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Column: A long, strange trip but an opportunity around the corner

No one at Florida State expected a rose garden heading into the 2021 season. Then again no one expected an overgrown rose labyrinth either, which is exactly where FSU found itself after an 0-4 start. What we hoped for from this young team, depending on transfers for leadership, is they would fight and not quit. We hoped for a team that would improve each week. While it hasn’t happened on the timeline any of us would have liked, it has been happening. 

FSU head coach Mike Norvell has led his young team through the maze we call college football, turning one thorny corner after another. Now, after three consecutive victories, there’s the faint smell of the cheese at the end of the maze as the prickliest of challenges lies ahead — Clemson in Death Valley. 

You would be excused if you said what we’re sniffing ain’t cheese as the Tigers have owned this series of late. The last time FSU won was 2014, when No. 1 FSU claimed a 23-17 overtime win against No. 17 Clemson. The script flipped in 2015 when No. 1 Clemson beat No. 16 FSU, 23-13. FSU was last competitive in 2016 when No. 3 Clemson beat No. 12 FSU 37-34. 

The Seminoles’ performances have stunk since.

FSU will go into this game as a 10-point underdog, just as it did against UNC at Chapel Hill, which is a far cry from the 35-point spread in 2020 or what the oddsmakers would have given after the Seminoles fell to Jacksonville State, a 3-4 team that welcomes Norvell’s alma mater, Central Arkansas, on Hall of Fame Day. 

Let’s be honest. Clemson has contributed to the feeling FSU can be competitive in this game, let alone feel like they can win it. The Tigers (4-3) have shown vulnerability post Trevor Lawrence. See Patrick Burnham’s Clemson preview for more. But after FSU’s four losses, the Seminoles have shown heart, fight and weekly improvement in these wins:

  • a complementary win over Syracuse in the final two minutes that included a defensive stop, a long drive and a walk-off field goal
  • a convincing double-digit Sod Game win over double-digit favorite North Carolina in Chapel Hill
  • a focused and effective 59-3 knockout victory over 35-point underdog UMass in Doak

While the win over UNC is a fan favorite, the Syracuse win was Norvell’s favorite to date. “I’ll always point back to that (Syracuse game) because we didn’t play the cleanest game,” Norvell said. “There were some things that happened that made that closer than what maybe it needed to be, but it was something we had to get through. We had to show that as a football team we could be complementary of each other. We get the stop when we need it, we can drive the ball, special teams can capitalize in the moment. That was big for me. I don’t think I’m overplaying it.”

Norvell said he thinks FSU may look back one day and see that Syracuse game as a turning point in the season and maybe more. Of course, you will look back only if the team continues to turn corners.

Stopping Syracuse in that final moment was something FSU had failed to do against Jacksonville State, and in that respect turned an important corner. The offense playing clean enough to execute in the final critical minute to set up the game-winning field goal, turned an offensive corner. And, of course, the special teams executing the field goal for the win, turned yet another.

While those two are certainly more impressive than the 59-3 win over UMass, I am reminded of a quote from former linebackers coach and Hall of Fame linebacker Gene McDowell: “The law of sports requires that all large leads shall promptly be surrendered.”  

The UMass game showed FSU is capable of avoiding that trap and that’s one more corner turned.

Caveat for a case for turning this corner

In sports, we look to statistics to quantify performance. Caveat: It is a tricky proposition. We know figures can lie and liars can figure. My instinct is to compare the first four games, the losses, against the last three games, the wins. You do so at your own peril if you don’t account for the fact the first four included three teams in the top 50 while the recent three wins — including a gawd awful UMass — did not include a top 50 team.

But how else are we to quantify what we think we see?

It’s also risky business to draw matchup comparisons between two teams who have played only one common opponent – Syracuse – with each winning by a field goal. But we’ll do it anyway.

Clemson and Florida State have each played three teams in the top 40 and lost to all six. Playing Georgia certainly affected Clemson’s stats. The highest ranked opponent Clemson beat is Boston College, ranked No. 50 and FSU’s is No. 53 (North Carolina). They each beat No. 64 Syracuse. So, statistically speaking, we are comparing baseballs with softballs (and not shot puts).

Looking back at corners turned

Let’s take a look at the corners FSU has turned to cobble together this three-game winning streak, a  reduction of penalties, negative plays including sacks and turnovers, each of which will be keys to challenging the conference rival Saturday.

The Seminoles have cut the number of penalties in half (7.75 to 3.66) from the first four games to the last three. By the way, Clemson has recorded more than seven penalties per game. 

In those first four losses, FSU averaged 2.75 turnovers per game and gave up 3.75 sacks, which they cut to 1.0 turnover and 1.0 sack per game in the three-game win streak. 

The improvement has enabled Florida State to convert nearly 50 percent of its third-down conversions in the last three games, compared to 33 percent in the first four, lifting the Seminoles’ ranking in this category to 48th nationally (.430). By comparison, Clemson’s offense is 85th (.379). 

In other words, FSU has begun to play cleaner. Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham offers the why. “Losing sucks,” he said. “When you realize that if you jump offsides and get penalties over and over again, you’re not gonna win.

“We can say the refs out there made the difference. No. Our guys realize if you want to win you got to play disciplined,” he said. “It’s that simple. They were fed up with it and they made a decision to make a change. They made a change. It’s not a change we made. It’s a change they made.”

FSU run vs. CU run defense

The FSU rushing attack, which has grown consistent, gives FSU a puncher’s chance against an aggressive Clemson defense that gives up just 336 yards per game.

Dillingham attributes some of the improvement to staying in situations where he can call running plays. “Second-and-25 is not really a run down for most teams,” he said. “Well, we’re not getting those penalties anymore. We’re staying in good situations so it’s allowing us to run the football more.”

Having the original starting 11 back in the lineup also helps.  

“We got some of our guys back and healthy and the O-line has battled through some injuries,” Dillingham said. “And then, obviously, Jordan (Travis) being back there, posing that threat, is obviously a dynamic player in that position.”

FSU’s running offense has climbed into the top 10 for runs over 10 yards. Clemson is ranked in the top 10 for preventing runs of over 10 yards. As I said earlier, FSU’s explosive running game — including Jordan Travis — gives FSU a puncher’s chance, the potential to throw haymakers, something other have not been able to do against the Tigers.

“When you face a good defense, one of the things that make them really good is they tackle well,” Dillingham said. “If you watch the film, they don’t miss tackles. It sounds fundamental and boring but you get on the free safety at nine yards deep and you gain nine yards. Some teams you get on the free safety at nine yards deep and you score.”

If FSU can break runs of over 10 yards against this defense, it will turn heads and one more corner.

Quarterback play critical to execution

No one position has more of an impact on the cleanliness of the game than the quarterback, where Travis has reduced negative plays and turnovers. Clemson will be a stiff test and another opportunity for the sophomore quarterback to earn respect. 

When you think about Clemson, you think about Brent Venables’ defense, which has been stellar for years. Where they are particularly stout is in red-zone defense, stopping opponents within their 25-yard line. The Tigers are ranked No. 1, allowing only 12 scores in 20 trips (.600). Least you despair, FSU has improved to No. 11, allowing just 13 scores in 19 trips (.684). The difference — and it’s a big one — is that Clemson has given up only five touchdowns (seven field goals) compared to FSU who has given up 11 touchdowns (two field goals).

If FSU can score touchdowns, rather than kick field goals, its another corner turned.

What about the FSU defense?

Your eyes tell you FSU is playing better pass defense, especially on third and fourth down, and from a statistical perspective, your eyes aren’t lying. The ‘Noles have cut average passing yards per game from 272 ypg. in the first four to 166 ypg. in the last three, albeit against lesser opponents. 

More impressive is the conversion numbers. The first four opponents converted 43.66 percent (31 of 71) of their third-down tries compared to just 31.5 percent (12 of 38) by the last three opponents. Florida State’s third-down defense (.394 over seven games) has climbed out of the thicket and up to 69th nationally. Clemson is ranked 50th in this category of defense (.371), which isn’t significantly better. 

The Seminoles are ranked No. 5 nationally in fourth-down stops, allowing only 3 of 12 attempts (.250). While the first four opponents converted 50 percent of their fourth-down tries (3-6), the last three opponents failed to convert any of their six tries. That’s significant improvement in season and year over year. By comparison, Clemson’s vaunted defense is ranked 104th on fourth down as opponents have converted 6 of 9 attempts (.667).

Do it against the Tigers in the Valley and you’ve turned another corner.

Limiting big plays to first downs

Several of FSU’s early losses were big plays going for touchdowns rather than first downs. “We say, ‘Give us a place to stand,’ ” defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said. “The ball breaks, get it down. Give us a chance to play red-zone defense. I think we have started to develop that mindset mentally but also schematically.”

Keep the play in front of you. Don’t get beat deep. Live to play another day. We’ve all heard coaches preach it and scheme it. FSU seems to be doing it of late, which will be a key if FSU is to bring home a second piece of sod this year. 

“We’ve said before the goal is to keep points off the board, so if you don’t give up big plays and you play good red-zone defense, that usually adds up well. That’s been showing up the last few weeks but that’s definitely got to continue,” Fuller said.

Clemson is a talented team that just hasn’t clicked yet and FSU doesn’t want to be there when it does.

“If you go back and look at the guys they’ve recruited and developed, they’ve got a track record of championship level football,” Fuller said. “They’ve got top-level players at all positions. They’ve got players on that team that have had a lot of success and so that will be a major challenge to go up there and go play our best.”

Special teams often decide close games

In a close game, momentum and outcome can swing on a special team’s play. The Seminoles invest a great deal of time in special teams, so it will be interesting to see if the investment shows up Saturday.

As you look at these two teams you see one team is better in one category and the other team better in another, with not much separating them in the remaining categories.

  • FSU is tied for 1st in both preventing blocked kicks (0) and blocked punts (0) while Clemson has had one of each blocked. 
  • The Seminoles have an edge in net punting averaging 41.6 yards to Clemson’s 38.2. FSU also has not allowed a touchback while Clemson has twice. 
  • Clemson’s kicker has made 7 of 8 field-goal attempts and is 17 of 17 on PATs, while FSU has made 6 of 8 field-goal attempts and missed a couple of extra points. 
  • Opponents have returned 8 punts against FSU for 71 yards compared to 16 punts returned against CU for 50 yards.
  • Clemson has returned 12 punts for 78 yards compared to FSU who has returned 10 for 44 yards.
  • Opponents have returned 13 FSU kickoffs for a 27.57-yard average with 20 touchbacks. Clemson has had only five returns for a 16.8-yard average and 22 touchbacks. 
  • There’s not much difference in kickoff return yardage, where Clemson has 12 returns for a 23.7-yard average and the ‘Noles average 20.3 on 13 returns.

Turn a corner in one or more of these categories and it could turn the outcome.

Better talent, tougher venue

The Seminoles have progressed in the friendly confines of Doak and have played clean in a wine and cheese atmosphere in a powder blue stadium. Now what can they do in the valley below Howard’s Rock when surrounded by a sea of obnoxious orange?

“The North Carolina game definitely breeds some confidence that our guys know we’re capable,” Dillingham said. “They know when we got 11 dudes doing the right thing, when we stay in good down-and-distances, when we own the football, we can be pretty good. We also know if we don’t do those things, we can be really bad.

“This is going to be the first time really since we’ve been here, we’ve gone on the road into a hostile environment where it’s loud as all get out. We’re going to have to do a phenomenal job communicating, all being on the same page. This is gonna be the first time we’re really tested in terms of how disciplined we can be.”

Coaching Perception

There were more than a few folks questioning whether FSU’s coaching staff was capable of leading this team out of the abyss, especially after opening the season 0-4. The three wins have eased some concerns among fans, recruits and national sportswriters and has raised the attention of others. This game is an opportunity for the coaches to turn a corner too. This game will pit Norvell and Dillingham offensively against the venerable Brett Venables. It will pit Dabo Sweeney’s offense against Fuller’s defense. How this game is played and who wins will go a long way to turning the heads of people who were scratching them just weeks ago.

“We’re still our own work in progress,” Norvell said about the corners turned and the challenge that lies ahead. “We’ve seen some positives. We’ve seen some confidence being built. Whatever the odds say, none of that stuff really matters to this team other than the opportunity.  Are you going to let that affect your performance this week or are you going to prepare? Are you going to do the things to put yourself in the best position to achieve success? That’s what we need … Clemson has been the standard in the league, but this is now.”

It has been said that turning a football program is akin to turning an aircraft carrier, it turns one degree at a time. Each of the corners Norvell has navigated with this 2021 football team has led to this week’s opportunity to turn a bigger corner at Clemson. In the preseason, most of us figured this game for a loss, a game you simply hoped FSU could be more competitive than it has been. But now, many are thinking FSU can extend its win streak and make a statement. That very thought, in and of itself, is another corner turned.