ATLANTA – As far as Derwin James is concerned, Florida State lost to Alabama on Saturday night, which means the Seminoles’ defense didn’t do enough.
But while it’s true that the Seminoles fell, 24-7, to the Crimson Tide in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, that final score is hardly a fair representation of FSU’s defensive effort.
For large stretches of the game, the Seminoles were outstanding in slowing down the Tide and, save for a few big plays scattered throughout, mostly kept Alabama’s offensive stars in check.
FSU limited Alabama to just 269 total yards and 4.5 yards per play, and the Seminoles allowed quarterback Jalen Hurts, the reigning Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year, to complete just 10 of 18 passes for 96 yards – the second-lowest total of his career.
The Crimson Tide hadn’t finished below the 300-yard mark since a 14-13 win over Arkansas on Oct. 11, 2014, a span of 38 games.
“That’s great, (but) we lost,” James said. “That’s great for the defense, but it’s not a one-phase game. There’s three phases of the game.”
James is right, and FSU will have plenty to go over on both offense and special teams when it breaks down its film from the game.
But, for a defense shouldering heavy expectations this season, there’s plenty to feel good about moving forward.
Like the way senior safety Ermon Lane brought down Alabama’s Scarbrough – a 6-2, 236-pounder who is notoriously tough to tackle – in the open field on an early third down.
Or the way defensive end Josh Sweat shed a block to sack Hurts and force a field-goal attempt just moments after Alabama blocked a punt and took over on FSU’s 6-yard line.
Or how linebacker Matthew Thomas – two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier than Hurts – chased the Alabama quarterback from the far side of the field, closed in on him and forced a poor throw.
“It was a hard-fought game, a very physical game on both sides,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Our defense did a really nice job in keeping us in the ballgame and trying to give us some chances.”
And they did it while playing through some almost impossibly difficult situations.
Thanks to a blocked field goal, a blocked punt and a pair of interceptions, Alabama’s average drive started at its own 44-yard line – 17 yards better than FSU’s (27).
It was even worse in the third and fourth quarters, when the Crimson Tide began five consecutive drives at the FSU 6-, 11-, 42-, 31- and 31-yard lines.
But with the game teetering out of reach, the Seminoles’ defense held firm, allowing only a touchdown, two field goals and 2.2 yards per play during those five possessions.
“I feel like everybody saw – we still had that fight,” defensive tackle Fredrick Jones said. “We still had that dog in us. We still had that passion.”
“They did a great job in the second half,” Fisher said. “We gave up a couple plays in the first half … but, other than that, our defense did a really nice job. And we knew if our defense was stalwart, we had a chance to be a really good team.”
Despite the loss and despite the uncertainty surrounding quarterback Deondre Francois (he left late in the game with an apparent knee injury; Fisher has yet to update his status), the Seminoles appear to have a defense capable of winning a conference title – and, yes, maybe more.
And even with four more ranked teams left on the schedule, there’s a good chance that the Seminoles’ defense has already had its toughest test.
So, if FSU needs to lean on its defense for a while, those defenders feel like they’re up to the task.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can step up and make plays. I feel like we’re deep in every position,” James said. “If it’s on us, if we’ve got to do that, we’re willing to do that.”