TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- One mention of the words "third down" and Cornellius Carradine's eyes grew.
Taking an interviewer inside his helmet earlier this week, the senior Florida State defensive end described the machinations at play inside his mind whenever he looks up at Doak Campbell Stadium's scoreboard and sees a red "3" flashing in the box labeled "Down."
"I have to get the sack," Carradine said, his voice quickening, his eyes growing even larger. "I have to get the sack."
His excitement was so evident it looked as if he thought the person posing the question was a 160-pound quarterback ripe for a bone-crushing backfield hit.
"I have to get the sack," he said.
Once last Saturday against Wake Forest, he did.
Racing around his right end position on one early second-quarter third down, Carradine brought to the ground one of three quarterbacks the Demon Deacons used during the Seminoles' 52-0 win. A quarter before, after a pre-snap mix-up between Carradine and fellow defensive end Bjoern Werner, Werner had one of his own.
Their efforts, along with those of their defensive teammates, helped the Seminoles hold Wake Forest to a 1-for-16 third-down showing. So far this season, such third-down play has been replicated against other offenses that have faced the fourth-ranked Seminoles. When his team takes on No. 10 Clemson (3-0) this weekend, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher hopes to see a similar outcome.
"I say this all the time: ‘You can play a game well and play situations poorly and lose,'" Fisher said. "You can play average, play situations well and win the game. (Last week) we put a lot of focus on third downs, red zones, all those situations."
Through three games, the Seminoles (3-0, 1-0 ACC) lead the nation in third-down defense. Opposing offenses have converted just 11.4 percent (5-of-44) of the third-down opportunities they have had against them this season.
Clemson isn't too bad on third downs, either. The Tigers rank ninth, holding teams to a 22 percent conversion rate.
Fisher and his players contend the reason FSU's defense has been able to get off the field so quickly is because of the push of their defensive linemen.
"We were able to get pressure to the quarterback, which makes the ball come out (quick)," Fisher said. "That rush makes a difference, now. When you control that line of scrimmage and make that ball come out, guys can't double-move you. They can't run all the way across the field. You're not covered as long.
"We do a good job of mixing coverages, we contest and play good man (-to-man defense) and we were able to pressure the pocket and pressure the passer."
FSU quarterback EJ Manuel, who faces the Seminoles' defensive line on a regular basis, said the difficulty in facing the group lies in its interior. Werner and Carradine are potential all-conference ends that teams are expecting to consistently rush off the edge. It is the defensive tackles who make the quarterback's throwing space shrink.
"Those guys are collapsing the pocket each and every time," Manuel said. "As a quarterback, you're reading down the field. You don't necessarily look at the guys in front of you."
Even mobile quarterbacks like Manuel and Clemson's Tajh Boyd have to go off feel and instinct in those situations. Sometimes, particularly during a pressure-filled third down, feel and instinct mean little.
"You can't step up and sometimes you can't step into your throws," Manuel said. "That's where the interceptions and high balls come in."