By Bob Thomas
Associate Sports Information Director
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – With the college football season reaching the midway point, teams around the country are dealing with injuries and attrition, while continuing to evolve. It’s simply part of the game.
That will certainly be the case when top-ranked Florida State (5-0, 3-0 ACC) visits Syracuse (2-3, 0-1) in the Carrier Dome Saturday at noon (ESPN). The Seminoles will be without starters Karlos Williams (tailback) and Austin Barron (center), while the Orange lost their starting quarterback to injury and have a new offensive coordinator.
For some programs, those kind of personnel issues expose vulnerability. At Florida State, they provide opportunity.
Redshirt sophomore Mario Pender will step into Williams’ starting tailback role against the Orange, while freshman running mate Dalvin Cook will take on an expanded role. Redshirt freshman Ryan Hoefeld replaces Barron, just as he did in the second half last week against Wake Forest, when the Seminoles pulled away for a big win.
“We’re not too concerned,” Pender said, when asked if he was worried a recent run of injuries may hinder the Seminoles. “Coach Jimbo [Fisher] always harps about how much great depth we actually have. We have a ton of great players who can play at each position.”
Pender is right. Resilience has been FSU’s calling card through the first five games of the season, with a host of reserves rising to the occasion, including quarterback Sean Maguire, defensive end Lorenzo Featherston, linebacker E.J. Levenberry and defensive lineman Desmond Hollin.
“The thing I’m encouraged with is the depth we have when you see us practice like we do,” Fisher said. “In other words, those freshmen…how quickly those freshmen develop will be the key for us because, not only their ability to get on the field and make plays, but when guys get hurt, being ready to step up…
“Even if it’s not making a 100-yard game, but come in and give me 15 plays and pick up a blitz run or make a run or a catch when you have to make it. That’s why we practice, to get as many of those guys ready and play them as quickly as we can because the attrition of football now. We’re playing more games and we keep adding games, we need to add players. It’s a lot of them. It doesn’t worry me. They just come and you have to deal with them. It is (different than last year). Sometimes the Gods smile on you, sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t mean you can’t have success. You have to have a plan and everybody has attrition.”
This week it will be Pender’s turn to step into a larger role, while making his first start. An explosive, cut-back runner with exceptional speed, he is embracing an opportunity that proved elusive for two seasons due to injuries and academic issues.
With 154 yards on 23 carries, to go along with three touchdowns, Pender is leading the team in yards per carry (6.7). Given the Seminoles’ recent trend of success running the football, he and Cook could be in for big days as FSU chases its 22nd consecutive victory.
Beginning with a dominant second half rushing effort at NC State (21-150), the Seminoles have rushed for 321 yards on 54 carries over the last six quarters, averaging 5.9 yards a carry and punching the ball into the end zone five times on the ground.
Much of the credit should go to the veteran offensive line, which stepped up to a halftime challenge issued in Raleigh, N.C. and has not looked back.
“We knew NC State was a very competitive team and every time we play them at (their) home they are going to be tough,” senior guard Josue Matias said. “In the second half we couldn’t let up and be the old Florida State from back in 2012 or 2010. We were just going to go out there and take it away from them; just pound the ball.
“When we get our mind right that ball is going to move. That’s what we did in that second half. That’s the mindset we have to have going into every game from now on… We’ve got to just keep chopping that wood and make the thing go.”
The prospect of getting his first start on turf at the Carrier Dome adds to Pender’s excitement.
“Playing on that turf is like running on a track or something,” said Pender”. You make that one cut and you can be gone in any second. I feel like it’s a faster moving field that can get speed backs like me and Dalvin Cook going. It really can enhance our game a little bit.”
Pender flashed a little bit of that in the opener at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, when his first career carry as a Seminole went for 11 yards and a touchdown. Taking the handoff from quarterback Jameis Winston, he made a quick cut-back to his right and darted right through the heart of the Oklahoma State defense, perfectly reading FSU’s zone block.
“That zone blocking and on that turf, if you see that crease or a little hole, it’s bound to happen,” Pender said. “If you just hit it hard, the next thing you know you’ll be in the secondary and it’s just you one-on-one with another man. The turf it has its advantages.”
That Pender has a knack for finding the end zone has not gone unnoticed by Fisher.
“He can bounce and slither and get skinny and is very natural as a runner,” Fisher said. “As I say, ‘snakeish.’ You think you’re going to get a piece of him and he twists or turns or gets a glance and he’s still going forward when you hit him. Marcus Allen was a lot like that and he was the best goal line runner in NFL history. He was just a giant as a tall lean guy, he would contort, squeeze, jump and just had that something special on the goal line.”
Finding the end zone is not new to the Cape Coral, Fla. native, who amassed 49 rushing touchdowns over his final two high school seasons.
“I feel like every game I have to touch (the end zone) at least once,” he said. “And I owe it to the offensive linemen for them blocking and doing the hard work that they do. I actually compliment them by getting in the end zone.”
Given the complementary performances of the reserve Seminoles to date this season, seeing Pender in the back of the end zone against Syracuse would surprise no one.