October 17, 2013

FSU's veteran offensive line in for test of the season

Before the start of the season, Florida State's offensive line was ballyhooed as potentially one of the most experienced and best in recent memory.

Time to put your money where your mouth is.

FSU's offensive line has been rock solid in protection so far this season. It's paved the way for 228 rushing yards per game and kept Jameis Winston protected. Up next is Clemson, who leads the nation in sacks per game and features defensive end Vic Beasley, the nation's individual sack leader with nine already. Left tackle Cameron Erving made no bones about Clemson's talent up front.

"This is the best defensive line we've played up to this point," Erving said. "We don't' look at it any different. We want to play well and move the ball on our opponent, but at the same time we have to play things a little different because we're used to playing lines that aren't as effective rushing the passer or if they are they don't play well stopping the run. These guys do both really well."

That's something strange since Clemson's defensive line is essentially the same group Florida State shoved around the field last season in Tallahassee. In that game, FSU piled up 303 yards on the ground and 667 yards of total offense. But multiple FSU linemen say Clemson's shown tremendous improvement from then to now.

"They play hard, play with a motor and play with technique," Erving said. "These are the same guys we played last year but they've developed and gotten better. We want to come out and run the ball and communicate."

Chief among the improved is Beasley, who came off the bench last season but has taken opposing tackles by storm as a speedy defensive end. Erving said he's been impressed with what he's seen of Beasley so far on film.

"You have to block this guy twice," Erving said. "Where be beats some guys on is that his first move may not work. But he's countering just as fast as his first move is missing. He's improved a lot since last year."

Clemson isn't the first team to test Florida State's offensive line: Maryland also led the country in sacks before playing the Seminoles. Against FSU, the Terrapins only got one sack. And Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has been equally effusive with his praise of FSU's offensive line as those players are of Clemson.

"The offensive line is easily the best, most athletic that we've played," Swinney said. "Very physical, very well-coached. They do a great job with those guys."

Swinney's point underscores FSU's own progression on its offensive line. The Seminole front five have gone from being the frequent brunt of criticism last season to a stalwart unit in 2013. Instead of worrying about how they'll handle the pressure and intensity of a hostile environment at Clemson, the linemen say they're looking forward to the experience. As Bobby Hart said, there aren't many blitz packages this group of linemen haven't seen.

"I'm really loking forward to going out and playing those guys," Erving said. "It's going to be a great environment. Some of the best colleges in the country don't get to play games of this magnitude."

Clemson doesn't bring the same kitchen-sink approach to blitzes that Maryland and Boston College found success with against Florida State, but the Tiger rely on the front four to generate most of the pressure. They've been wildly effective so far. Not only does Clemson lead the country in sacks and tackles for loss, but that pressure has consistently forced quarterbacks into bad or hurried throws. Clemson already has 10 picks on the season.

Even as Clemson struggled against Boston College last week, the Tigers' defensive line showed why. Three of Clemson's five sacks came in the fourth quarter of a close game with Boston College trying to find a late score. The stops gave Clemson's offense enough time to find a few critical late points to secure the win.

And while Clemson's defensive line is on paper more talented and more tested than any FSU has seen so far, the Seminole offensive linemen say they look forward to the challenge.

"With us, it's definitely a competitiveness that we want to be good in that aspect," Bobby Hart said. "It's going to mean a lot to us. … That they feel like they can just send four and get there, we take pride in that - not just with them with anybody - not giving up sacks. We're getting up for the challenge."

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