TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State’s running game is largely defined by Dalvin Cook, but with the emergence of other players the Seminoles are showing they might have one of the deepest ground games in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The 12th-ranked Seminoles are third in the ACC and 22nd in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 244.8 yards per game. They gained 478 yards in last Saturday’s win over South Florida, which was just a yard off the school record.
The ground game resurgence could bode well for FSU (3-1, 0-1 ACC) on Saturday as it faces a North Carolina defense that is last in the conference in rushing defense.
“I hope we can keep it going like that, and you can rotate those guys that much,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “That allows us to control the clock, control the ball, move the ball, do the things we need to do.”
Through the first four games, the Seminoles are running the ball 58.5 percent of the time, which would be a highest percentage in Fisher’s seven years as coach. From 2010-15, the run percentage was 52.3 percent.
Most of the focus remains on Cook, who is coming off a career-best 267 yards against USF.
The junior said he laughed when some wondered why he didn’t have a 100-yard game the first three weeks. He also added that last week’s game put some questions about any injuries to rest.
“People get caught up in the stats. There’s nothing wrong with me,” he said. “I know the runs I make on the practice field. The first three games we were one man or one trip away from a long run.”
While Cook has emerged as more of a receiving threat out of the backfield, other players have stepped up in the ground game to keep Cook’s touches at a manageable level.
Jacques Patrick is averaging 6.2 yards per carry and is coming off his second career 100-yard game. The sophomore has emerged as a more physical runner compared to last year and has done a better job of breaking tackles.
Patrick also credited Cook for helping him develop into a better player.
“I feel like I complement him well,” Patrick said. “He goes out there and gashes the defense. And I gash the defense too, that makes it easier for him. That’s the biggest thing.”
Freshman Deondre Francois has been used more on read options the past couple of weeks as he matures more as a dual-threat quarterback. His 38-yard run against USF was the longest running touchdown by a Florida State QB in eight years.
Fullback Freddie Stevenson has also gotten more into the mix. The senior came into the season with just 12 carries and a touchdown but already has seven carries and three scores in the three games he has played.
That has all translated to Cook carrying the ball on just 43.1 percent of the Seminoles’ run plays. Last year in the 12 games he played, Cook’s number was called on 58.6 percent of those plays.
Besides the depth in backs, the offensive line has started to gain more consistency in run blocking and resembles the unit they were last year. Center Alec Eberle is hoping the confidence they gained last week can carry over to the rest of the season.
“It’s awesome to know that at any moment we can run the ball or pick it up and pass it,” he said. “It gives us a good confidence boost and it gives the o-line a confidence boost after all the turmoil and adversity we’ve been through as an o-line, struggling at first, going out there and putting up 400 yards is pretty big.”
After facing Georgia’s Nick Chubb in the opener and Pittsburgh’s James Conner last week, North Carolina (3-1, 1-0) faces another talented run game on Saturday. The Tar Heels are allowing 240.2 rushing yards per game, which is second-worst among Power Five conference teams.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said Florida State is the deepest running attack they have faced because of what Francois can do behind center.
Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik added Cook is different from the other backs they have faced because of his speed.
“He’s got really good vision, not that the other two don’t, but he makes really good jump cuts and cuts on a dime,” Chizik said. “He’s powerful when he needs to be powerful. He’s very fast when he gets in the open field and he’s got great vision and makes very elusive, quick cuts.”