ACC Championship: Florida State hopes to use their defense to defeat Louisville and advance the CFP Playoffs.

Florida State wide receiver Malik McClain (11) congratulates receiver Mycah Pittman (4) after he scored a touchdown in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wake Forest, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Jared Verse rushed off the edge and kept pushing. Before Florida offensive tackle Damieon George Jr. could realize it, he was backpedaling furiously but being pushed toward his quarterback.

Verse’s sack — overpowering George and sending him colliding with Max Brown and both tumbling to the turf — was one of six for Florida State, tying a season high, in the 24-15 win at Florida. While Verse’s play caught fire on social media, Patrick Payton added two sacks in what was a dominating final 15 minutes for the Seminoles’ front.

“I thought that was a heck of an ending in how those guys were able to play in the fourth quarter and obviously the impact they were able to make,” Florida State coach Mike Norvell said.

Florida State has brought pressure from the edge, from the interior of the line as well as linebackers and safeties while racking up 38 sacks (tied for eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision) going into Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against Louisville.

The Seminoles (12-0, 8-0) bulked up their depth through the transfer portal the last few cycles for just this reason, to build championship-caliber depth along the front four. Norvell has refused to say it was Georgia specifically, but he’s made it a talking point since March — teams that win championships have rotational depth with little to no drop-off between the first- and second-team players.

While Verse (seven sacks) and Payton (five sacks) have made noise off the edge, defensive tackles Joshua Farmer (five sacks) and Braden Fiske (three sacks) have helped collapse the pocket. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller has also favored delayed blitzes from linebacker Kalen DeLoach (seven sacks).

Norvell and Fuller have built the depth up front by developing players like Payton and Farmer while also hitting the portal to add Verse from Albany in 2022 and Fiske from Western Michigan in 2023. Coaches have been able to keep the snap counts relatively low, which has allowed the linemen to maximize their opportunities.

“That’s the one thing that’s great about our D-line, we have great depth at every position,” Payton said. “Once you go out there and play, another guy can go out there and create the same way as you can. That helps everybody just be able to be at their best when it’s time for them to play.”

Florida State is also playing its best football down the stretch. The Seminoles haven’t allowed more than 20 points in their last eight games, spanning all of October and November. And Florida State ranks 11th in the FBS in scoring defense (16.8 points), the lowest total in a year since the 2013 national championship team.

When the All-ACC teams were released earlier this week, it came as little surprise that 23 Seminoles were honored. But it was also clear how highly the defensive front was regarded, with Verse (first team), Fiske and Farmer (second team) and Payton (honorable mention) being recognized.

While Verse earned preseason notoriety as an All-American pick, and he is viewed as a first-round pick should he declare early for the 2024 NFL draft, Payton is also putting together an impressive season. The 6-foot-5 redshirt junior tied a career high with two sacks at Florida and has used his long arms to swat down nine passes.

“His height and his arm length, he has a great skill set for that but he also has a great feel for the game,” defensive ends coach John Papuchis said. “He has as good a feel for how to play the game as really anyone I’ve been around in terms of his instincts and how he feels for blocks as a pass rusher, getting his hands up at the right time.


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