The Daily Nole

FSU Football: UNC Offers Chance to Build on Stellar Rushing Performance

wlpearce.com/FSU athletics

After a rushing performance for the ages against South Florida last week, Saturday’s game at North Carolina might be a golden opportunity for Florida State to keep that momentum going.

It’s been well-documented that North Carolina has been terrible when it comes to stopping the run early this season. The Tar Heels rank 120th against the run this season when it comes to yards per game and just 105th in fewest yards per attempt allowed.

After being largely stifled on the ground against Louisville, FSU is coming off one of the best rushing efforts in school-history as the Seminoles put up 478 yards rushing as a team in a 55-35 victory over USF. Junior running back Dalvin Cook tallied a career-high 267 yards on the ground while sophomore Jacques Patrick eclipsed the 100-yard mark rushing for just the second time in his career.

The Seminoles also got contributions on the ground from redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois, who rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries and fullback Freddie Stevenson, who scored twice.

Cook entered the season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, but was largely contained through the early parts of the year. After the second-best rushing effort in FSU history last week, Cook ranks eighth nationally in rushing yards and is slowly working himself back into that conversation.

Perhaps the biggest benefit for Florida State is that Cook doesn’t have to carry the burden by himself — a nice change from 2015. Patrick seems to be running with the power that coaches had hoped to see and has emerged as a legitimate No. 2 back behind Cook. Over the last three weeks, Patrick has 229 yards rushing on 32 carries — a 7.2 yards per carry average — and a pair of touchdowns.

Head coach Jimbo Fisher has also started to utilize Francois as a runner. Whether that has to do with the simple need to diversify the ground game or redshirt senior Sean Maguire being fully healthy behind him, Francois’ rushing yards are coming on more than just scrambles. Excluding sacks, Francois is averaging 8.2 yards per carry with 197 yards rushing on 24 attempts.

Adding Stevenson to the mix in short yardage situations is just another body for defenses to have to account for. Not to be lost in the mix is the changes up front as freshman Landon Dickerson and redshirt sophomore Brock Ruble have replaced guard Wilson Bell and tackle Rick Leonard on the right side of the offensive line.

For North Carolina, failing to stop the run is nothing new. The Tar Heels were terrorized on the ground late last season with Clemson and Baylor combining to rush for nearly 1,000 yards in the final two games. Through four games this season, North Carolina has yielded fewer than 200 yards rushing just once and has allowed an opposing rusher to go for more than 100 yards in every contest this season.

“They’ve played good teams that can run the football,” said Fisher during Wednesday’s ACC teleconference. “They’ve very sound in everything they do. (UNC defensive coordinator) Gene (Chizik) is a very good coach.”

It’s true that the Tar Heels have faced good backs. To open the season, Georgia’s Nick Chubb rushed for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Last week, North Carolina held Pittsburgh’s James Conner to just 66 yards, but receiver Quadree Henderson ran for 107 yards on nine carries.

The fact that FSU now has at least three viable options in the ground game makes the Seminoles that much more dangerous to North Carolina. After seeing how Henderson had success, it’s possible that the Seminoles could try to get a speed receiver like Kermit Whitfield, Jesus Wilson or Nyqwan Murray in the mix as well.

Talent however, might not be the reason for North Carolina’s struggles in stopping the run. Nazair Jones is one of ACC’s best interior linemen while fellow defensive tackle Jalen Dalton is a former 4-star recruit. At linebacker however, the Tar Heels are still relatively young.

No matter what the rationale for UNC’s deficiency is, exploiting that weakness will be key to getting the victory for FSU on Saturday. North Carolina likely will gear up to stop the run and when it does, Francois will need to take advantage against a good UNC secondary and keep the Tar Heels honest.

Going back to last season, North Carolina has allowed more than 200 yards rushing in six of its last seven games. The Seminoles have never lost under Fisher when eclipsing that mark.

Mike Ferguson is the editor of The Daily Nole. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson

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