big 12's slate of elimination games begins.
• Colorado at UCLA: After a demoralizing two-week stretch that included losses at Stanford and Oregon, the Bruins return home to face the team at the bottom of the Pac-12 South. UCLA players need to treat this like the palate cleanser it was intended to be. The Bruins may have lost two in a row, but they're still good enough to win the division and get a second crack at Stanford or Oregon in the conference title game.
• Nevada at Fresno State: After an overtime scare at San Diego State, the Bulldogs return home to face a team that also went to overtime against the Aztecs (and lost before proceeding to lose its next two games). Still, Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr should prepare for a challenge. He'll be chased by Nevada defensive end Brock Hekking, who is one man's Player of the Century.
Tracy Claeys has been on Jerry Kill's staff since 1995 at Saginaw State. So when Kill had to take a leave of absence at Minnesota to deal with his epilepsy, defensive coordinator Claeys was the obvious choice to deliver a consistent message. After the Golden Gophers beat Nebraska 34-23 last week to win their second consecutive Big Ten game, Claeys showed why he's your new favorite coach.
We were very Florida State heavy in the top section, so it's only fair that we provide some entertainment for Miami fans.
Here is every kick Florida State has missed to lose to the 'Canes since 1991, set to the Michael Andrews/Gary Jules cover of Tears for Fears' Mad World.
And here is Ed Reed, the heart and soul of those great turn-of-the-century Miami teams, leading the Hurricanes out for the second half of their 49-27 win at Doak Campbell Stadium in 2001.
I haven't tried it yet, but the last time I was in Tallahassee, I noticed a barbecue joint near Florida State's campus called Sweet Rack Rib Shack. Those who read this space often know I have a weakness for great names. Naturally, I'll probably wind up trying this place this weekend.