TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Through three games, Florida State's defense has shown signs of improvement. That will need to continue going into the toughest part of its schedule.
Following this week's bye, the 10th-ranked Seminoles will play nine straight games including hosting Miami on Oct. 9 and trips to Georgia Tech (Oct. 24) and Clemson (Nov. 7). Should Florida State win the Atlantic Division for the fourth straight year, it would be 10 straight.
"We've been preparing for it the whole offseason. That's why we practice the way we do," linebacker Terrance Smith said. "It's nothing that we can't handle. We'll be ready for it."
The Seminoles had to hear all offseason about their defensive lapses last year. After having a dominant unit during the national championship season of 2013, the Seminoles had five games last year where they allowed 30 or more points and allowed opponents to average nearly 400 yards per game. The pass rush was non-existent as it had just 17 sacks, which was the lowest since 2001.
After last Friday's 14-0 win at Boston College, Florida State is sixth in the nation in scoring defense with 30 points allowed. They have allowed only seven the past six quarters and posted the program's first road shutout since 2003.
Many have wondered if defensive coordinator Charles Kelly has changed certain schemes, but safety Nate Andrews said it is more about players taking more responsibility.
"We decided that we want to run to the ball and not give up on plays," Andrews added. "If we give up a 10-yard run we're mad about it. We just want to stop teams and we're going into the game like we need to stop this guy. We need to stop this team. We still run the same plays. We just run to the ball now."
The biggest noticeable improvement has been a consistent pass rush. The Seminoles have six sacks in their first three games, which in turn has led to a big decrease in big plays. In wins over Texas State, South Florida and Boston College, Florida State allowed only four pass plays of 20 yards or more, which is tied for 10th in the nation. Last season they allowed 51, which tied for 116th.
Coach Jimbo Fisher said he's been pleased with the pass rush because it has come from a variety of different packages and the quarterback hasn't been sitting in the pocket.
"We've got a multitude of guys with athleticism that can blitz but sometimes we have gotten coverage sacks too. Hopefully we'll continue to grow into it," Fisher said.
The pressure and lack from giving up big plays has gotten Florida State off the field quicker. Opponents have converted only 10 of 45 third-down opportunities. Last year it was 43.9 percent. Of 39 drives this season, Florida State has forced 14 three-and-outs.
"It's going to be important for us (the rest of the season) to win that third down with the regular in the game and nickel and dime and stuff like that instead of bringing in an exotic package to be able to convert," defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample said.
With seven starters back from last year's unit, the Seminoles also have more depth than last year. The biggest proof of that is on the defensive line where the starters are no longer playing 90 percent of the snaps and there is a rotation that is often eight deep. Senior Giorgio Newberry has been an early surprise with seven tackles, including two for loss.
The upcoming stretch though will prove how much Florida State has improved on pass defense. After facing spread offenses the first two games and a running team in BC, the Seminoles start to face more traditional passing games starting Oct. 3 at Wake Forest.
It was also in last season's fourth game against North Carolina State that the defense began to struggle. The Seminoles allowed 520 yards and 41 points to the Wolfpack, which was an indicator of things to come.
"We're not close to being as good as we can be. We've got nine games can show everyone we are capable of," said cornerback Marquez White, who had an interception against Boston College. "We feel like we can be the defense like we were with the championship team."
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org