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Column: A sod win, a statement and an early birthday gift for Norvell

The Seminole football team went shopping for a birthday gift for their head football coach Mike Norvell, who turned 40 on Monday, and they found meaningful presents for him in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Those gifts included:

  • A 35-25 upset victory over North Carolina, a team favored by as many as 17.5 points, which became Mike Norvell’s first “Sod Game Victory.” The win on the road against a favored opponent will be commemorated for posterity with a headstone in Florida State’s Sod Cemetery.

“It was great,” Norvell said. “The first thing I thought about as soon as the clock hit zero was, ‘We’re going to be able to contribute to the sod cemetery.’ It’s just such a special tradition. One of the great things about Florida State and who we are.” 

Jordan Travis did the honors, trimming a few blades of artificial turf. “It’s a blessing from the man upstairs. I’m just so thankful,” the redshirt sophomore said. “These past couple months I’ve gotten a lot closer to God. Going through a lot. Just the man upstairs and the guys around me who allow me to do that.”

  • The second consecutive victory was a gift to change perception and outlook among players, coaches, recruits and fans; a gift to make the head coach’s job more enjoyable.

“Our goal every Saturday is to go out and get a win. The boys did it today,” Travis said. “They worked really hard all week. I’m very thankful for them. They came out with a great mindset the whole week. It’s been a roller coaster this whole all season. So just seeing the guys come out with a positive mindset and just come out with the grit they came out with today was very impressive. I’m very thankful they’re on my team.”

Let’s be honest. This was not a victory over Florida or Miami, nor does a win over Mack Brown have the emotional significance as a win over a Steve Spurrier or a Dabo Swinney. But a win is a win, especially on the road as a three-score underdog. Therefore, it deserves to be celebrated for what it is and what it may suggest for the future. 

  • The team brought their most complete game in Norvell’s 15-game career here at Florida State. 

After falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter, the Seminoles settled in and dominated their opponent, responding with 21 unanswered points in the second quarter. The slow start may have been attributable to the fact many of FSU’s starters, including Travis, had to be held out of two or more days of practice due to wear and tear. Saturday was the first day many of the starting 11 had been together in a scrimmage setting all week and it took a quarter to get synched up.

In the third quarter, after UNC cut the lead to 21-17, the Seminoles responded like a mature team — rather than the youngest team in the country — moving the length of the field on time-consuming drives to score and run the lead back up to 11 and later to 18 points.

  • What could a team chip in to buy for their coach that would be more satisfying than to dominate all three phases of the game?

“Really, really proud of this football team,” Norvell said. “We knew coming into this week that this was a great opportunity for us. Last week we showed we could win a game there on a last play, through fight, through adversity, all the things we had to do. We talked to the team all week to show we can do the same thing but by going on the road. The way they prepared through the course of the week, accepting the challenges, continuing to believe, continuing to push, tonight we played winning football.”

  • The gift of renewal, rebirth

“I really believe this is a new team, and this is a team that’s investing the work in all areas,” Norvell said. “The way they’re working on the field, off the field, in the weight room, in every aspect. They’re trying to push and improve in who they are, what they’re about and they do believe.

“You start a season 0-4, there’s not a whole lot of positive things that are being said. These guys had the choice of what they wanted to do with it. Coaching staff, players, everybody involved, we just kept working and kept believing and holding to the standard of how we want to operate and play. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but it puts you in position to achieve it if you’re willing to make that investment.”

As one who has attended the practices open to the media, I can attest to the fact the football team has not shied away from the work Norvell has asked nor have they ever appeared to lose belief in what’s being preached. This gift was hard earned.

  • The team has given him their belief.

“They believe,” Norvell acknowledged. “They believe in what we’re doing, how we’re trying to do it, because they know it’s hard. It’s challenging. There’s nothing that comes easy that’s ever worth having.”

My 40 years of covering sports has led me to the opinion that belief isn’t given, it’s earned. Not many players or teams still believe in their coach when he loses 10 of his first 13 games.  

But belief was present Saturday and belief was there during the victory over Syracuse and oddly even during the 0-4 start. It is the greatest intangible this team has given Norvell and themselves.

One wonders if there would be such belief if Norvell had he not purged the roster of so many upperclassmen during the offseason, opting instead for a roster dominated by freshmen and sophomores who have their entire career ahead of them and the desire to believe. 

Or if there would be such belief if Norvell had not been so careful about the evaluation of the transfers he brought into the program, unselfish leaders such as Jashaun Corbin, Jordan Travis, McKenzie Milton, Fabien Lovett, Dillan Gibbons, Keir Thomas, Jammie Robinson and Devontay Love-Taylor.

What impact has the message had with the group of players he’s assembled?

“Whether it’s the push academically or what they’re doing on the practice field, we want these guys to play to the best of their ability,” Norvell said. “The work is there. You’ve seen that during games, even in responses when we’ve come up short. The margin for victory is so very small, but these guys are sticking to that process.”

While pleased with the progress, Norvell knows there’s work to be done to clean up mistakes for the team to reach its potential.

“I believe we’re better in some areas than we’re showing. These guys, they know the work that is a necessity. And when you’re willing to make that investment, that’s where true confidence shows up,” Norvell said. “I think we see a confident football team with how they’re playing with some of the success they’ve had with what we’ve seen these last few weeks.” 

The Offense

  • The offense unwrapped their identity Saturday with a solid running game and a more comfortable quarterback.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Travis is growing in understanding and confidence each week. As offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham reminded us last week, the sometime-starter, frequently unavailable quarterback, has had less than seven games of experience if you add up the halves and quarters of games he’s played in his 15-game career. 

  • On Saturday, Travis gave Norvell another two solid halves.

“You look at it, offensively, 7 of 10 on third downs, 3 of 3 in the red zone. Even though the first quarter didn’t go like how we wanted, the guys continued to fight. I thought Jordan did an extraordinary job,” Norvell said.

The redshirt sophomore set a career record for rushing by a quarterback against Syracuse last week – breaking Charlie Ward’s record — and extended that record with 108 yards on Saturday. Travis also became the first quarterback in FSU history to rush for 100 yards in consecutive games.

  • Travis brought a willingness and ability to get ready for game day.

“You guys get to see it every day,” Norvell said, speaking to the press to whom he grants practice access. “The challenges that go into a week of prep. The things most people don’t get to see is all the work he’s putting in, in the training room, the little things he’s doing with his film study. I thought he played exceptionally with his eyes. Those things won’t show up in the stat line but being in the right spot, going through his progressions. He’s 11 of 13 throwing the football, pushed the ball down the field. He’s competing at a very high level. He’s going to continue to get himself 100 percent but I’m excited about his continued development and what he brings to this offense.”

Completing 11 of 13 passes with three going for touchdowns and adding two rushing touchdowns with no turnovers did show up on the stats sheet for the slightly built signal caller. More importantly it showed up on the scoreboard, accounting for all 35 of the winning points.

  • Norvell also loved the performance he received from diminutive wide receiver Keyshawn Helton, highlighted by an extended, drag-your-toes reception on the Tar Heels sideline that kept a time-consuming drive alive and led to a 35-17 lead. 

“The margins are so small. It’s a game of inches and he did everything; technique, fundamentals, to extend himself to make a catch on third-and-12 that was huge,” Norvell said. “Those things showed up through the game.”

  • A consistent running game that opens the vertical passing game is a package Norvell has been anxious to open.

“You look at the efficiency in the run game, being able to pull the safeties in a little bit. If people are going to pull everyone down and try to account for the guys we have in the run game, then it’s going to present some great opportunities,” Norvell said. “I noticed the receivers blocking in the run game, which opens themselves in the passing game. Jordan was extremely efficient, located the ball great. And the offensive line gave him time. When those things are clicking, I think this offense can be one that can do some wonderful things and that was great to see on display tonight.”

            Three different receivers caught touchdown passes as a result.

  • Offensive line also brought the gift of confidence.

“Those guys are battling. When Devontay (Love-Taylor) went down, it continued to test our depth, but they continued to fight,” Norvell said. “I thought we had a good plan to somewhat neutralize the pass rush. There are some talented guys on that side of the ball. To eliminate a lot of the negative plays allowed us to play with confidence. It’s one of the big reasons why we’re 7 of 10 on third downs, because of the early-down success and not having those negative plays. Just really pleased with our offensive line and their continued growth. I like seeing each game that we’re able to establish the run, because that’s what opens up those big plays downfield and efficiency in the passing game.”

Travis was especially happy to see the linemen playing with confidence.

“Words can’t describe how happy I am for them,” Travis said. “Outside noise has been getting in their head a lot the past couple years. Those guys have always kept their head down and worked. It’s so impressive to see. They’ve gotten so much hate the past couple years. Just seeing them with a smile on their face, coming off the sideline and seeing them happy means the world to me.”

  • The offense (and defense) have given Norvell the one thing he asked for.

Heading into this season, Norvell asked his players for only one thing, get better every day. That’s really all that Florida State fans asked of this team coming into the season. While weekly improvement was clouded by the early losses, it is abundantly clear in the wins.

“We want to be an offense that gets better,” Norvell said. “We have been looking for an identity and we know what we want it to be. Early in the season, had a lot of self-inflicted issues. Last time we went on the road, turned the ball over six times. It’s hard to achieve success when those things show up. When you’re willing to make that investment in the film room and on the field, all of a sudden you see consistency inch up and get a little better each and every drive. It’s game-changing for us.”

The Defense

  • Carolina scored 10 points on the first two drives but once FSU settled in, Sam Howell had little sustained success, which was frankly the most surprising present of all.

That’s an extremely explosive offense,” Norvell said. “Thought we were able to keep them in check for the most part. There’s some things we still continue to work on, but these guys, the way that they’re investing, the things they’re pouring into this program, I’m just so very proud of them and I feel like we got better tonight. 

“Sometimes when you go on the road, you’re playing an explosive offense, there’s a lot of emotion and excitement,” Norvell said of a defense that was dialed in. “(The Tar Heels) do a great job. I think they’ve been averaging over 50 points per game at home over the last two years probably. They present some challenges but even when we didn’t start how we wanted to … there was no panic, nothing, on the sideline. Nobody is pressing. They just kept playing, and they showed up big. We talk all the time about our response and that’s going to show the true identity of who we are and what we’re about.”

  • The secondary made plays against a very good college quarterback.

“I thought our defensive backfield really challenged themselves this week. It was something,” Norvell said of a unit whose depth has been challenged by injury and practice time. “There’s been some negative plays that have showed up this year but these guys have continued to work, continued to battle. For them to play the way they did, just so proud of them. Jarrian was definitely a highlight of that.”

  • Jarrian Jones brought Norvell a rare “Oskie” and momentum.

UNC was threatening to retake the lead in the second quarter with FSU leading 14-10 when Jones won a one-on-one battle in the end zone to intercept a past from Howell. The interception sustained momentum for the Seminoles and set up an eight-play, 80-yard drive to push the lead to 21-10. 

“Jarrian is a young man who has really had a tough start to the season,” Norvell said. “Being injured in fall camp, he was really up and down for the first part of the season. But about two weeks ago, he really blocked everything out. He broke the rock tonight because of the way he played but also, really, the way he’s prepared. But to go make that play is such a critical point in the game, really gave us some wonderful momentum.”

Special Teams

  • Special teams brought a lot to the party too.

The Seminoles were perfect on extra-point attempts, improved on fielding punts and kickoffs, averaged 43.7 yards per punt and recovered an on-sides kick, which sealed the game. 

Last week we mentioned FSU’s lack of productivity on kickoff returns, noting FSU would be ahead of the game if they simply fair caught every kickoff and allowed their offense to start at the 25. This week FSU attempted two returns on UNC’s four kickoffs and recovered an onsides kick. On the first kick, Corey Wren was hammered at the 17 but UNC was penalized for targeting, which moved the ball to the 32. On the second kickoff, after UNC took a 10-0 lead, Travis Jay sparked the Seminoles’ comeback with a return to the FSU 41, which led to FSU’s first touchdown to put the Noles back in the game at 10-7. 

  • The elimination of turnovers and reduction of penalties is appreciated.

FSU had no turnovers and just five penalties for 50 yards while UNC had 12 penalties for 110 yards and an interception, improvements Travis attributes to confidence.

“I think confidence is one of the biggest things in football,” Travis said. “You see the guys confident, running out on the field, they look confident, with their head up. They’re not thinking about that much, they’re just thinking about that play. They’re not thinking about the next play. It’s always play where your feet are. In reality, it is all that really matters; just play where your feet are. Lock in. The guys have.”

  • All wrapped in composure.

Even the victory celebration looked different, more mature, than a week ago when the Seminoles stormed the field after a last-second field goal provided the Seminoles’ first win of the 2021 season over a pedestrian Syracuse team. 

We described the organic response in this column last week as a catharsis, a guttural reaction to four frustrating losses.

This week Florida State acted like winning was something they’ve done before, which they did last week. While last week’s victory came as the last second ticked off the clock, this week’s victory was assured even before the Seminoles recovered an onsides kickoff attempt with 2:38 remaining on the clock. The Seminoles, who had time to compose themselves, walked onto the turf to shake their opponents’ hand before walking toward the locker room and acknowledging the large contingent of Seminole fans in that corner of the stadium.

  • Schedule makers gave Norvell a “bye” at the right time.

FSU gets a week off, then a contest against winless UMass before embarking on the toughest part of the schedule. The bye week comes at a perfect time for an improving Seminole team to heal.

“Being able to go into a bye week, and we need it, we’re banged up,” Norvell said, noting the team is playing deep into a very-young depth chart. “We’re playing very much into the depth of our roster, so we’ve got to be able to heal up.”

Mike Norvell can savor this victory and a slice of birthday cake on Monday, along with the growth of his young team, and then back to work. Meanwhile, Seminole fans can enjoy the glow of the birthday celebration a while longer, with a birthday wish for continued growth.