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Column: FSU is capable of even more if it limits mistakes

Head and heart? 

Saturday’s victory over No. 5 North Carolina was a catharsis for the Florida State football program, reminiscent of the 1973 film “The Exorcist,” with head-spinning demons stubbornly resisting expulsion.

Seminole fans were just exhausted in the last minute watching the Tar Heels driving to cap off a 24-point, second-half comeback. The score was FSU 31, UNC 28 with under a minute to play. Former FSU commitment Sam Howell was playing pitch and catch, moving UNC to the FSU 41-yard line with under 50 seconds remaining. How many times have we been in this situation, including a 2016 loss when UNC kicked a 54-yard field goal with no time remaining after a pass interference call with four seconds remaining?

You have seen those words “Help Me” written across your Seminole football team as plainly as  the priests saw them on young Reagan’s stomach in the Academy Award nominated film. 

Not one, but three, Howell passes bounced off receivers’ hands as the Seminole defense held, preserving the victory and purging the demons. 

When a fourth-down pass was dropped, Doak Campbell Stadium erupted — all 18,000 socially distanced fans and many more across the country — taking this victory as a clear sign Lucifer is defeated and the Seminole future is brighter.

“Really pleased with our football team to do the things necessary to win the football game,” Mike Norvell said after Monday’s practice. “Like I mentioned, you tell guys all the time ‘you never know when that one play is going to make the difference.’ Through the course of that contest, there were a lot of plays that made an incredible impact.

“On the flip side of it, I thought there were a lot of things that we’re going to have to continue to clean up, continue to address and stay focused on. The reality of it is we made that game a lot more interesting than it needed to be.”

The game had to be decided on defense

Our football writer Patrick Burnham loves for us to do predictions and I gave this one a lot of thought. I sent him the following email prior to the game: 

“Head says UNC 42, FSU 33. Heart says FSU 33, UNC 31. When I say heart, I am referring to FSU’s heart, not mine. The key to upsetting a well-coached and balanced team occurs in head and heart. FSU needs to think and speak victory. FSU needs to have done thorough film study and preparation Monday to Friday. Come Saturday, FSU needs to play smart — minimize missed assignments — and play with heart, something they are learning to do. If FSU defense minimizes bone-headed plays and fights through blockers, FSU wins this 33-31.”

Pretty close, right?

My thinking was FSU’s defense needed to be one touchdown better than they were at Notre Dame for FSU to pull off an upset. They proved to be two touchdowns better. Effort, which has been lacking, was the difference Saturday and reason to lavish praise upon the entire unit but especially the front four.

The entire FSU team played with heart Saturday. Since Jordan Travis has stepped behind center, we have grown to expect it from the offense and we’ve seen it from special teams. 

Travis took an additional step forward this Saturday, offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said. “He’s got a calm demeanor to begin with so that’s not an area of growth but when he got out of the pocket this week, it wasn’t, ‘Let’s just go run.’ We talked about it all last week when you get out of the pocket, extend passing plays. Don’t turn passing plays into runs and I thought he did a great job of extending those passing plays.”

One extension resulted in a touchdown pass to tight end Camren McDonald and another to Keyshawn Helton.

Frankly, I think FSU fans know to expect heart from the Travis-led offense but we had not seen it from the defense yet this year. It was stunning to see FSU’s defensive front playing hard, fighting through blockers, to stone UNC’s formidable offense in the first half, helping FSU build a 31-7 halftime lead.

The front played with heart in the second half too, considering they lost two regulars. Sophomore Fabien Lovett was on the sidelines in shorts and Cory Durden was ejected for targeting on UNC’s only scoring drive of the first half. Dennis Briggs, a promising sophomore, stepped in and gave a good accounting of himself alongside an inspired Marvin Wilson and Robert Cooper, who played like we expected them to play all season. 

Janarius Robinson and Joshua Kaindoh also played their best games at end, pressuring Howell and doing a better job with edge control.

The biggest difference was in effort as the defensive front four not only fought through blocks but chased the ball carrier throughout the night. Even in the second half, when the defense was exhausted from being on the field so much, they showed effort.

But what caused the change in attitude?

“Part of playing at a high level is you’ve got to see yourself doing that,” Norvell said. “You’ve got to prepare and have confidence in what you can do. There’s plenty of people in the world who can tell you what you can’t. Guys had to play a lot of plays, but to see the effort they gave, you sit there and you watch that defensive front, even on that last drive, it was so impressive seeing them chase the ball, working to impact the quarterback.”

While pleased with the effort, defensive coordinator Adam Fuller sees a higher ceiling for his unit.

“I was proud of the front. We’ve been on them. Just from an execution standpoint, it hasn’t always been the effort we want but the execution overall,” said Fuller. “And not just with the front, but the entire team. We played with better fundamental technique, but the effort showed, we had some real good effort plays from a number of guys in the front. And it starts there — you need to win the line of scrimmage. I don’t care what level of football you have. And that comes with being in a good stance, it comes with getting off the football, playing with the right technique, and then building a wall in the run game. Then the transition from run to pass. I thought our guys did a good job of that. We had some really good performances up front. That needs to continue and it needs to build from there.”

Spectacular first half

Carolina’s first three possessions ended with punts, two of which were blocked and led to points. Their fifth possession was stopped on fourth down and their sixth possession was a pick six by defensive end Kaindoh, who was prepared for the route thanks to film study.

It was a remarkable and unexpected first half of defense for FSU. 

While the second half was a nail biter, it didn’t have to be had the offense not shot itself in the foot so many times. And that’s the good news. Florida State beat a ranked team and did it without playing a perfect game. 

“I thought the first half, for 30 minutes, probably played as good of football as you’re going to see. All three units made a major impact. Whether it was executing a two-minute drive, the pick six, doing a great job on third and fourth downs defensively, the special teams with the two blocked punts. It was an impressive 30 minutes of ball,” Norvell said. 

The FSU offense could have closed the game on the opening drive of the second half but a cheezy personal foul on Dontae Lucas killed a drive. The Noles had driven 72 yards to the UNC 3-yard line, when the sophomore repeated a freshman mistake. The penalty pushed FSU back to the 21-yard line and earned Lucas a seat on the bench. Two incomplete passes later, FSU missed a 38-yard field goal, which gave UNC life.

There were other missed opportunities, four offensive penalties that killed drives, 10 team penalties. Before we get into the mistakes, let’s give props to Mike Norvell and offensive line coach Alex Atkins for sitting Lucas down, teaching in the moment. What a great teaching moment it was for the promising sophomore as he clearly saw the impact his actions had on his team, on the defense and could have had on the outcome.

Every play matters.

“You never know when that one play will make a difference,” Norvell said he told his team after the game. “In the second half, we stubbed our toe multiple times. Had penalties that derailed us in moments, missed a couple opportunities there with our field-goal team. Got in the red zone, wasn’t able to capitalize. We’ve got to stay focused on those critical factors, what it is to play winning football.

Rather than pack it in, North Carolina was born again, a different offense in the second half. The FSU defense stopped UNC’s ensuing drive with a goal-line stand but it was very clear the game was not over. FSU’s offense had two three-and-out series and Carolina’s offense scored after each, bringing the score to 31-21. On the next series, Travis was under pressure and threw an ill-advised pass intercepted at the FSU 30 yard line.

You could feel the game slipping away but the FSU defense held on two plays and the UNC kicker missed a long attempt.

With 13:39 remaining in the game, and FSU nursing a 10-point lead, the ‘Noles mounted a drive to the UNC 14. On third-and-3, FSU shoots itself in the foot again with an illegal motion penalty moving the ball back to a much more difficult third-and-8 at the 19. The Seminoles gained one and then missed a field goal, which could have provided the defense with some breathing room. However, the drive did take six minutes and forty seconds off the fourth-quarter clock.

Again, you could feel the game slipping away as North Carolina went 80 yards in seven plays, burning only one minute and 42 seconds to narrow the score to 31-28.

It only got worse on the next FSU possession, which began with a false start on first down. Two plays later FSU punted it right back to a red-hot Carolina offense with 2:28 remaining. An eternity.

This column is not to rain on the parade but to illustrate what is to come for FSU to continue to climb the ladder. They played a top 5 Notre Dame team on the road pretty close, then beat a Top 5 North Carolina team at home and in neither game did they play perfect or even up to their potential.

Seeing the team improve, having fun, bouncing around on the sideline even in adverse moments, helps fans to fall in love with their team again.

Aggravating as the mistakes are to watch, they provide headroom. Your Seminoles are not bumping their head against their ceiling yet and that gives us hope for better days ahead.

While the defense played 81 snaps, compared to 55 for the offense, they never gave in to exhaustion. There were times I thought Mike Norvell might burn a timeout to give his defense a blow but they fought through it. Rather than hanging heads, they looked to be having fun, which is something we haven’t seen in years and, I think, the source of our hope for the future.

The fact the effort paid off Saturday should be confirmation that hard work leads to good results and should lead to even more player buy-in to what the coaches are teaching.

“Like I said, we made enough plays to come out on top,” Norvell said. “It was a big win for our team, big win for our program, our fans. I thought the atmosphere, for being limited capacity, was incredible. I thought the Marching Chiefs did a wonderful job. It was good to see them in full effect. They’re in the end zone and it was definitely a great atmosphere for our team and a big win for our program.”

Let’s be honest. The demons haunting FSU over the years are not vanquished but week after week Norvell and this staff will continue to play the role of exorcist. As the demons — heart and head — are bested, it improves the outlook for the season and the program.

“We’re excited about the win that we just had, but you go watch that film, and there’s a lot of things that really kind of pissed me off that I saw that we’ve got to get corrected,” Norvell said. “I think they’re really buying in to that mentality, that work ethic. There were a lot of guys who played a ton of snaps, but they came in yesterday, got a good work session, we watched film, we emphasized some of the corrections and celebrated a lot of the positives. It’s two-fold of what we’re doing, you’ve got to be able to point out the things that are meeting the standard of what we’re trying to do, but then addressing the things where we need to improve. This team is buying into that.

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