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Column: Embarrassing night with a lengthy road to redemption

Florida State lost to Jacksonville State, an FCS team who lost 31-0 to UAB the week before, a team the Seminoles were favored to beat by 27.5 points and the first loss to an FCS team in school history.

If a football game can have a worse outcome than this one, please don’t invite me.

“It is embarrassing,” starting quarterback McKenzie Milton said. “It is embarrassing the way we performed on the field today. We have to own that. That’s who we are. That’s who we are today. We lost to Jacksonville State, and we are 0-2. All we can do is look forward and we have Wake Forest next.”

I have to agree with Milton on all points.

  • Embarrassing. Check.
  • Embarrassing the way FSU played. Check.
  • We have to own that. Check.
  • That’s who we are today. Check. 
  • We lost to Jacksonville State. Check.
  • We are 0-2. Check.
  • All we can do is look ahead and Wake Forest is next. Check.

I especially agree with this statement, “We have to own that. That’s who we are today.”

Florida State’s preseason football camp was open to the media this year, which allowed us to see all the improvement and all the things that needed improvement. You saw all the good we had seen come to fruition in a 41-38 overtime loss to No. 9 Notre Dame and six days later you saw all the bad we had seen in a 20-17 loss to Jacksonville State.

Prior to kickoff, I thought the Gamecocks could be as challenging of an opponent as the Irish but for entirely different reasons. FSU has had a tendency to play up in big games and to lose focus and play down against lower-rated opponents. It is just who the Seminoles have been. I went into this game hoping to see growth in focus. Obviously, we didn’t see growth.

So we are who we are today, a flawed team but one with potential. 

Do you remember Bobby Bowden’s definition of the word “potential”?

“It means we ain’t done it yet,” Bowden liked to say.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to analyze the scene of this crime. To lose to an FCS team on one’s own field (where else would it be played), one must bludgeon oneself mercilessly and repeatedly with a variety of blunt instruments: dropped touchdown passes, missed open-field tackles, and an array of penalties, mental mistakes by players and coaches. 

I believe Bob Ferrante, Pat Burnham and Nick Carlisle have sufficiently documented the crime scene in their stories so I won’t re-hash them all here. Let me abbreviate the analysis to just the last two minutes when FSU’s offense could have won the game by extending their final possession. The ‘Noles caught a break on a third-and-4 incompletion when JSU jumped offsides giving FSU a fresh set of downs with 3:10 remaining. Mike Norvell and Kenny Dillingham ran it on first and second down, setting up a third-and-1 with 1:40 remaining. The Seminoles chose to run the wildcat again and Corbin was dropped for a loss of one. If FSU converts the third-down play, they would not have given the ball back to JSU with 1:32 remaining. 

Instead, JSU quarterback Zerrick Cooper managed to get 10 plays off in that short time span, TEN, the last with three seconds remaining. 

His last, game-winning throw came against a defensive formation that was roundly questioned by fans and the media who expected to see a prevent defense. “It was a two-deep man under,” Norvell said. “We wanted to make sure we tried to get pressure on the quarterback but have coverage over the top. They still had one time out, just to not give something quickly underneath or in the intermediate passing game with a time out (is why we) did not go to an immediate prevent.”

JSU did have one timeout but 59 yards to cover in only three seconds with a field goal kicker whose longest made kick was 42 yards. To put him at that distance, JSU would have had to reach the FSU 25 — a 34-yard throw and catch — and hope a tick was left on the clock, improbable in two seconds.  

Nevertheless, defensive coordinator Adam Fuller’s call did put two defenders in position to make the game-winning tackle and both missed, which is another issue. 

This, and other, heinous crimes certainly puts the FSU football team back behind the bars in college football’s cellar. But their sentence does not have to be for life.

Steps to redemption

The first step to redeeming themselves is to own this loss, which FSU players and Mike Norvell have. 

“I apologize to our fan base, to our university, to all Seminoles for the performance we had,” Norvell said. “You take ownership of it and you go and you work. You correct the things that have to be corrected to play to the level we are capable of playing. This team has talent. It has heart. They truly do. 

“Obviously, we did not have our team ready to play today. Coming off of last week, we definitely did not play to the standard of what we are capable of. The penalties, the self-inflicted mistakes mentally, 100 percent on me. Did not have the guys ready to go. That’s something that will be fixed, will be addressed in every potential way that we can moving forward. That was a very disappointing performance for our football team.”

The second step — the why — is easy to figure. The eye in the sky don’t lie. Film will reveal exactly what is wrong and it is us. Florida State’s opponent this week isn’t Wake Forest. FSU’s opponent is FSU. 

The third, and most-difficult step, is fixing it. How do you teach a receiver to focus so they don’t drop a pass? How do you teach linemen to focus so as not to jump offsides or find themselves down field on a pass play? Or fix defenders’ focus?

“We have to make a choice. The accountabilities are there,” Norvell said. “The things we are trying to do is to have a heightened sense of focus on the details. Every day we are pushing to make sure the mental aspect of it, creating that sense of intensity there in practice, trying to give the same sense of emotional feel that you can play in the moment and be locked in our assignment, your job, but that isn’t showing up on gameday.” 

A tried-and-true OG coaching method is to make the consequences so great as to change behavior either with playing time — habitual offenders don’t see the playing field — or with up-downs or bear crawls or whatever other corrective action you choose.

Employing officials to throw flags in every drill of every practice, and then enforcing corrective action after practice, would be one way to encourage focus and to create a game-like atmosphere.  

Norvell knows he must get the focus corrected and quick. 

“If that doesn’t get corrected by the process, then we have to re-evaluate our personnel of how to get that fixed because that is something we cannot do,” he said. “To be a good offense, you’ve got to be able to play ahead of the chains and there are too many times we are in long-yardage situations because of self-inflicted mental mistakes when it comes to penalties. We have to continue to work fundamentally defensively to make sure we don’t allow drives to be extended because of poor hands or poor feet there in our pass coverage.”

Challenging time

Walking through parking lot 14 (the intramural fields), I heard a lot of arm-chair quarterbacking comments, but this one caught my attention. 

“I’m quitting football, this hurts too much,” a man said. By the time I laid eyes on the voice he had already torn off a sweaty garnet polo and one gold Skecher. Friends kept him from throwing the garments into the trash can. “I’ll burn them instead,” he said. “Anyone got a lighter?”

I have an idea we may have had a bonfire in lot 14 if anyone had a lighter, such was the postgame mood for the Seminole fanbase, which Norvell has worked hard to build.

“I’ve been a part of very challenging times before in programs,” Norvell was saying a couple of hundred yards away in his post-game press conference. “Tonight is a challenging time for our university and our football team for what we just did. We will get it corrected. It is going to be through the work, everything we do each and every day moving forward. It is my responsibility to get that corrected.”

Jashuan Corbin knows what it will take too.

“Nip the self-inflicted things in the butt,” he said succinctly. “We have to figure it out and clean it up, simple as that.”

Jermaine Johnson has been a solid figure on the field and will need to be a stand-up guy among this young team everywhere else.

“It hurts. We can mourn on it for 24 hours,” Johnson said. “We have to shake it off. It’s not just about us. We’ve got a community, a city, we got fans all over the world behind us, that’s our family. We have to put our best foot forward. Flush it. Next play. Next game. Next practice. We can’t say we’re about good responses when things are going good. That’s what this whole offseason was about. We can’t be fakes. We have to put our best foot forward. Have a great response at practice next week and flush it.” 

Johnson thinks his teammates will respond appropriately.

“I know this group of guys,” he said. “We are all bought in. We are still all bought in. We are passionate about it. We love the sport. We love the fans. We love the university, or we all wouldn’t have come here. I know it hurts. I can’t ask them not to have emotions. I can’t ask them how to mourn it. Twenty-four-hour rule: Watch the film, see how you feel but next week we have to flush it. We have to have a great response, which is what we are building upon. If not, we are fake. All we can do is lead by example. We have to do that and we will do that.”

Team that makes least mistakes wins

Johnson made another statement that should challenge his teammates, “The team that makes the least mistakes wins the game.”

While that statement wasn’t true in the JSU game — the Gamecocks had a bushelful, with 13 of the game’s 24 penalties — it is likely to prove true against Wake Forest, who traditionally plays with few unforced errors. 

The Deacs average just three penalties (32-yard avg.) and have had only one interception and one fumble lost in wins over Old Dominion (42-10) and Norfolk State (41-16). By comparison, the Seminoles average 10 penalties per game (84-yard avg.) and have had four interceptions and no fumbles lost in two losses. 

Don’t expect Florida State to play without mistakes. That’s not who the Seminoles are, have been, or ever will be. We have always been an athletic program who plays at high speed and with a reckless sense of abandonment. In the Dynasty Era we often led the nation in penalties. 

What Norvell is looking for are fewer unforced penalties, fewer drops, fewer turnovers and missed assignments. The ‘Noles need to focus on doing that against a faceless opponent this week at practice if they hope to do it against Wake on Saturday.

Don’t burn your Skechers, Seminoles. Flush this loss. There’s games yet to be played on this rollercoaster we call FSU football.