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Column: A victory with flaws but one worth savoring

As the last second ticked off the scoreboard, with the score knotted at 30-30, Ryan Fitzgerald’s field goal was splitting Peterson’s Posts, igniting an emotion best described as cathartic.

Perfect strangers hugged. Grown men cried. It was pandemonium as the players raced toward the student section where, after an 0-4 start, the few, the proud and the brave remained.

The “Jameis to Benjamin” reaction wasn’t because FSU beat Syracuse. Hell, the Orange haven’t won in Doak in like, ever.

The response was, “FSU beat SOMEBODY!”

The feeling came from way down in your gut, down there where acid-reflux churns. Seminole fans in Doak won’t forget it. They’ve weathered years of heartbreak and hung in throughout this imperfectly played game. Fans told me they felt one of two emotions: certain the Seminoles would find a terrible way to lose or clinging to hope FSU would finish. Worse, they felt both.

“Really proud of our guys,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said. “Had a chance to go back and watch film. It was a hard-fought battle, a lot of back and forth, momentum swings. We had some really positive moments and then some mistakes that made things a lot more interesting than I believe it needed to be. We needed to see a game ending on the last play where we were able to find success.” 

It was an improbable finish, considering the ‘Noles had lost a 10-point lead twice in the second half. With 1:14 remaining in regulation, Syracuse had the ball at their own 44 facing a third-and-7 with their kicker warming up on the sidelines for a potential game-winning kick. 

Would this be a repeat of the Jacksonville State loss, where JSU had the ball on their own 41-yard line with seven seconds remaining?  

FSU’s defense struggled to contain 6-4, 230-pound Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader but FSU defended his third-down pass without drawing a pass interference penalty, without roughing the quarterback or spearing anybody. It was astonishing to see no flag and the punt team on the field. Now if only they could avoid running into the punter, an Irish ghost of victories lost, or fumble the punt return as they had earlier.

FSU fair caught the punt with 1:04 remaining, albeit on their own 21-yard line.

There were many ways the Seminoles could have blown this. You’ve been there and seen it. A fumble or an interception would set up an easy Syracuse field goal. Time could run out due to poor clock management. A rushed field-goal attempt that missed or worse, blocked and returned for a rambling wreck touchdown. 

Sorry. Over the last few years ghosts live rent free in my head.

And they were circling Doak Saturday evening, like vultures over road kill.

It was nerve-wracking, right? 

“We had three timeouts going into the drive and, as we told our players, we felt like we had an eternity just to move the ball down the field,” Norvell said. 

It felt like an eternity to the fans too but not the relaxed kind of eternity.

“We started off with a dual-read screen (and) were able to get a few yards,” Norvell said of a Jashaun Corbin 5-yard reception. 

“We had had some success earlier in the game utilizing tempo. It also allowed Jordan, as things got to spacing, the opportunity to hit a big run there on the second play with great downfield blocking from the receivers.”

The play was a 33-yard run by Travis to the Syracuse 41 with 22 seconds remaining.

“You always challenge your players, ‘When is effort going to show up on film to make the difference?’ ” he said about the play where three receivers led the blocking for Travis downfield.

“Cam (McDonald) was able to wall his guy out and the two receivers were down the field (with) Jordan going down the sideline,” Norvell said. “That was huge.”

The ‘Noles had a first-and-10 at the 41, which was not close enough for Fitzgerald, whose longest field goal is 53-yards this year. FSU wanted to get closer. An incompletion followed by a short pass to Corbin gained three to the 38 and Norvell called a timeout with 19 seconds. On third and seven, Travis avoided tackles and sprinted 25 yards down the sideline to the SU 13.

FSU took a second timeout with nine seconds to assess and regroup, now that they were in makeable field goal range. The FSU fans around me were assessing too. Take a shot at the end zone or kick the field goal?

“The decision was do you want to take a risk of putting anything in jeopardy knowing you were in good position?” Norvell said. “I felt confident where we were. We made the decision to set him up to go and finish the game.”

Travis took the snap with nine seconds and “middled it” – taking a knee between the hashmarks at the 16 to give Fitzgerald an easier angle. Meanwhile, Norvell was standing next to the official who he instructed to stop the clock with one second. By letting the clock tick down, he was coaching defense as well as offense.

“It was kind of a balance of do you want to take a risk of getting a negative (play) or put the ball in jeopardy?” Norvell said. “We felt we were in great range to win the game and that’s what we did.”

Some may disagree with his decision. If the 34-yard kick had gone awry, they would say he could have taken a shot at the end zone with nine seconds and still had time to get the kicker on the field. 

True, that would be an option if FSU had a pat hand. If he could expect his offensive linemen to protect the quarterback, prevent a sack with time running out or a longer field-goal try, then maybe. If FSU had a hot-handed quarterback and receivers capable of winning one-on-one battles, say Jameis Winston and Kelvin Benjamin, a coach might allow his quarterback to take a look at the end zone and throw it away if nothing is doing. But that is not who the 2021 Seminoles are. Not yet.

Norvell kept it simple.

Osceola contributing analyst Mark Salva, who played center for the Seminoles from 1984-87 and coached offensive line at FSU until 1993, made a statement on our podcast last week I believe to be true about managing a team with an 0-4 record.

“Make their world smaller,” he said. “Silence whatever noise you can silence around them.”

To my way of thinking, Norvell made the world smaller by keeping it simple.

By working the clock to one second, Syracuse had no way to get the ball back, which eliminated the chance of another Jacksonville State nightmare. He also gave his assistants time to put the team in the best position to prevent the kick from being blocked. He gave players time to think about their assignment. As a result, the operation was smooth. 

“The thing I appreciated (watching film) was it took all three phases,” Norvell said. “Defense getting a stop there in the two minute late. Offense having a minute to have to go down the field to put us in position and then we had to go execute a field goal on the last play to be able to win it. To see our guys respond in that fashion, to see the joy, the excitement, the celebration afterwards.  Something we need as a football team. There has not been a lot of moments where we have been able to finish a game in that fashion. That’s what we needed to be able to do. It was a great outcome for us and something we have to build upon.” 

Progress and opportunities

The aforementioned series was an opportunity to watch Norvell manage the clock and the game, which is one of the positive takeaways.

The fact FSU won — doesn’t matter against who — is another positive. This has been a team that has fought back time and again and yet not win. Winning isn’t as easy as the 1990s teams made it look, especially when shooting oneself in the foot.

You don’t see teams with four losses fighting back the way this team has, responding positively to adversity. And you certainly don’t expect to see players still buying in, working hard to get better. But this team has. And on Saturday night, they were rewarded for their effort. The fans who have hung in there through four losses and 60 minutes of hell Saturday appreciate that quality in these players and maybe that’s why the fans joined in the celebration. 

The difference between this game and Jacksonville State was fewer bullet holes in the boots. The Seminoles committed 11 penalties against JSU, two of which accounted for at least 10 points. FSU had nine penalties in the overtime loss to ND, any one of which might have made a difference. FSU had seven penalties against Wake, four against Louisville and three this past Saturday and managed not to have anyone ejected for targeting.

Those are signs of progress.

For the first time this year, the Seminoles played with their best five linemen. In the second quarter redshirt freshman Maurice Smith returned at center. Smith was injured prior to the ND game and though he tried to play, could not. Robert Scott only recently returned. Though neither is full speed, they bring experience and talent to the offense. 

Heading into this game, Syracuse was ranked No. 1 in the nation with 18 sacks while the ‘Noles were ranked 117th in sacks allowed with 15, almost four per game. FSU gave up two sacks Saturday. Credit the OL and a slippery Travis.

“You can go watch the film and see a lot of things we emphasize, why they allow us to be productive,” Norvell said. “We converted 8 of 17 on our ‘cash down situations’ — third and fourth down combined — offensively, being able to sustain drives.” 

We’ve wondered if FSU was simply a home-run hitter who strikes out between dingers. On Saturday, FSU put together six extended drives:

17 plays 48 yards, 35-yard field goal Field Goal

5 plays 50 yards Touchdown

6 plays 75 yards Touchdown

8 plays 44 yards Touchdown 

5 plays 80 yards Touchdown 

7 plays 63 yards, 34-yard Field Goal 

You don’t often see a 17-play drive. FSU consumed seven minutes and 10 seconds on that field-goal drive. The marathon included a third-down and two fourth-down conversions. 

While still a Travis-dependent, big-play offense, those drives are a sign of progress. 

“Offensively we were six of six (in the red zone) offensively. There were only three penalties,” Norvell said. “We were 2 of 15 defensively (on third and fourth down). We had a lot of big stops, getting off the field. Look at the red zone. We got some stops with field goals. The goal-line stand. 

“There are areas we need to see improvement, but you see growth and steps from our team playing better football,” Norvell said. “On the flip side of it we had two turnovers, the one muffed punt and the interception, something we have to clean up. In special teams we had some real missed opportunities.”

You may find it hard to find signs of progress on a defense that gives up 30 points each week and allowed 15 plays of 10 or more yards. Five of those 15 big plays exceeded 20 yards, two Shrader runs and three passes. 

But the defense did help FSU win the game. In addition to forcing five “three and outs,” the Seminoles had two fourth-down stops after an Travis interception at the FSU 41 and the fumbled punt at the 34. The defense, which was ranked 103rd in the nation at stopping third downs, held SU to two third-down conversions on 12 tries and 0 for 3 on fourth-down tries. 

“We’ve known all along what this team has been capable of and we knew it was always a matter of us playing a full 60-minute game,” said defensive end Jermaine Johnson. “I still don’t think we really did that tonight but we came up with the W. I said we had the potential to do it and we got the job done tonight. We are definitely not satisfied. We need to go watch film, fix the little errors. I know I had one big, missed tackle. We need to get those little errors and mistakes out of the way so we can be the team we are capable of being.”

It is fair to acknowledge that the Syracuse quarterback, who accounted for 137 net scramble yards, is good. The four-star quarterback from Charlotte, N.C., was rated the 6th and 8th best quarterback in the nation by ESPN and Rivals, respectively, coming out of high school. Shrader played in 14 games at Mississippi State, starting four, where he was one of only three freshmen in the country to account for 1,000 yards passing and 500 rushing, leading MSU in rushing in three SEC games. 

Still a lot of details to clean up

Norvell takes a lot of pride in his special teams and uses a lot of practice time for the units but it’s not showing up on Saturday as much as it could.

While FSU’s punting game won the battle again on Saturday night, averaging 44.7 yards per punt (44.2 net), the ‘Noles did not play clean on kickoff return (13-yard average compared to Syracuse 29.8-yard average). And while we love Fitzgerald for making both field-goal attempts, he’s missed two PATs this year and that made the math more difficult the last two weeks. The missed extra point could have been the difference against Syracuse as well, had they not missed an extra point themselves.

“We gave up too many yards in the return game in kickoff coverage and then our punt return and kick return has to get better, has to improve,” Norvell said. “We spend too much time and emphasis during the course of practice for it not to show up. Whether it’s indecisiveness or lack of production maybe at certain positions we have to improve upon.”  

FSU received five kickoffs from Syracuse and tried to return three. If you call for a fair catch or let it go through the end zone, you get the ball at the 25-yard line. Instead, FSU tried to return those three kicks and managed to return the ball to the 23, 20 and 16-yard line, 16 yards less than if they had not returned them. Against Louisville, FSU reached the 14, 19 and 29-yard line. Five of the six possessions started in worse shape than if they did not return them. In five games this year, the Seminoles have returned 15 kicks, reaching the 25 yard line just five times (27, 29, 37, 37 and 40 yard line). Ten returns fell short (14, 15, 16, 16, 19, 20, 20, 20, 22, 23). 

That doesn’t seem productive, especially given the practice time expended.  

Special teams’ coordinator John Papuchis isn’t ready to wave the white flag as a kick return can be an explosive play. With explosive players, there’s reason to work to improve and times where discretion is the better part of valor.

Same goes with the punt return unit. 

The Seminoles had a 10-point lead (23-13), and taken momentum, halfway through the third quarter. The defense held Syracuse to two yards on the ensuing three plays to force a punt. Rather than catching the ball at the 35, Ontaria Wilson muffed the catch, breathing life back into the Orange. 

Syracuse reached the 1-yard line where the ‘Noles stopped them on a fourth-and-1 collision between 230-pound quarterback Shrader and 220-pound FSU linebacker Kalen DeLoach. That fourth-down stop should have demoralized Syracuse but the FSU offense could not move the chains and punted on fourth-and-1. A hot Syracuse offense scored four plays later to cut the lead to three. 

Saturday was a catharsis, not an exorcism

Winning can cure a lot but not as much as recruiting talent and experience. FSU is a young team without a lot of experience. 

The ‘Noles played at least seven freshmen on important downs, including three redshirt freshmen starting on the offensive line and true freshmen at receiver, defensive line and two in the secondary.

The defensive line was without arguably its most dynamic defensive lineman, redshirt freshman Dennis Briggs, who was injured on a chop block against Louisville and is now out for the year. Fabien Lovett, who did not play against Louisville because of injury, gave it a go this week and got relief from true freshman Josh Farmer. Baptism by fire for Farmer against a formidable rushing team. We also saw true freshman Shyheim Brown and Kevin Knowles in the secondary at critical moments.

While freshman receiver Malik McClain dropped a first quarter slant that might have allowed the ‘Noles a touchdown rather than a field goal, it’s an experience gained. Same with Farmer, Brown and Knowles.

That’s progress.

FSU will need to play exceptionally clean if it is to compete at North Carolina this weekend. Keep penalties down and cleaning up those special teams issues would help.

Saturday’s win should reinforce the message Norvell has been preaching, which is “work works.” If this team is to be better next year, it has to continue to work this year. Somehow Norvell’s staff has kept them working through a 1-4 start. The experience they gain this year will pay dividends later.

“We needed to get a win,” Norvell said on Saturday. “It was a wonderful feeling to step into that locker room and see those smiles and seeing the joy of the investment that went into this week but also all the weeks prior. These guys have not stopped working, and I’m not going to let them stop working. We are going to continue to push and get better with each day that we get.”

After watching film, Norvell’s message on Monday had not changed.

“All in all, I was really proud we were able to come out with a victory and now a new and great challenge presents itself at North Carolina,” Norvell said.