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Column: FSU displays fight but mistakes pile up

CLEMSON, S.C. — In our previews of the Florida State-Clemson game each of us felt the Seminoles had a puncher’s chance to win the football game. So before we get into the nitty gritty details, this is a a good time to remind ourselves of a basic rule of football we too often ignore: Offense is fun and fills seats, defense is dependable and wins games.

This game was won by a very good Clemson defense. 

The game was not lost by any one thing we’ll cover in the following paragraphs, it was won — as most games are — by a defense that leads the NCAA in numerous statistical categories, a defense that has played together for years, and is just the most recent edition of mastermind Brent Venables. 

The Seminoles trailed Clemson 17-13 at the half but consider this: The Seminoles had 154 yards of total offense at the half and 75 of those yards came on one play, a pass from Jordan Travis to Lawrance Toafili that included the catch, a tumble and acrobatic roll over the Tiger tackler, remarkable balance and a tip-toe moonwalk just inside the sideline chalk for a touchdown. The play made the ESPN highlight reel. FSU spent the other 29 minutes and 45 seconds of the first half scratching and clawing for the other 79 yards the Tigers begrudgingly surrendered.

“That was one of the most incredible plays I’ve ever seen, just for the balance,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said. “He’s explosive. He’s got to be a weapon for this team. I’m excited about what his future is going to be just because of the type of young man that he is and the work that he puts in coupled with the skill that he has.”

FSU, a team that had averaged 200 yards per game running the football, managed just 68 yards on 34 carries without a rushing touchdown.

Venables had a plan and importantly the personnel to stop the run and contain Travis’ feet. The plan, which often included seven or eight defenders in or near the box on running downs, worked and the Seminoles couldn’t execute anything to counter the Tigers’ size, speed, strength and defensive execution.

The Seminoles had 14 possessions in the game with six drives of five plays or more. The offense only had just one drive of more than six plays after the first quarter.

The Seminoles struggled to sustain drives in the second half — Travis completed 9 of 15 passes for 71 yards — but the FSU defense held the Tigers scoreless by creating two turnovers and stopping CU on third down, which resulted in two missed field goals in the second half. 

Let it not be lost in the disappointment, or be overshadowed by the Clemson defense, that FSU’s defense played a very physical game as well. While giving up 248 first-half yards, the Seminoles held Clemson to 129 in the second half.

“Our defense, I thought they stepped up,” said Norvell. “To get the touchdown, force the fumble, create the takeaways, I was really pleased with how they responded there in the second half.

“I thought our defense battled. Backs against the wall, all the things that showed up throughout the game, it was impressive. To be able to force field goals, sometimes they had short fields but continued to fight and battle. Unfortunately, came up a little short there at the end.”

“Defense came up big today,” Travis said of his teammates. “MVP today for this team. They kept us in the game in reality.”

Tigers were in trouble until the zebras showed up

The Seminole defense was forcing the Tigers to leave the zoo gate open and, with 7:39 left in the game, Jermaine Johnson broke through the line, stripped the ball from DJ Uiagalelei, scooped up the ball and scored. It was the defensive version of Toafili’s athletic first-half play.

The Seminoles were not just in the game, they were in the lead and effectively quieting the partisan and raucous crowd. The Noles were in sniffing distance of a highly improbable upset, in spite of the Clemson defense.

No sooner had Johnson staked the Seminoles to a 20-17 lead than the zebras came to the Tigers’ rescue with a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. In a moment of euphoria, Johnson tossed the ball into the air as he celebrated with teammates rather than finding a referee to hand it to. 

Defensive linemen are not accustomed to scoring touchdowns, the first of his career. They don’t practice ball disposition following a touchdown.

Johnson didn’t do a dance. He didn’t put his finger in the quarterback’s face. He didn’t spike the ball. After scoring the first touchdown of his college career, Johnson tossed the ball 15 to 20 feet into the air, a bad choice for Johnson and a bad call by the official on what the commentators agreed is a nuanced interpretation of the rule.

The penalty charged on the ensuing kickoff enabled the Tigers to start at their own 38 rather than 25, which was 13 yards closer to field-goal range to tie the game. While the Seminole defense stopped Clemson on three plays, the celebration penalty still punished FSU as the Tigers’ punt, and the failure to fair catch it — more about that in a moment — pinned the Seminoles at their own 19. 

There was just over five minutes remaining in the game. A couple of first downs would run the clock and gain field position, making it more difficult for Clemson’s offense to score. But it wasn’t going to be that easy, not against the CU defense.

Things went Trick-or-Treat bad for the Seminoles

On first down at the 19, FSU false started. Perhaps it was crowd noise. Perhaps it was an induced shift by the CU defensive line. Perhaps nerves. Whatever. False starts, which had been common in FSU’s first four losses, had disappeared in their recent three wins until now.

On first-and-19, the aggressive Tiger defense could now lay their ears back and attack the offensive line, stuffing Travis on an intentional run. They then brought the house on second-and-14. Travis avoided a sack and gained one to set up a third-and-13 at FSU’s 16 with 4:38 remaining. While it would be nice to convert the third-and-long to keep Clemson’s offense off the field, the odds weren’t good against the Clemson defense and increasingly loud crowd. From their own 16-yard line, FSU was not in two-down territory. Travis took the snap, took a look down field, saw no one open and ran it to the 20 in hot pursuit. It was a patient and secure play. Discretion being the better part of valor. Punt it and play defense, which had pressured Uiagalelei, stuffed the run and created two turnovers. FSU punted to the Clemson 42. 

On first-and-10, Clemson found man coverage against freshman corner Kevin Knowles, who was in a hand fight with the Tiger receiver, whose hands were on Knowles as well. The zebra dropped the flag on Knowles for interference, another call the commentators questioned. The 15-yard penalty moved CU closer to field-goal range, which would tie the game.

FSU held Clemson to a gain of two on first down and chased Uiagalelei to the sideline with FSU linebacker DJ Lundy closing fast. The zebra threw the flag higher than Johnson had thrown the football, citing Lundy — who commentators thought had initiated contact with Uiagalelei while still in bounds — with unnecessary roughness.  

Norvell was asked about the penalties in his post-game press conference and managed to keep it classy.

“I expressed my opinion at the moment but if you have 15-yard defensive penalties on drives, you usually put yourself in a challenging situation to stop people,” Norvell said. “We’ve got to make sure we continue to work so those things don’t show up.”

A follow up question was specifically about the pass interference penalty.

“They are judgment calls,” Norvell said. “I thought Kevin fought for good position. You’re trying to play the hands at the moment but it’s the call that was made.”

Unfortunately, these calls are not reviewable. The reviewable calls made by this crew were reversed. One can only wonder if the guy in the booth would have come to the same nuanced conclusion as the broadcasters in the booth. Unfortunately, reviews of this nature would extend ACC football games well past four hours. On the other hand, the television gods may order ACC refs to call fewer penalties.  

Two 15-yard penalties in three plays, three 15-yard penalties in the last four minutes of a tight ball game, and the fourth for the false start, sent the crowd into a hysteria. It was as if the Clemson fans just saw Trevor Lawrence appear on the field with another year of eligibility.

Those two 15-yard penalties accounted for 30 of the 37 yards Clemson’s offense managed to gain in driving from the CU 42 to the FSU 21. 

More, they ignited the crowd, gave Clemson hope, and demoralized a young defense. Clemson looked to have scored the next play, which was reviewed and overturned but scored the game winner a play later.

FSU needs Ghostbusters, stat

It’s Halloween weekend and I see ghosts, like the penalties, special-teams mistakes and sacks that contributed to FSU’s 0-4 start. 

Blame the officials if you like. The players and coaches know the margins are thin and have learned the hard way how critical it is to avoid penalties. But how can a freshman like Knowles, or a redshirt freshman like Lundy, have the presence of mind in the heat of the moment? 

My hunch is focus comes with experience. And in the absence of focus, your team must have superior talent or execution to make up for the calls that go against you. That comes through freshmen becoming sophomores, your offseason development and recruiting players with more talent, in other words not before FSU faces NC State.

I’m more disturbed by the ghosts of the punt return team, which showed up again. Fortunately, the ghosts of kick return did not.

On three occasions, Treshaun Ward found himself in a position where he did not, or could not, fair catch the punt. Instead, he allowed it to bounce and roll 10 to 15 yards. On the first I thought he might have been spooked by swirling winds but those 30 to 45 yards are hidden yardage that buries your offense deep in a hole they otherwise would not be if the returner simply did not allow the ball to hit the ground. 

“I thought (Clemson) did a pretty good job of trying to spray it,” Norvell said. “If you don’t feel comfortable (catching it), we want possession of the ball. But yeah, absolutely, we’re trying to field every ball that is punted. That last one, they rolled right and kicked back across. That was a good job by their guys and we’ve got to go get it. It’s all things that we’re working but, in the moment, he made the decision that he didn’t feel comfortable so we’ve got to roll with that.”

A freshman, Ward has proven to be a dependable ballplayer but he’s the fourth returner FSU has tried in eight games. The others have been Keyshawn Helton, Travis Jay and Ontaria Wilson.

One wonders if FSU would still be having these problems if they had stuck with one returner — say Helton — and coached him up. Or is the nature of today’s punt coverage such that a team is better served with more than one returner back there so you got a better chance to field it if they spray it?

Not fielding punts is not an option and it bit FSU in the buttocks twice in the final minutes, when punts bounced and rolled into no man’s land, which greatly reduces any chance of mounting a winning drive.

This needs to get fixed and can be fixed as FSU has players capable of handling the responsibility. 

Fixing the hobbled offensive line and therefore pass pro is not so easy. 

The Seminoles gave up six sacks in this game, and only God knows how many pressures, as Travis had more people chasing him than an OJ Simpson motorcade.

While the pass pro wasn’t as good as it has been in recent wins, you have to look at the opponent, which includes NFL-bound dudes.

With no disrespect to the offensive line, you cannot expect to win a gunfight with a knife.

As you know FSU’s line includes three redshirt freshmen and two veterans — Dillan Gibbons and Devontay Love-Taylor — who were are all banged up. Love-Taylor missed the UMass game, and Gibbons was a question mark going into the Clemson game. 

Gibbons’ preparation was “very, very limited,” Norvell said. “The toughness that he showed. He’s a tough son of a gun. He was really limited. Some of the things that showed up, it’s hard to do what he did. All those guys up front have been battling. I was really proud of him for going out there and being able to do what he did. Hopefully, he comes out of it well and we’ll continue to work towards this next week.”

“I’m proud of them,” Travis said of the OL. “Dillan, earlier this week, I didn’t think he was playing at all. Guy comes in smiling today, ready to go. It’s a great feeling for me knowing that the guys want to work for me and protect me. Just keeps me going. Keeps me upright, keeps me smiling on my face. I’m thankful for my guys.” 

Pass pro becomes even more challenging when the running game isn’t going and you find yourself in first-and-15 and second-and-9 situations. Clemson also did a great job of containing Travis with creative twists that prevented him from getting out on the edge as often as he has in previous games.

These linemen aren’t suddenly going to be perfectly healthy or become a different player during the remainder of the schedule, which features more good defenses. What the players can do is to use this intense experience to improve their focus while the FSU coaches will be challenged to dial up the running game or find other ways to help this offense.

FSU competed, which is step in right direction

The primary goal for most FSU fans coming into this season was to cheer for a team that would fight and not quit, and for a team that could compete again. That’s been the modus operandi for this team in every game they’ve played this year. Norvell was asked Saturday if he learned anything new about his team. 

“No,” he said, “because I believe in this team. They’re about the right things. They are trained extremely hard, they are pushed hard and they are going to respond. They are not going to quit, they are not going to lay down. I think you saw some challenging moments tonight and the way that they battle.

“I didn’t really learn anything new about them because I know what they have in their hearts and the way they’re willing to work. That’s going to be a foundation of our program in everything that we’re doing.”