FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – When Charles Kelly studies the offense that Jim Harbaugh has built at Michigan, he sees a balanced, pro-style attack that can operate out of a myriad of different formations.
He also sees the legacy of Harbaugh’s father, Jack, in almost every play.
Kelly first crossed paths with Jack Harbaugh in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Kelly was an assistant at Jacksonville State and Harbaugh the head coach at Western Kentucky.
As the patriarch of one of football’s most famous families with more than 50 years spent as either a player or coach, Harbaugh left a lasting impression.
“He was one of the guys, when I first got in the business, that all young coaches looked up to,” Kelly said Tuesday. “And you can see some of the plays that (Jim Harbaugh) runs, you can see the influence of his father. Maybe not in the exact same way they line up, but the plays that they run.”
Perhaps Kelly and the Seminoles can glean a bit of an advantage from that familiarity when they face the Wolverines in the Capital One Orange Bowl on Friday.
Kelly expects a test either way.
While Michigan’s second-ranked defense garners most of the attention, the Wolverines quietly sport a potent offense that’s can do damage in a variety of ways.
In Jim Harbaugh’s second year at the helm, Michigan is averaging more than 40 points per game – ahead of College Football Playoff participants Alabama and Clemson – and has achieved near-perfect balance: The Wolverines this season have racked up 2,679 rushing yards and 2,593 passing yards.
“To me, it’s a true pro-style offense,” Kelly said. “(Harbaugh) does a good job of changing personnel groupings, changing formations, making you find certain guys at certain times. … They use a lot of different players. I think that’s the thing that stood out to me the most: how many different players that he uses to create plays.”
Florida State, however, should field one of the better defenses that Michigan has played this season.
The Wolverines have faced six teams that rank in the top 25 in total defense, including No. 4 Ohio State and No. 7 Wisconsin. But they’ve also lined up across from 112th-ranked Hawaii, 95th-ranked Rutgers and 74th-ranked Maryland.
Thanks to a startling midseason turnaround, Florida State has climbed to No. 29 in the total defense rankings (up from 94th after five games) and is allowing an average of 357.2 yards per game and 5.45 yards per play.
Asked to compare the Seminoles to a defense he’s seen this year, Michigan receiver Amarah Darboh said, “Maybe the Ohio State defense, but you don’t really know until you play them. I think Florida State is kind of similar to theirs.”
That’s pretty good company, and fairly remarkable, given the way this season began.
After five games, Kelly’s group found itself in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, when, in the face of injuries and matchups against some of college football’s top offenses, the Seminoles started out 3-2.
FSU allowed an average of 41.75 points per game to its first four FBS opponents and, along the way, endured a 63-20 loss at Louisville and a 37-35 defeat at home to North Carolina.
Making matters worse were season-ending injuries to starting safeties Derwin James and Nate Andrews, which pushed a wave of less-experienced players into action.
Safe to say, then, that early October wasn’t always a fun time to be Florida State’s defensive coordinator. But, despite facing criticism that seemed to grow louder by the week, Kelly refused to fold.
“It’s easy to say this, but it is true: You have to control the things you can control, and you can’t worry about the things you can’t control,” Kelly said, echoing one of head coach Jimbo Fisher’s favorite sayings.
“What you can control is how hard you work. And your job is to develop players and to develop players within your system. That’s the things that we can control.”
On Oct. 8, the Seminoles took their 3-2 record to Miami for a game that, one way or another, figured to be a turning point for the season.
And it was. FSU allowed just 19 points in a 20-19 victory that sparked a 6-1 finish to the season.
Although the defense had a few missteps in that game, it also produced the play that might have saved the season, when senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker blocked an extra-point attempt that would have tied the game late in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore cornerback Tarvarus McFadden also had an interception in the end zone that kept the Seminoles in striking distance when Miami threatened to open a big lead.
“We faced many obstacles throughout the season,” Walker said. “But we self-evaluated, we didn’t go into our shell. We got better after the Miami game every single week after that.”
“It was a situation,” Kelly added, “where we basically had our backs to the wall and said, ‘You’ve got to make a decision on how we want this season to turn out.’”
With a 17-6 win over Wake Forest the next week, it appeared that the decision had been made.
Led by a blistering pass rush, FSU allowed more than 20 points just once in its last seven games. And in their final three games of the regular season, the Seminoles gave up just three offensive touchdowns.
“Coach Kelly lit a fire up under us,” safety Trey Marshall said. “He basically said if you’re not going to produce, you’re not going to play. That made everybody look at themselves in the mirror.”
Added junior defensive lineman Derrick Nnadi, “That’s our coach. Win or lose, we’re going to ride with him, no matter what. I understand everyone has their opinions. But he’s been with us since before anyone knew about us. He’s the man who cares about his players. So we’re going to follow him.”
With their second-half renaissance all but complete, the Seminoles can say they have a defense worthy of their predecessors.
Although that slow start still has FSU in the middle of the pack in some major team categories, the Seminoles can still lay claim to the nation’s highest sack total (47), as well as the country’s leading pass-rusher (Walker, with 15 sacks in 12 games) and interceptor (Tarvarus McFadden, eight in 12 games).
Their reward, aside from their own personal satisfaction, is a date with the Wolverines in the Orange Bowl. And one more chance to show a national audience that the way a team starts speaks far less to its character than the way it finishes.
“It’s easy to do things when things are going good,” Kelly said. “But being able to fight through adversity, that tells you a lot about the character of the players on this team.”