The Daily Nole

FSU’s Biggest Questions vs. Syracuse

Mitch White/FSU athletics

The first road game of the 2018 season for Florida State football will kick off at noon EST on Saturday. The Seminoles head to New York for a fairly unpredictable match-up with the Syracuse Orange, who have started off their season 2-0 with a dynamite offense.

Florida State can’t say the same. Willie Taggart’s start in Tallahassee has been mired by both injuries and unexpectedly poor performances, leading to a 1-1 record with no one feeling confident in his team. Will that change after Saturday? It’s hard to say, given that Syracuse has yet to face a Power 5 opponent and FSU looked below average in its one qualifying contest.

We’ll be looking for answers to these three questions during the game.

What’s the Plan for Eric Dungey?

Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey provides a new twist for the FSU defense. While he might not be the passer that Devlin Hodges was, Dungey is by far the most explosive dual-threat the Seminoles have faced yet and will likely remain so throughout the season. He’s a juggernaut of a runner who forces a defense to try and contain him on the ground. He’s also no slouch as a thrower, and if the past two contests are any indication, FSU can expect to lose some of the battles down the field.

How will defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett plan to defend him? Barnett showed impressive adjustment ability vs. Samford, completely shutting down its offense in the second half and instituting multiple looks involving a variety of players. Some of it was to get them experience in a game, but it also functioned as a response to what Samford was giving. If one had to guess, he’ll probably go back to keeping his safeties closer to the line and instructing the defensive ends to play contain.

Can FSU Turn Explosive Plays Into Scores?

The Syracuse defense allowed Western Michigan to come back in Week 1 because it kept giving up explosive plays. It took the Broncos less than 10 minutes of game time to score on four of five possessions, with their scoring plays averaging 43 yards. That’s a legitimate weakness of the Orange defense that FSU can exploit.

Not many would describe FSU’s offense as “explosive” at the moment. There’s still some indications that it’s starting to come together in the passing game, with guys like Tamorrion Terry, Nyqwan Murray, and Tre’ McKitty routinely getting opportunities down the field. It hasn’t always been successful — in fact it fails more often than it works — but some of it can be chalked up to getting comfortable in the new system. If the Seminoles’ offense wants to be able to keep them in the game, it’ll require converting those types of plays into touchdowns. There’s no one on Syracuse’s defense who can continuously cover them for a full game.

Which Offensive Line Combination Will Be Chosen?

FSU has now experimented with at least eight different line combinations since the season opener. Much of that was necessitated by injuries, though it was also apparent that some players were pulled for bad play. That’s reasonable against Virginia Tech. It’s not a good sign against Samford.

There’s one silver lining from Saturday. On the final drive of the game, FSU’s offensive line did very well in pass protection and created holes for the running backs. The combination on the field for that crucial moment, from left tackle to right tackle: Brady Scott, Cole Minshew, Alec Eberle, Mike Arnold, Derrick Kelly. That’s a completely different line than what we first saw against the Hokies. Yet it worked well, and given both Landon Dickerson’s injury with Jauan Williams’ struggles, it might be what the Seminoles unveil against Syracuse.

Brady Scott was surprisingly capable at tackle and Minshew finally started to get into a rhythm. If those two can anchor the left side, FSU’s offense could start to see rapid improvement.

Can the Running Backs Break Out?

This is contingent on the aforementioned offensive line factor. If the line does look better against Syracuse, it’s really hard to see a way for FSU to win without having a run game. Quarterback Deondre Francois has played up to expectations so far, yet he’s never been forced to carry an offense like he was against Samford. Syracuse probably isn’t the right time to figure out whether he can do it against a Power 5 opponent.

Running back Khalan Laborn’s injury means it’s back to Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers for the main reps, with Amir Rasul and Anthony Grant rotating in. At some point, the offense is going to require one of these players to capitalize on a weak Syracuse defense. Whether that means the offense has to put them in space or if they simply have to hit the holes created for them, the Seminoles need to figure out this dimension to their offense.

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