Facing third and one on the opening drive Saturday against Miami, Jimbo Fisher[db] and the FSU offense dispensed with trickery. No shovel passes, screens or misdirection - just James Wilder powering behind Josue Matias [/db] for five yards to keep the chains moving.
It happened again on the same drive, with third and goal from the one: Wilder churning through tacklers for a touchdown. All told, FSU converted six of six times on third and 3 or shorter, and five times with straight-ahead running. For the entire game, FSU finished 11-15 in third down conversions.
"We were great on third down," Fisher said. "But we were in third and manageable situations a lot. He (Jameis Winston) scrambled for a long one and we may have hit one third-and-10 or third-and-nine, but most of them were third-and-two or less. We were able to be physical with the offensive line, tight end and fullback and being able to run the football right up in there which is critical."
That's a change from 2012 to now. In the past, Florida State skewed towards passing in third and short situations. In 2012, the Seminoles rushed 21 times and passed 19 times on third and 3 or shorter. The results were unspectacular. FSU converted half of the time on third and 3 or shorter despite averaging 7 yards per play - and just 48 percent of the time when running.
In 2013, Florida State has trusted the running game to get tough yards. In 20 attempts on third and 3 or shorter this season, FSU has run 14 times and passed just six times. The Seminoles have converted 65 percent of the time on third and short this season and converted 65 percent of the time. Fisher attributed the increase to his improved faith in the FSU offensive line, which so far has proven to be rock solid in run blocking as one of the most experienced units in the country.
"You always put it on the offensive line, like the quarterback, a lot of times there's missed cuts or missed runs or misreads," Fisher said. "Just like a quarterback, there might be a guy wide open and you misread the play or a guy drops a ball. He can miss a cut and I think our backs are being truly more accountable and more dependable on a down end and down up especially on those critical play calls."
Fullback Chad Abram said the offseason saw a renewed focus from Fisher on being physical in short-yardage situations. FSU has also implemented a jumbo package with defensive linemen like Jacobbi McDaniel as a fullback - and used that package on one of Wilder's touchdowns. Not only that, but Abrams' backup at fullback is former linebacker freshman Freddie Stevenson, who was moved to offense to give even more heft to a powerful running game.
"Jimbo always talks about changing the attitude," Abram said. "As soon as you get in a third and short you've got to change your attitude. You can't stop. Whenever we were presented with third and short we change dour attitude with just we will not be out-physicaled."
A number of factors contribute to FSU's stronger running game in 2013: a more experienced offensive line, a trio of powerful running backs and a passing game that rarely allows FSU to face third and short situations. But, at least on Saturday, the biggest bonus was the return of Wilder to the backfield after missing the previous game with a concussion.
Wilder ran for four of Saturday's third-and-short conversions in his return and rushed for his first multi-score game this season.
"That's what we've been waiting for," Abram said. "I hope we see more of that."
It hasn't been an easy season for Wilder, who has missed several games with injury, first to his shoulder and then with a concussion. Wilder's also lost carries to backfield addition Karlos Williams and he saw a promising start at Clemson cut short when he suffered a concussion. So far, he's got 50 carries for 268 yards this season - far from the breakout year he was hoping for, but with a respectable 5.36 yards per carry average. He has solidified himself as a powerful option in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
"He and Karlos (Williams) are those big-bodied guys that can hit it up in there," Fisher said. "James has done it a lot of times and has been in those situations and is very physical in those points of attack around the goal line."
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