CLEMSON — When Florida State running back Chris Thompson turned the corner on his 80-yard touchdown run Saturday against Wake Forest, offensive line coach Rick Trickett couldn’t contain himself.
Intent on getting a better view, Trickett strolled a bit too close to the sideline and was promptly bowled over by the referee trailing the play.
“Like he said, all last year he hadn’t seen a run that long, so he was going to watch it,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher explained Monday.
The explanation drew plenty of laughter at Fisher’s news conference, but the Seminoles’ resurgent rushing attack is no laughing matter as far as No. 9-ranked Clemson is concerned.
The Tigers’ No. 1 priority on Saturday night in Tallahassee, Fla., will be slowing down No. 4-ranked FSU’s ground game.
“It starts with the run defense,” Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony said. “We’ve got to stop the run and we’ll go from there.”
That may be easier said than done.
Florida State has never been known for churning out 1,000-yard rushers, but last season the Seminoles’ running attack was particularly abysmal.
What a difference a year can make. Consider:
• Last season, FSU running backs produced two 100-yard games; this season they’ve had two backs top 100 yards in the first three games.
• Last season, FSU ranked 104th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 112 yards per game; this year the Seminoles are ranked 11th with an average of 279.
• Last season, FSU’s longest run from scrimmage by a running back was 41 yards; last Saturday against Wake Forest, Thompson had runs of 74 and 80 yards.
• FSU amassed 385 rushing yards against Wake, which was more than one-fourth of their season total in 2011.
Granted, the Seminoles’ opponents in addition to Wake have been non-powerhouses Murray State and Savannah State, but obviously, improvements have been made, resulting in a “running renaissance,” if you will, in Tallahassee.
“It’s awesome,” FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel said. “Our line is blocking great, and I can sit back there and watch him (Thompson) run now.”
Particularly concerning for Clemson is that the Tigers’ run defense hasn’t stonewalled anyone. Ball State gouged Clemson for 252 yards, and Auburn totaled 180, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry. Last week, Furman’s Jerodis Williams had 87 yards rushing.
“They (Florida State) will break the scoreboard next week if we don’t play better,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “They’re gonna be lickin’ their chops when they see this tape, that’s what I told our guys.”
The message needed no translation.
“Whoever’s the most physical is going to win that ballgame,” Anthony said. “So that needs to be us.”
Slowing and containing Thompson will be the first order of business, Anthony said. Thompson is 5-foot-8 but may be the Seminoles strongest player.
“He’s a 190-pound guy who’s rocked up hard as a rock, maybe pound for pound stronger than anybody on our football team,” Fisher said. “He has great character, great dependability.
“Before we talk about the long runs and everything he does, I’m talking about what he does in the huddle — reminding guys of assignments, seeing blitzes — then when we hand him the ball, he’s got the ability to hit the home run.
“And it’s great to be able to hit home runs.”
Thompson had more than 800 yards rushing as a sophomore but missed much of last season after cracking two vertebrae against Wake Forest. This season he’s averaging 14.1 yards per carry.
“That boy can run,” Anthony said of Thompson. “He’s going to present a great challenge for us. We’ve got to get our game plan down and focus on what we’ve got to do.”
And that will include playing gap-sound run defense and gang tackling.
“When you get the opportunity, you’ve got to tackle him and hit him low,” Clemson defensive end Malliciah Goodman said. “You have to get a bunch of hats to the ball and get him down.”