For Florida State, Saturday’s contest against Northern Illinois could be called a must-win. The start of the Willie Taggart era, which began with plenty of hype, has floundered early on as the Seminoles sit at just 1–2 with the only win coming on a fourth-quarter comeback against FCS opponent Samford.
The Huskies have tried to play up to their competition this season, opening the year with losses to Iowa and Utah. Northern Illinois was able to open MAC play last week with a 24–16 win over Central Michigan.
The contest will be the first matchup between the schools since Florida State defeated the Huskies 31-10 in the Orange Bowl to conclude the 2012 season. That was the Huskies' first game under head coach Rod Carey, who has gone on to beat some Power 5 schools, including Purdue, Nebraska and Northwestern. FSU is looking to avoid starting 1–3 for a second straight year.
Northern Illinois at Florida State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 22 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Florida State -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Sutton Smith vs. the FSU offensive line
Calling Florida State’s offensive line a mess at this point might be a compliment. The Seminoles have been absolutely dreadful this season when it comes to getting opponents blocked. Things went from bad to worse this week as FSU learned it would be without redshirt senior Derrick Kelly for Saturday’s contest. Redshirt junior Cole Minshew and redshirt sophomore Landon Dickerson are among the players to already miss time this offseason. That’s in addition to losing Josh Ball to a university suspension this offseason.
This week, the Seminoles will have to deal with a defensive end who is quietly one of the nation’s best in Smith. At 6-foot-1 and nearly 240 pounds, Smith led the nation in sacks and tackles for a loss as a sophomore last season. Through three games this season, Smith has 6.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. After struggling to block a Syracuse line that failed to stop Western Michigan, the Seminoles must find a way to slow down Smith.
2. Deondre Francois vs. the Northern Illinois secondary
If there is one area where Florida State’s putrid offense could fare favorably, it could be taking shots against the Northern Illinois secondary. As a team, the Huskies have been good defensively this season, but they have given up some big plays through the air. That’s something that FSU could desperately use. Northern Illinois cornerbacks Jalen Embry and Albert Smalls, both redshirt seniors, have good size but should be tested on Saturday.
Big plays in the passing game have been there to be made for FSU, but to this point, they just haven’t happened. Tamorrion Terry and Keith Gavin are big receivers capable of stretching the field. For an FSU offense that has averaged just five points per game against FBS competition, getting big plays down the field may be the best chance at cracking the scoreboard.
3. Playmakers at running back
Both teams have very good players at running back. The key for each team will be finding a way to get them out and running. For Northern Illinois, that guy is sophomore Tre Harbison. Harbison, at 5-foot-11 and nearly 230 pounds, is a big back but has managed to tear off chunks of yardage this season. Harbison is averaging 7.1 yards per carry, but the majority of his production came last week against Central Michigan. In the 24–16 win, Harbison rushed for 124 yards on just 13 carries.
For FSU, sophomore Cam Akers is a big play waiting to happen, but putrid offensive line play has kept Akers largely bottled up this season. Akers has averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 70 yards rushing per game. Because of FSU’s inability to get into manageable third downs, Akers has largely been relegated to a few chunk plays per game. Things could be tough again this week for Akers, but the Seminoles must find a way to get him the ball in space against a Northern Illinois squad that is yielding just 3.3 yards per carry. FSU is also allowing just 3.3 yards per carry. Neither Harbison nor Akers have rushed for a touchdown yet this season.
Saturday’s contest will come down to which dismal offense can find a way to score. Turnovers and chunk plays will probably play a large role, so expect both teams to take shots and both coaches to reach into their bag of tricks. The Seminoles are certainly the more athletic and more talented team, but after a 30–7 loss at Syracuse, their psyche may be fragile. For FSU to feel good about itself, it needs to play well early. If Northern Illinois can bring the fight to FSU, it is possible that the Seminoles fold on their home field.