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Red-zone offense struggles

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was Florida State's sixth crack at the end zone on Saturday, and Jimbo Fisher wasn't willing to come up short again.

He'd seen his offense stuffed on five runs inside the USF 6, and although the Seminoles were just a half-yard from a touchdown, Fisher's gut said it was time to throw.

He called a timeout, talked over the third-down play with his quarterback, and he stuck to his guns. EJ Manuel took the snap and lobbed a pass to a wide open Kevin Haplea for the score.

"It was a critical call, and I didn't want to make a bonehead call," Fisher said.

The significance of the play was underscored by past failures, however, and when Florida State's 30-17 win was over, Fisher was far more concerned with the eight plays run inside the USF 10 that didn't result in a touchdown than he was with the one play that worked.

The scoreboard showed a relatively sluggish day for the FSU offense -- just two touchdowns and three field goals -- but the problems were largely limited to the goal line. Florida State racked up 425 yards of offense, but inside the red zone the yards were tough to come by.

"We had a lot of big plays, we just didn't convert in the red zone," Fisher said. "If we get touchdowns instead of field goals, it's a little different situation."

The feeling was far too reminiscent of the problems FSU faced a year ago, when the Seminoles struggled mightily in goal-line and short-yardage situations.

In 2011, Florida State ranked second in the ACC with 19 attempts inside the opponent's 2-yard line. Just eight were converted into touchdowns. The 42-percent success rate ranked 10th in the ACC.

So throughout fall camp, short yardage was a point of emphasis for Fisher, and during last week's practice, the Seminoles went through a handful of goal-line plays again and again. In Saturday's game, however, they looked lost.

"We've only run three or four plays this week, and we worked them," Fisher said. "That was very disappointing."

There's plenty of blame to go around.

On a second-down run from the 1, James Wilder Jr. bounced outside rather than pounding the ball up the middle. The result was a 2-yard loss.

"The hole was there, but I was a little hesitant," Wilder said. "It was all on me. The O-line had a great push, but the tailback was hesitant."

On the next play, however, it was guard Tre Jackson who fouled up the works. He was supposed to block outside on an option run from Manuel.

The play should have gone for an easy six points, Fisher said, but Jackson blocked down instead, allowing a defender to grab Manuel's ankle and drag him down before he could get the pitch to the tailback.

"That was a critical mistake down there on the goal line," Fisher said.

On a second-and-goal from the 5 in the third quarter, Manuel took the blame for flubbing a throw. Rodney Smith got behind double coverage, and Manuel lofted a pass over the defenders but threw it behind Smith and out of the end zone.

"I'm still saying sorry to [Smith] about that," Manuel said. "I feel like I owe him some money on that one. But it happens."

It happened far too often for Fisher's liking, however.

Of course, in a game marked by a lack of sharp focus on the part of Florida State, it's tough to say whether the goal-line struggles were a blip or a sign that the offense still has some kinks to work out after last year's struggles.

There have been games this season where success near the goal line has come easily. Against Savannah State, the Seminoles ran five plays from inside the Tigers' 10, and all five resulted in touchdowns. Then there have been times when the tough yards near the goal line seemed impossible to find, including three consecutive runs from inside the 2 that failed to find the end zone against Wake Forest.

"How much we work on it, it just comes down to the will to get in," Wilder said. "Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don't. You just have to get up, brush yourself off and try to get in there the next play."

For the season, Florida State has run 21 plays inside its opponent's 5. Nine have resulted in touchdowns. On eight third-and-short runs, the Seminoles have converted four. In the red zone, FSU is scoring touchdowns 76 percent of the time.

Those numbers represent improvement, but perhaps not the consistency Fisher was hoping for in a season in which goal-line, short-yardage and red-zone work have been such a priority. FSU's touchdown rate on drives that reach the opponent's 5 still ranks just eighth in the ACC, and the Seminoles' overall plays per touchdown inside the 5 is up only marginally from a year ago.

Saturday was a reminder that there's still work to be done.

"It's frustrating, because that's one thing we always practice during the week," Lonnie Pryor said. "It's things we weren't good at last year. Once we get inside the red zone, we have to score."