Oct. 17, 2009
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida State boasts one of the top offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference. North Carolina is the runaway league leader on defense. That could lead to yet another close contest Thursday night in Chapel Hill, when the Seminoles try to snap their three-game losing streak.
If the nationally-televised game goes according to the statistical script, special teams play could well determine the outcome, as it has many times in the FSU-UNC series. The Seminoles spent three of 20 periods during Saturday’s practice in cool conditions honing their special teams skills.
“All of our games have been close, so every point is going to count,” said FSU freshman kicker Dustin Hopkins. “I know we’ve gotten some good (practice) work in. Our timing has gotten a lot better since the beginning of the year, so I think we can go in and do the job.”
Hopkins’ play against the Tar Heels is important on multiple fronts. The ACC leader with 12 touchbacks, another solid effort on kickoffs by Hopkins could swing the field position battle in the Seminoles favor. That would be huge since FSU and UNC enter the game ranked last in total defense and total offense, respectively.
Obviously, Hopkins brings a scoring value to the equation, converting seven of 12 field goal attempts including a long of 52 yards. The percentage is comparable to Tar Heels’ kicker Casey Barth, whose longest field goal of the season is just 40 yards.
Senior receiver/return specialist Louis Givens, who is on both the kickoff and kickoff return teams, does not understimate the significance of winning that phase of the game at Kenan Stadium.
“Special teams have got to play a big part in this game,” said Givens, who is finally recovered from a season-long battle with a tender hamstring. “First off, we have to pin them deep on kickoff and that’s by getting some great pressure; sprinting, running and going hard. We need to win the field position battle.
“They’re a great defense. We’ve been watching film and they are real physical so we can’t afford to get pinned back and try to be scrapping for short yardage, so kickoff returns are going to play a big role, too. It’s not so much breaking long (returns), but getting fair yardage and starting the offense in good field position.”
Givens, who returned two kickoffs for 68 yards against Georgia Tech – his first of the year – is looking forward to adding to his duties this week.
“I should play a lot more back there this week,” said Givens, who is also on FSU’s kickoff team. “I’m not sure if I’m going to be starting but going into practice I was first on the depth chart.”
On kickoff returns, Givens will team with freshman standout and leader Greg Reid, who ranks eighth in the ACC in both kickoff (22.8 ypr) and punt (11.6) returns. Reid, who is still looking for his first specialty return for a touchdown this season, boasts season-bests of 51 (kickoff) and 63 (punt) yards.
“I know when the ball is in my hands I try to make big plays every time,” Reid said. “I’ve been real close. I get a lot of jokes from my teammates. I just need to pull one off.”
Givens feels much the same way, after bringing one kickoff back 48 yards against the Yellow Jackets.
“I ran two last week and I can say I was one block away (on both),” Givens said. “If I get that one block on the end guy I can definitely beat the rest of the team. You can always say you’re one block here or one block there, but you never know.”
That’s one reason the Seminoles’ special teams units study film every week, where they hope to have unearthed a chink in UNC’s coverage armor they can exploit in a big way. Of course the ‘Noles wouldn’t mind coming up with a blocked kick; something that have done 128 times in the Bobby Bowden era, but just once this season.
Not to be overlooked is the importance of punter Shawn Powell. Through six games Powell is averaging 40.2 yards per attempt, but more importantly, opponents have managed a total of 27 punt return yards against the Seminoles. FSU’s 38.0 net punting average ranks second in the ACC. Powell has punted just 21 times on the year, but pinned the opposition inside its 20-yard line nine times.
That kind of effort can go a long way for FSU’s defense, which is yielding 426 yards a game, but is facing a UNC team that is managing just 282 offensive yards an outing.