In 2013, Jameis Winston and Florida State came into Death Valley and ran up and down the field on the Clemson defense. Winston threw for 444 yards on 22 of 34 passing and three touchdowns in a 51-14 victory for the Seminoles.
It’s a night Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables would like to forget. However, that night has motivated Venables and his Clemson defense. The Tigers have since become one of the nation’s best units, and in each of the last two meetings with the Seminoles, they had the upper hand.
“We have a better grasp on both sides, them as players, coaches and then of me. We have developed a culture. We have recruited better and we have more quality depth,” Venables said. “But year to year, everything changes so we are in a different place, but so are they.”
At least in the last two meetings, the Tigers defensively have been in a better place than the ‘Noles. Two years ago, with a suspended Winston on the sidelines, Clemson pushed around the ‘Noles, limiting them to 13 rushing yards, including minus-12 in regulation. They also sacked backup quarterback Sean Maguire five times.
Florida State gained just 317 total yards and was just 4-of-15 on third down conversions.
Last year, Clemson did not push the Seminoles around as badly, but they were just 2-of-12 on third down, had just 14 first downs and threw for just 164 yards in the Tigers’ 23-13 victory.
“Brent does a tremendous job,” Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He’s multiple looks, multiple personnel, uses his people very well, pressure at times, doesn’t pressure. He’s very smart with how he does things and they have very good players.”
But the 14th-ranked Seminoles, who No. 3 Clemson visits on Saturday (8 p.m. on ABC), do too. In particular running back Dalvin Cook and quarterback Deondre Francois, who have helped FSU have the ACC’s third best offense from a statistical standpoint. The Seminoles are averaging 484.7 yards and 34.9 points per game.
“Florida State is very talented and well coached. They have been there and have done that,” Venables said. “They have done remarkably well when their backs have been against the wall and when they figure out how we are playing them, they have answers.”
After opening the year with a sluggish start, FSU’s answer has been to give the football to Cook, its talented running back, who is considered by some to be the best overall running back in college football. Cook ranks second in the ACC, and leads all running back in rushing, with 900 yards.
In the first three weeks of the season, he averaged a staggering 76.0 yards per game. However, in the last four weeks, his touches have increased and Cook has eclipsed the century mark all four times and is averaging 168.0 yards per game.
The Tigers are very familiar with Cook’s ability. He opened last year’s game with a 75-yard touchdown run on the game’s second play and then added a 45-yarder on the next series. Clemson eventually slowed him down, but he finished the game with 194 yards on 21 carries.
“He is just very talented, instinctual, explosive, patient and physical. He has a great change up to him,” Venables said.
Clemson also has to worry about Cook’s ability to catch the ball in the screen game as well. Fisher loves to call screens and finds many ways to get the ball in Cook’s hands. The junior has 21 receptions for another 356 yards. Overall, he has eight touchdowns (7 rushing, 1 receiving). He leads the ACC by averaging 179.4 all-purpose yards per game.
“They have a good scheme that I think suits his style,” Venables said. “He can catch the ball. He can block and he is a great threat in the throwing game. They will try to isolate him in space, whether it is with the wheel routes, swing passes or angle routes, screens and the toss sweep, the zone read, all of that. He is very good. He is a very good player.”
So is Francois. Though he is a freshman, he is mature for his age. He has thrown for 1,876 yards, while completing 62.4 percent of his passes. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Francois is also very tough. He has been sacked 21 times this year, and knocked down even more, but he gets back up and leads his team down the field.
“That is invaluable. You see his character. You see his toughness. You see his leadership. All of that comes through,” Venables said. “Watching the tapes and watching the TV games, he is pretty special. He has an incredible future in front of him.”
The Tigers are just hoping that future does not begin until after Saturday night.