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Column: A jolt of enthusiasm, an encouraging start

Not since Florida State’s 31-31 tie over No. 4 Florida back in 1994 have Seminole fans been so satisfied by a “moral” victory.

Florida State overcame a 28-point, fourth-quarter deficit to claim the tie in the final minutes of that memorable game. 

This 2021 Seminoles faced an 18-point deficit, 38-20, entering the fourth quarter. The Seminoles would score the final 18 points in this game to knot the score at 38-38 as time expired in the fourth quarter.

Twenty-seven years ago, when the Seminoles were defending national champions, expectations were very high and FSU fans, unhappy with what they were seeing, headed to the exits when the Gators jumped out to a 31-3 lead. Tens of thousands were in their cars headed home, able only to listen to Gene Deckerhoff make four “Touchdown, Florida State” calls.

Not so this year. An announced crowd of 68,316 wasn’t budging even after the Seminoles fell 18 points behind. Hungry for a competitive team and having seen signs of improvement in the first three quarters, FSU fans were here to stay. 

More than 100 of FSU’s top prospects were seated in the south end zone, next to the Marching Chiefs. You can be sure they noticed the crowd support.

The crowd would play a vital role in this year’s comeback, which began with a Jordan Travis-led 15-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 8-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Parchment and a two-point conversion pass to Keyshawn Helton. 

The score and two-point conversion narrowed the margin to 10 points.

Six Notre Dame plays later, the ‘Noles defense forced a punt and put the Seminoles back in action.

Travis initiated the second drive, which started at the 12-yard line. A 10-yard Lawrance Toafili run followed by a 25-yard Travis scramble pushed the ‘Noles to mid-field. On first down, Travis’ helmet was knocked off forcing him to leave the game for one play. 

Enter McKenzie Milton to the roar of the crowd. The UCF transfer nearly lost his leg on an operating table after a devastating injury on November 23, 2018. “KZ” completed his first five passes, including a delicately delivered rope over a linebacker, to cover the final 52 yards of the 12-play, 88-yard drive.

The score and extra point narrowed the margin to three with 4:43 remaining.

FSU’s defense answered again as ND lost one yard on three plays, putting the ‘Noles offense back in business at the 29, needing three with 4:15 remaining. 

Seven rushes and one completion later, Milton’s throw to Malik McClain was incomplete with 44 seconds remaining. On fourth down and the game on the line, Ryan Fitzgerald nailed the field-goal attempt to knot the score at 38.

Travis Jay intercepted a Notre Dame “Hail Mary” pass five plays later as time ran out with the score tied at 38. And that’s where the game would have ended if only it were 1994. 

Even though the Irish were on the ropes, the overtime period didn’t go the Seminoles way. On a second-and-5 run, FSU guard Dillan Gibbons was injured, the second offensive lineman lost for the game as center Maurice Smith went down late in the second quarter.

On third-and-4, Notre Dame brought a blitz that FSU didn’t pick up and Milton was swarmed back at the 33-yard line, setting up a 50-yard field goal try on fourth down. Norvell challenged the call, noting Milton had attempted a pass, which stopped play just before the ball was snapped and Fitzgerald booted the ball right between the pipes. The points never went on the board. Norvell won the challenge but lost the war as the second attempt from 37 yards missed wide left. ND made a 41-yard field goal for the win.

In spite of the heartbreaking overtime period, most of FSU’s fans stayed in the stands to give the 2021 Seminoles a standing ovation for the fight they displayed, the unwillingness to capitulate — a trademark of recent teams — and they did it against a very good top 10 team. 

Effort was encouraging

Prior to the game, I made a prediction on the Osceola message board that FSU would win this one 24-21. I was way off on the total number of points but not so far off on the margin.

You now know why.

FSU displayed what we’ve reported from camp each August day. This is a different team than the ‘Noles have fielded the past three years. Different in personnel and “buy in” with 15 transfers and newcomers, recruited by Mike Norvell, playing important roles.

Different in leadership, as Norvell brought in transfers, who have played on the big stage, to lead what was the youngest team in the nation last year.

Different in conditioning. FSU had problems with hydration in the season opener against Boise State just a couple of years ago. Not Sunday. FSU flew around all night, while ND struggled late. Credit strength coach Josh Storms. 

Different in run defense as the Seminoles are leaner, stronger and chase the ball better than a year ago. They’ve also added some “thumper power” at linebacker. The new look front was enough to hold Notre Dame to 65 rushing yards on 35 attempts after accumulating 353 rushing yards last year.

Different in terms of mental and emotional toughness. In prior years, FSU would fold its tent at the first sign of adversity. You have reason to worry about that tendency until a team gives you reason not to worry over it. Mike Norvell has said this team is much better at handling the highs and lows that come in college football. Florida State overcame major adversity on at least three occasions in this one. And each was good to see. 

Different in quarterback play, with former Louisville transfer Jordan Travis and UCF transfer McKenzie Milton. As the fourth-quarter comeback was underway, Travis looked exhausted, having been chased relentlessly for more than 50 minutes. If Milton is ready to go, now might be a time to bring him in, I mentioned to friends, before Travis gets hurt. 

After Travis got his helmet knocked off, Milton entered the game and brought fresh legs into the final rounds of this heavyweight slugfest, one in which Notre Dame’s legs were wobbling.

Travis engineered the first drive in the 18-point comeback and Milton came in to deliver haymakers of his own. Rather than contemplate who is the starting quarterback, FSU fans may want to enjoy what could be a very dynamic one-two punching combination.

Where does FSU go from here

Former FSU offensive lineman and college coach Mark Salva believes Norvell celebrated the game in the postgame locker room with his team on Sunday night but on Monday began the hard-coaching process of correcting mistakes that ultimately were the difference between a “moral victory” and one that gets you to your team goal.

“It’s disappointing to come up short. We had a hard and grueling fall camp. … They’re in the locker room, our guys, they’re disappointed. But I told them I was proud, I was proud of the heart that they showed, the identity that they put on display,” Norvell said at his postgame press conference. 

Notre Dame is a program that simply does not beat itself and on too many plays FSU did.

For all FSU did right, there were too many turnovers (three) and often unforced penalties and snaps to beat a top 10 team. There were also issues with pass protection, pass coverage and missed tackles. Those first-game liabilities now become season-determining assets as they are captured on film as evidence and will be used by coaches as teaching material this week. Players must be made aware of, and held accountable for, their transgressions if they are to become the best version of themselves later this season.

“We all know. We know the mistakes that were made,” Norvell said. “There was not any one play or one moment tonight, you can pick 15 of them. … But our guys, they know what’s coming. They know the response that’s necessary.”

As we watched future ACC opponents Clemson, North Carolina and Miami, we noticed they were having similar problems with pass pro as their quarterbacks were being chased all night. Whichever teams fix those first-game issues are the teams who will prevail later in the season. 

FSU’s pass pro issues, I think, are a function of continuity. Unfortunately, FSU hasn’t had the benefit of having all five offensive linemen at practice at the same time very often. There’s been bumps and bruises that have held virtually every lineman out at one time or the other. If they can keep their best five healthy, it would go a long way to developing the continuity pass pro requires.  

The Osceola needed to see FSU play someone other than itself in scrimmages to validate what our eyes were telling us during preseason camp. Notre Dame was a good barometer. FSU has become much better and must continue to grow if it is to achieve its goals, including the the perennial goal: Beat the Gators.

“Our football team, they’re going to grow from this,” Norvell said. “I hate coming up short, but I think they showed their heart and the identity that they have, and how much they care about each other and how much they care about this university, and how they want it represented. We are going to have to continue to get better.”