WATCH: Harlon Barnett, Oct. 9
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – By virtually every measure, the Florida State defense has improved over its last few games.
Come Saturday, the Seminoles will test those improvements against what might be the most difficult challenge they’ll face this season.
When FSU visits No. 2 Clemson this week (3:30 p.m., ABC), coordinator Harlon Barnett’s group will line up across from the preseason ACC player of the year (quarterback Trevor Lawrence), as well as preseason all-conference selections at running back (Travis Etienne), receiver (Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross) and on the offensive line (Tremayne Anchrum, John Simpson, Gage Cervenka, Sean Pollard).
Even in a year in which the Tigers’ offense is a little less productive than last year’s national championship-winning standard, they still rank near the top of the country in most major statistical categories.
“They’re very talented, as we all know,” Barnett said. “They do a good job of coaching those guys up over there.”
Barnett, though, believes that the Seminoles have some quality talent in their defensive huddle, too.
And, over the last few weeks, they’ve shown some encouraging signs of life.
Particularly with their run defense, which has held three consecutive opponents below their season averages.
That, in turn, has led to upswings in other areas – particularly third-down defense (as opponents face longer third-down distances) and on the scoreboard. FSU’s first two opponents, Boise State and ULM, combined to score 80 points. The three that have followed, all of them ACC opponents, totaled 68 points.
That production has coincided with a surge in the group’s confidence, aggression and attitude.
“I can sense our guys feeling good about themselves,” Barnett said. “We’re playing pretty well. We still haven’t reached where we’re trying to get to yet.”
A strong performance against Clemson would make for a pretty big step in that direction.
“I can’t wait,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Amari Gainer. “It’s a great challenge, and I can’t wait to get to it.”
WATCH: Marvin Wilson, Oct. 9
Lawrence, the sophomore quarterback who emerged midway through last season, garners most of the headlines, but the Seminoles said Wednesday that their first priority is slowing down Etienne and the Tigers’ running game.
A 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior, Etienne ran for more than 1,600 yards last season, but he’s been a little slow to get going as of late.
Since erupting for 205 yards in the Tigers’ opener, Etienne hasn’t run for more than 76 yards in any of the games since.
Still, the Seminoles don’t need a lesson in how dangerous he is. He had a quiet day in Tallahassee a year ago (10 carries, 45 yards), but struck for 113 total yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in 2017.
“You see that open gap, he’s going to hit it full-speed,” FSU defensive tackle Marvin Wilson said. “We’re going to have to be in our gaps. Everybody has to play sound football.”
Added Gainer: “He’s a play maker. So we have to make sure we’re all disciplined in our assignments and just keep doing what we’ve been doing and being dominant and running to the ball.”
Clemson’s passing game is a little more complicated.
Talented as he is, Lawrence has been criticized nationally for underperforming this season relative to expectations.
After five games, Lawrence ranks fifth in the ACC in average passing yards (226.2, two spots behind FSU’s James Blackman), and his 143.68 passer rating is 54th-best in the country.
And while Lawrence hasn’t been sacked much – the Tigers have allowed just four sacks this season – he has been pressured often. Sometimes, Lawrence can use his legs to evade that pressure and create positive yardage, but it’s also led to a decrease in his accuracy (61.8 percent, from 65.2 in 2018) and an increase in interceptions (five, after throwing just four in all of last season).
So, for an FSU pass rush that has notched 17 sacks, but will also be without starting edge rusher Janarius Robinson for the first half, the directive is clear. Especially given that, according to reports released Wednesday, Lawrence has been dealing this season with a bruised shoulder.
“Definitely,” Gainer said. “The less time you have to throw the ball, it gives you less time to think about what you’re trying to do.”
Finally, FSU’s secondary, particularly cornerbacks Asante Samuel Jr. and Stanford Samuels III, will likely be in for a busy afternoon as they tangle with the big-bodied Higgins (6-foot-4, 216 pounds) and Ross (6-4, 205).
Less production for Lawrence has meant less production for his receivers, but the two have each had big impacts at times this season, and Higgins in particular had a big hand in last year’s win over the Seminoles (six catches, 62 yards, two touchdowns).
“It’s understood throughout the locker room,” said Samuels, when asked about the challenge of facing Clemson’s receivers.
“We know it’s a great opportunity, a great opportunity for our football team and a great opportunity for us.”