Defense has keyed Seminoles’ turnaround

Florida State’s defensive players were frustrated. Five games into the season, the Seminoles had allowed 35.4 points per game.

The defense was supposed to be a strength of a team that had playoff aspirations. And instead it was the main reason for a 3-2 start that left the Seminoles on the brink of sliding out of the top 25.

But the defensive turnaround in the Past five games has been remarkable. Behind a nasty defensive line and an improving secondary, the Seminoles have allowed just 17.8 points per game — half the total from the first five games.

No. 18 FSU (7-3, 4-3 ACC) had one of its best defensive efforts of the season in a 45-7 rout of Boston College on Friday night. The Seminoles held BC to just 71 offensive yards until a final drive against FSU’s backups that went 75 yards for the Eagles’ only touchdown.

“We pressured the quarterback,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We covered very tightly. Played great leverage on the football.”

FSU’s last shutout came in 2015, a 14-0 win at BC. And the Seminoles nearly did it again, forcing BC to go three-and-out on nine consecutive drives.

The past two weeks, FSU had struggled on third downs. NC State nearly upset FSU by converting 8 of 16 third-down opportunities, and the prior week Clemson was 7 of 17. But FSU held BC to just 1 of 12 on third-down conversions.

“It just gives you more confidence, lets you know we can be that defense that shuts them out no matter what,” junior linebacker Ro’Derrick Hoskins said. “Go out there, stopping the run, making them pass, stopping the pass.”

FSU is also applying more pressure on quarterbacks than earlier in the season. The Seminoles had three sacks Friday, lifting their total to 33 and surpassing FSU’s 2015 output (32 sacks) with two regular-season games and a bowl to play.

Senior DeMarcus Walker had a half sack, giving him 11 on the season and 23.5 sacks in his career. But the sacks this season have been coming from everywhere: six players have at least two sacks, including freshman defensive end Brian Burns (5.5) and junior defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi (4.5).

Nnadi said the Seminoles were pushing for a shutout, but by that point Fisher had substituted liberally and was giving opportunities for second- and third-teamers to play.

“All we were saying was, ‘It’s our end zone. It’s our end zone. We have to make a statement,’ “ Nnadi said. “Throughout the season, we’ve had problems. We just had to stay focused on our technique. Just finish it.”

The Seminoles didn’t start the season like they wanted. But the team still has significant goals in sight — defeating Syracuse to finish the ACC schedule and then Florida to wrap up a “state title.” Then there’s the opportunity to play in a second-tier bowl game, and potentially a 10-win season.

And FSU can credit the defensive turnaround for the strong finish.

“They all have grown, because they’re learning how to prepare and practice,” Fisher said. “They’re learning to play the game mentally and psychologically the way you want to play it.”

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