Okay, you don’t want to take stock of Duquesne’s game too much.
That is understandable. The Dukes are an FCS team. They were 42-point underdogs. They had one FBS win in the show’s history. And the average person probably wouldn’t even know where the school is located.
But what if you knew that, according to Pro Football Focus, Florida State forced 34 missed tackles?
What if you knew Trey Benson accounted for 16 of those forced losing tackles?
What if you knew that Treshaun Ward averaged a staggering 5.71 rushing yards before contact?
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The Seminoles had played their fair share of lowly programs over the years, including 28 previous meetings with FCS teams. Not once had they finished a game with three 100-yard rushers. And only once in the last 25 years had they rushed for 400 yards in a game.
Running backs Lawrance Toafili (13 carries, 101 yards, one TD), Ward (14 carries, 127 yards, two TDs) and Benson (11 carries, 105 yards, one TD) each eclipsed the 100-yard mark and led FSU rushed 406 yards in its 47-7 thrashing of Duquesne on Saturday.
If there’s one thing to be gleaned from such a lopsided affair, it’s that the Seminole running game should be a force this season. And there is plenty of context and evidence to suggest that his performance against the Dukes was not a mirage.
“Usually it’s the one with the hot hand,” Benson said. “But today, all of us had a hot hand.”
They also had a hot hand despite running behind a banged-up offensive line. FSU featured mostly Ward, Benson and Toafili for eight possessions, and 10 offensive linemen were used in six different combinations during that span.
After the first two series, the Seminoles were without starting center Darius Washington. The versatile offensive lineman, who moved to center after top two options Maurice Smith and Kayden Lyles were injured, left the game permanently with an apparent injury.
Without Washington, FSU was constantly changing positions around its offensive line.
More about Dario Washington:Why Florida State football might have an ideal backup plan at center in new starter Darius Washington
Veteran left guard Dillan Gibbons slid into center. Redshirt sophomore Thomas Shrader and David Stickle also got plays at center. D’Mitri Emmanuel lined up at left and right guard. Bless Harris played left and right tackle. Jazston Turnetine saw time at left tackle, right guard and right tackle.
On Benson’s 43-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, he ran to his left behind a true rookie at left tackle in Julian Armella, a backup at left guard in Bryson Estes and the sixth-team center in Stickle.
“I couldn’t really tell,” Benson said of the offensive line’s lack of continuity, “because everyone was eating.”
The Seminole offensive line managed to block enough. Still, it would be one thing if Ward, Benson, and Toafili were running through holes similar to the Grand Canyon. Instead, they constantly eluded defenders, brushed off tacklers and lunged forward for extra yards.
Now, none of these running backs is as electrifying and groundbreaking as former FSU legends Dalvin Cook and Warrick Dunn. Not even close. However, what the Seminoles have in their three-headed monster is a talented trio of running backs with a wide skill set.
More on FSU legend Warrick Dunn:‘Looking for excitement.’ Former FSU great Warrick Dunn believes in football coach Mike Norvell
The canny Ward probably brings the best patience and vision of the bunch. Toafili could be the most explosive, and his trademark dead-leg play can be devastating to defenders. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Benson, the only running back on the list over 200 pounds, appears to have the best power.
“We talked about this being an offense and a program built for playmakers. Those guys have great playmaking ability,” FSU head coach Mike Norvell said. “All of them were brought here for a reason, and they have grown, they have invested, they have developed.”
Even before the Duquesne game, Ward, Toafili and Benson were expected to have solid seasons. Especially after what they showed in offseason practices.
Ward already led the ACC with 6.36 yards per carry last season. And after Jashaun Corbin left for the NFL, Ward took on a bigger leadership role.
Then there’s Toafili, who entered the season as one of only five players in program history to record a rushing and receiving touchdown of at least 70 yards. Norvell expressed optimism that Toafili is ready for a bigger workload, calling him the most improved player on the list.
More about Lawrance Toafili:Florida State football coach Mike Norvell praises running back Lawrance Toafili
And Benson, who joined a team last offseason as a transfer from Oregon, looked like the Seminoles’ best running back for most of preseason camp.
“It wasn’t just a display of what happened tonight,” Norvell said. “This is something that has been proven in practice. They don’t take days off. They compete for every repetition, for every race.”
Not to mention that Norvell and offensive coordinator Alex Atkins have a proven track record of putting up a solid running game.
The University of Memphis ranked among the top 40 teams nationally in rushing offense, including No. 4 in 2018, in each of Norvell’s last three seasons as head coach.
With Atkins as their offensive line coach, Georgia Southern led the nation in rushing yards per game in 2014 and 2015. Atkins then went to Tulane, inherited a rushing game that ranked 118th in yards per game and helped them to finish among the first. 30 for three consecutive seasons.
More on Alex Atkins:‘He’ll be a head coach someday’: Why Alex Atkins could help bring Florida State football back
FSU had one of the worst offensive lines and running games in the nation when Norvell and Atkins arrived in 2020. The Seminoles had finished outside the top 90 teams in the nation in running offense in 2018 (No. 125) and 2019 (No. 93). Only San Jose State (2.07) had a lower average yards per carry than FSU (2.07) in 2018.
The Seminoles improved to No. 31 (2020) and No. 52 (2021) in rushing offense while averaging more than 4.75 yards per carry both seasons.
“We want to be a football team that advances on contact,” Norvell said. “I thought those guys proved it. They were able to break some tackles. They have done it during fall camp and scrimmages. In a live situation, it was good to see him show up.”
Duquesne’s game should certainly be taken with a grain of salt. It’s hard to imagine FSU rushing for 400 yards again this season. Or have three 100-yard rushers. Or force 34 missed tackles.
But don’t be surprised if the Seminoles eventually prove they have their best running game in years.
They are just beginning.
“Before the game started, I had goosebumps,” Benson said. “My anxiety was through the roof. I’ve been keeping calm. These guys have been keeping my cool.
“And I saw it coming. I saw it coming from a mile away. She just didn’t know when it was going to happen. But it happened today.
“I’m living the dream, and I’m just saying thank you to the man upstairs.”
Contact Carter Karels at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Carter Karls. You can also follow our coverage on Facebook (NoleSports) and Instagram (tlhnolesports).
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