TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – For as forward-thinking as their offenses are – Florida State’s hurry-up and North Carolina State’s spread – Saturday’s game between the Seminoles and Wolfpack might have a bit of an old-style feel to it.
At least as much as can be in 2019.
Because while both FSU and NC State run offenses that would’ve been hard to imagine a few generations ago, they both have also found identities based on the most fundamental of football philosophies: Run the ball on offense, stop the run on defense.
Both schools feature run-focused attacks – FSU with Cam Akers and NC State with a three-pronged committee. And both have defenses that have been effective at slowing down their opposition’s running backs. The Wolfpack rank 14th nationally in run defense (76.5 yards per game), and while the Seminoles don’t have the same place in the national standings (78th; 159.0), they’ve shown big strides in their last two games.
In those two contests, against Virginia and Louisville, FSU allowed an average of 122.0 rushing yards (that average would be tied for 45th in the country) while holding the Cavaliers more than 50 yards below their season average and the Cardinals almost 140 yards beneath theirs.
So there’s reason to feel encouraged.
“That’s the first goal of every defense in the country,” FSU defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “High school, college, pro, Pee Wee – you’ve got to stop the run…. Our guys have been really working to get better at it by being in their gaps, doing what they’re supposed to do and fundamentally getting it done.”
The Seminoles passed a big test last week when they limited Louisville, which came into the game averaging 260 rushing yards, to a paltry 124 and 2.6 yards per carry.
And they’ll get another measuring stick on Saturday, when they line up across from an NC State group that’s nearly as effective as Louisville’s – 830 total rushing yards, 5.1 yards per carry and 11 rushing touchdowns.
The Wolfpack doesn’t have a single back in the ACC’s top-10 rushers, but has three – Zonovan Knight, Ricky Person Jr. and Jordan Houston – among the league’s top 25.
“Definitely,” FSU defensive tackle Cory Durden said, when asked if he was looking forward to facing NC State’s ground game. “As a defensive lineman, everybody wants to rush the passer, but stopping the run is also another part of the game that’s fun. Especially with our position, because that’s how you get tackles.”
On the other side, there won’t be any questions about who will lead FSU’s rushing efforts.
Akers, Akers and more Akers.
The junior, in the midst of a career year, has accounted for more than 80 percent of FSU’s sack-adjusted rushing totals, and, more than that, has shown himself to be the Seminoles’ most reliable performer on offense.
He of course leads FSU in rushing but also has scored eight of the team’s 18 touchdowns while also getting involved in the passing game.
“Their tailback’s really the guy,” NC State coach Dave Doeren told reporters earlier this week. “Not to take anything away from the receiving corps, because they’re outstanding. But Cam Akers is a really good football player.”
Akers all but carried the Seminoles to wins over ULM (193 yards, two touchdowns) and Louisville (112, three), and he was stopped a few yards short of the goal line on the last play at Virginia.
So NC State expects a heavy dose of him on Saturday.
“All three downs, he’s effective and efficient,” Doeren said. “He can run over you, he can make you miss, he’s good after contact.”
While the national leaderboards might suggest the Wolfpack’s defense has an edge on Saturday, a closer look reveals a more complicated picture.
Yes, NC State has been stingy on the ground, but it also surrendered 173 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 44-27 loss at West Virginia two weeks ago.
By and large, NC State’s gaudy statistics were built on impressive efforts against East Carolina (41 rushing yards), Western Carolina (eight) and Ball State (84).
Still, FSU coach Willie Taggart believes he’ll see a tough, aggressive defensive front from FSU’s next opponent.
“They’re very aggressive, trying to get after you,” he said. “So, we’ve got to be sharp at what we’re doing and, when we have opportunities, we’ve got to take advantage of them.”
Odds and ends …