It seems longer than three weeks ago.
Florida State’s best half of football — of the season, in the last few years, honestly — was just enough to hold off No. 5 North Carolina. Never mind the zeroes on the scoreboard for FSU in the second half. Never mind the defensive shortcomings, the fact the Tar Heels dropped passes on the final drive.
It didn’t matter in the end because FSU had played well enough and UNC hadn’t made the plays. The Seminoles had a signature victory. On display were all the building blocks and growing pains for a first-year coach and a young program.
Walking out of the stadium that night felt good, yes? Hope for the future. Confidence that brighter days were ahead. Confidence is a good thing, from players and coaches to fans. Football, for all three of those groups, was fun. In a program where football hadn’t seen enough fun nights of late, it felt good.
The win was a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that we saw FSU’s potential, despite the limitations. We felt like on any given Saturday, FSU could beat anyone with the exception of a team mid-dynasty like Clemson. The curse? The expectations smashed through the roof. This team is supposed to deliver a performance each week, regardless of the opponent or strengths or matchups.
It was an assumption. But also a fear of mine. What if FSU can’t deliver, can’t reach its full potential each week? This is what we are seeing.
We were curious, to use a Mike Norvell word, about the team’s response. How would it respond after the UNC win? Would the winning be addictive, enough to perhaps encourage players to practice a little harder or to be convinced, to go from “I think I buy in” to “I’m in”? Wins over top-5 programs can be that blessing.
Or it can bring a team back down to what it is — searching within, seeking answers, trying to find stable ground. This is the rebuilding — of the players’ mindset as well as of the program. Nobody wants to use the term rebuild around Florida State, those words sound preposterous, but it is the reality. This is a program that, when looking at the four-year trend, is 20-25 and 11-19 in the ACC.
Really? Yes. 11-19 in ACC games since the start of the 2017 season. This is a program in some stage of a rebuild and we can all argue where, if it’s pouring the foundation or if it has moved on to framing. But there are no windows and no roof. The leaks are obvious each week. And many will question if there are enough studs to hold the house up.
Would you love some consistency with this team. Who wouldn’t? The only consistency is the unpredictability. We figured defense and special teams would carry this team, that two phases of the three would be enough to make up for deficiencies on the offense. At one point, it was offense and some pieces of special teams that were carrying the load. Now? Who knows?
This is not to question FSU’s effort or energy. It looks to be there. That was a question earlier in the season but, for the most part, isn’t now. It’s just that the results have been dreadful, essentially being non-competitive in the second half against Louisville and Pittsburgh.
“Some of the experiences are the ugly right now and nobody wants to go through what we just went through and finishing a game like that,” Norvell said. “But I believe in these guys, I believe in in their development, I believe in where we’re going to go.”
Full disclosure: I may love special teams more than the average writer or fan. Specialists deliver pressure-packed kicks, punters flip fields, returners set up the offense, coverage units pin opponents back. When teams get to fourth down, it’s a job that’s appreciated and fun to watch.
Norvell likes to go for it on fourth down more than Jimbo Fisher or Willie Taggart. He was 8 of 16 when rolling the dice going into the Pitt game. Converting on 50 percent may sound iffy, but those are great results. And in a glass-half-full outlook, it shows confidence in your offense. Let’s roll, boys.
But it’s also a calculated proposition. Come up short and it’s deflating. The defense can be put in a precarious spot, something Norvell did twice on Saturday. We love the gamble and the payoff but hate the consequences. Norvell likes the metrics and went for it.
I’d argue going for any fourth-and-1 from an opponent’s 49 in to their 33 is a good decision, especially for FSU in 2020. With kickers who have struggled from long range, Norvell is making a calculated decision — go for it and try to get points or punt and try to pin deep? Philosophically, we can argue the advantages and disadvantages of each. My opinion is Norvell is trying to retain possession of the ball in going for it, in effect preserving the defense and minimizing its time on the field, just as much as he wants to squeeze points out of those drives. In effect, he’s acknowledging a weakness of the defense.
But when those calls go bad, the consequences are painful. Norvell went for it on fourth down from FSU’s 34 (wow!) and La’Damian Webb got five yards.
Later on the drive, FSU had a fourth-and-1 at the Pitt 35 but a false start on tight end Camren McDonald pushed the Seminoles back five yards. Jordan Travis was sacked on fourth-and-6, a 7-yard loss, and Pitt took over at its own 47-yard line. Pitt didn’t score on that drive, missing a field goal from 45 yards, so Norvell’s decision worked out.
Norvell opted to go for it again, two drives later, with FSU on its own 48. This time a fourth-and-2 against a Pitt defense that is among the best in the nation vs. the run. Two ways to look at this one: It’s close enough to the 50, that my rule above falls under the “close enough” category, so go for it, but the flip side is FSU hadn’t run well all game and getting two yards vs. the Panthers was a longshot. Lawrance Toafili was stuffed for a short loss and Pitt had a short field and a touchdown just three plays later.
He was rolling the dice to try and build drives. But in the feel of the game, Norvell the play caller has to know when to fold and Norvell the head coach has to realize the smart call is punt because he can put a defense that’s already without Marvin Wilson, Hamsah Nasirildeen, Travis Jay and Renardo Green in an awful spot. In a season where the defense is struggling, Norvell likely saw the need to show his team he had confidence in them but fully knew he had to put points on the board and win a shootout. The decision backfired.
When all else fails
Norvell doubled down to open the third quarter. Remember that FSU has been quite good on opening drives of halves in 2020 (nine scores on 13 drives) before taking the ball to start the second half. With Jordan Travis sidelined due to injury, and FSU trailing just 24-17, Norvell turns to James Blackman at quarterback. In 2020, when the goal is to win but also develop quarterbacks, playing Blackman was a decision by Norvell that was tough to fathom.
Even given the limitations of the spring practices and the pandemic, FSU coaches had from mid-July through October to develop and prepare quarterbacks, to strain them, for game-time situations. What makes the decision more egregious is not the result, a Blackman interception and a few plays later a Pitt touchdown. It’s that Travis had been injured off and on through his four starts. The coaches had a bye week to get Chubba Purdy or Tate Rodemaker ready, whether it was to start or see significant backup reps in a game. They truly had double the time to give first-team reps to Purdy or Rodemaker with the bye.
Resigned to what happened, Norvell then effectively benched Blackman, gave in and turned to Purdy. He completed 12 of 21 passes for 38 yards and an interception that was returned for a touchdown. It was a collection of short passes and runs under duress, but it did give Purdy experience as well as give Norvell and the staff an idea of what he can do.
The quarterback questions will be ramped up throughout the week leading up to NC State. Beyond the baffling decision of turning to Blackman, who likely has taken his last snap at FSU, Norvell must again see if Travis recovers (his injury is not known but he took a shot to the head in the second quarter and was woozy when he popped up). And he must get Purdy and Rodemaker back on the practice field and continue their development. These are not fun scenarios for FSU, and it’s darker when factoring in that Bailey Hockman is now the quarterback for the next opponent, NC State.
Travis has made the offense fun and functional, at times. He is still a threat with his legs and at his best as a passer on the move. His happy feet were again an issue in the pocket as he was unsettled under pressure but in fairness the hurries and sacks were adding up fast.
Fans of Travis are willing to weigh his strengths and try to sand down those weaknesses. Fans of Purdy or Rodemaker want to see what they can do, develop them now and take the pains in 2020 to speed up the growth process for 2021. The happy medium is to start Travis but find opportunities to play a freshman, whether it’s a throwback to the 90s version of the Kentucky Derby offense or something else.
Where to now?
Perhaps it is the unpredictability of 2020 and what we have already seen in college football. Anything can happen. FSU showed it could beat UNC. NC State is clearly organized and firing on all cylinders on offense, but it’s not a slam dunk win for the Wolfpack. Clemson could be a nightmare. But Virginia could be a 50-50 proposition and a game at Duke feels like one where FSU could take charge against a Blue Devils team that is really struggling. FSU could go anywhere from 3-1 (optimistically) to 1-3 (pessimistically).
It’s easy to lay out FSU’s problems but harder to find solutions. Closing the talent gap will take a tap into the transfer portal as well as a signing class or two. If you want lies, sure, this is a short-term rebuild. If you want the truth, gulp, buckle up because it’s a roller coaster and not just this fall.
What will make FSU better in the short term? Getting Hamsah Nasirildeen back would be No. 1, but also seeing the likes of Marvin Wilson, Travis Jay and Renardo Green back. Yes, the defense has had its issues but the four-game view improves if some of those names return to the field.
It’s possible FSU has seen its best defensive front of the year and the Seminoles’ offensive line will learn from this experience. It’s likely we see FSU’s identity, to run the ball effectively, return at NC State.
It’s also necessary that players are convinced, are fully invested in practices and are encouraging their teammates to do the same. It would also help if the penalties continue to subside but they were again popping up at bad times Saturday. Nobody has committed more penalties in the FBS than FSU, which is up to 68.
We will watch these next four games because we seemingly can’t take our eyes off of the show that is FSU in 2020. Yes, we’re tempted to avert our eyes and even change the channel. But perhaps I am oddly curious what is next. And, masochists that we are, we’ll watch the replay or condensed games on Sundays.
And if you can bear it, you’ll admit that it’s necessary FSU gets a bowl invitation in December. For a program that desperately needed a full spring practice eight months ago, Norvell would get essentially just that if a bowl somewhere is willing to take the Seminoles with all its flaws.
The future for the program depends on just that — the time Norvell and the staff have with the players who want to be a part of the solution.
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