At noon tomorrow the 9th ranked Florida State Seminoles will face the 18th ranked Houston Cougars in the Chic-Fila Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome. The Seminoles are favored coming into the matchup, but the AAC champion Cougars are coming into this game looking to make a statement.
Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. for Houston has been a huge playmaker. Ward is the heart and soul of Houston’s offense as he has amassed 2590 yards through the air, 1041 yards on the ground, and 35 total touchdowns on the season. Ward is an explosive player so FSU must be careful when attacking him. Look for FSU to attempt to keep Ward in the pocket and apply pressure up the middle. In yesterday’s press conference, FSU defensive coordinator Charles Kelly and cornerback Jalen Ramsey compared Ward to both Tevin Washington of Georgia Tech and Lamar Jackson of Louisville. Despite losing to Georgia Tech, the Noles had success against both of the aforementioned quarterbacks and have faced several other mobile passers throughout the season. Ward however, might be the most dynamic threat at quarterback FSU has faced since seeing Marcus Mariota in the Rose Bowl the past season. It will be paramount for defensive ends Josh Sweat and DeMarcus Walker to not over extend themselves and to keep Ward contained, while defensive tackles Derrick Nnadi, Niles Lawrence-Stample, and company apply pressure up the middle. The safeties and linebackers will also have to have eye discipline to determine whether Ward has the ball or not and to avoid being sucked in on play-action.
Houston offensive coordinator Major Applewhite loves to use his dual-threat quarterback to help create big play opportunities for his other offensive weapons. Cougars’ running back Kenneth Farrow was the starter for most of the season, gaining 949 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns. However, after he and backup tailback Ryan Jackson suffered injuries, cornerback Brandon Wilson switched positions and rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns on only 33 carries in Houston’s last two games against Temple and Navy. For the Peach Bowl, all of Houston’s running backs will be healthy, so look for the Cougars to try to establish the ground game early on with their full stock of backs.
At wide receiver, Ward has plenty of weapons to go to. The leading receiver for Houston, Demarcus Ayers has caught 89 passes for 1,140 yards and six touchdowns on the season. Ayers is a speedy wideout that Ward will target on the outside. Ayers is joined by six foot three receivers Chance Allen, 52 catches for 693 yards and four touchdowns, and Steven Dunbar, 27 catches for 350 yards and three touchdowns. Allen is the Cougar’s best deep threat so either Jalen Ramsey or Marquez White will match up against him. The most critical weakness for Florida State’s secondary may be against Ayers as he will constantly be featured in the slot, an area that has hurt FSU on defense this season. Javien Elliot must stay with Ayers and he may require some help over the top against Houston’s leading receiver.
Similarly to Florida State, Houston has gone through a revolving door on the offensive line. The Cougars have featured ten different combinations on the offensive line, and coming into the Peach Bowl, the Cougars will start three freshmen. Senior Alex Cooper will start at left tackle, either Colton Freeman or Mason Denley (both freshmen) will start at left guard, All-Freshman team performer Will Noble starts at center, and senior Carter Wall will start at right tackle.
Look for Florida State to take advantage of the youth of Houston’s offensive line by relying on Nnadi and Lawrence-Stample to wreak havoc and command double teams. This will then free Jalen Ramsey and freshman phenom, Derwin James to blitz from their cornerback and safety positions respectively. Look for Charles Kelly to try to confuse both Ward and the young offensive line with complex packages and to also allow his front four to wreak havoc by themselves while dropping extra defenders into coverage. Senior linebackers Terrance Smith, who looks to be much healthier, and Reggie Northrup must have great eye-discipline against the run and in pass coverage.
Florida State should be able to control the line-of-scrimmage so this most likely will lead to Houston committing to a quick passing game. The Seminoles must be way of misdirection and trickery as well. The Noles can not be too aggressive or else risk overplaying and leaving themselves vulnerable. The fact that FSU has seniors in Lamarcus Brutus, Smith, and Stample on all three levels of the defense is crucial, as they have seen various formations throughout their careers.
Charles Kelly has gotten his players to buy in, and this has vastly improved the performance of the defense. Ward will be a unique challenge for FSU, but Houston has not faced a team as fast or as physical as the Noles. Limiting big plays will be key, but if the can contain Houston’s explosive playmakers and tackle in space, then FSU should be victorious.