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Column: Johnson speaks for many of us

My initial thoughts after the disappointing loss to Florida were positive. Once again, this Florida State football team fought and didn’t quit, which was my single, greatest preseason hope — and the ambitious dream of scores of Seminoles — for a program intent on changing its culture.  

Even when the Gators had the Seminoles on the ropes in the third quarter, throwing body shots, my one and only thought was, is there enough time for FSU to punch its way off those ropes? There never was a doubt they would, the question was only could they register the knockout punch before the bell rung.

“It felt like everything that could go wrong, did. It was one of those situations,” Norvell said of that fateful third quarter.  “You can go back now and look at this, and this or this, and wish I would’ve. But at the end of the day, it’s what we have to live back on, what we have to live with, and what we have to choose to go improve on as we move forward. The third quarter was tough, I thought our guys responded phenomenally in the fourth quarter … battled until the end.” 

You know what happened. Down 10 with less than two minutes to go, the Seminoles drove 75 yards to score with 44 seconds remaining, but the onsides kick was a flub as Parker Grothaus almost whiffed the ball altogether. Unfortunately, he got just enough of it to knock it off the tee, giving Florida the ball at that spot with time running out. Fans who have watched decades of football looked at each other in bewilderment having never seen such a thing. It looked as if Grothaus’ focus was on where he intended to recover the 10-yard kick rather than on the ball itself. Remember, his onsides kick against NC State was successful and a key play in the team’s comeback attempt.

The focus break looked like a receiver who tries to run with the ball before making the catch. Or too many tee shots where you take your eye off the ball on the tee to see the ball’s flight.

It was an ignominious end to the game and to a remarkable comeback season. 

The flub was one of many missed opportunities — one of several special-team foibles — in a winnable game. As is our responsibility to do, we pick the meat off the bones of those losing moments throughout this site. But from 30,000 feet, my thoughts after the game and the season ended were positive as noted in the lead. FSU has changed its culture. 

While contemplating what I would write today, I came across Jermaine Johnson’s post-game interview, which encapsulate my feeling about the culture change Mike Norvell has achieved in the 2021 season. 

While Johnson will not be back next year, he is a living, breathing example of Norvell’s ability to evaluate character and an indication of the type of player he aims to bring into his program.

“I’m a team-first guy, not just my teammates but staff or program as a whole,” Johnson said. “I truly tried to give it my all for the program and the university. That was first on my mind. I always say I didn’t come here to be ‘that guy.’ I wanted to earn the respect of my teammates and my staff. That still stays true to this day. I’m not one of those big-headed guys who lets his ego get in the way. Football can go up and down any day. It’s bigger than that and you have to have good character. You fall back on your morals so I try to be the best guy I can be for others.” 

Throughout the fall, we’ve been very impressed with this transfer’s maturity during practices, games and interviews, and Saturday was no exception. Florida had a good plan for Johnson, who has been an imposing force this year, and that plan gave quarterbacks too much time to find receivers. 

“It was pretty frustrating,” Johnson admitted. “I was expecting to get chipped and double-teamed and run away from. But that’s no excuse. We need to put more pressure as a unit and that’s on me, but it’s been a fun ride. It didn’t end the way we wanted but I’m forever thankful to be a Florida State Seminole, that’s for sure.”

Johnson on Emotion

One of the keys for FSU to win in Gainesville was to control their emotion, like FSU had against a chippy Miami team. You knew it would be more difficult to do in the Swamp, with 80,000-plus fans creating chaos, than in the friendly confines of Doak.

FSU didn’t manage emotion well in the third quarter when momentum built against the Seminoles and it led to critical lapses. 

  • A net 21-yard punt set Florida up at the FSU 45. The defense held the Gators to a field goal and 10-7 lead. 

The Noles held on three plays to force Florida to punt from their own 10. 

  • The UF punter ripped a 61-yard missile over Ontaria Wilson’s head. In an attempt to field it, he touched it and it bounced back into the hands of a Gator at the FSU 33.
  • The defense held on first and second down but on third-and-21, a short pass became a 22-yard gain due to two missed tackles. 
  • On first-and-goal, the UF running back was tackled for a four-yard loss and fumbled but the ball bounced right back into his arms. The Gators scored on third-and-goal from the 5 to drive the score to 17-7.

Offsetting unsportsman-like conduct penalties ensued.

Momentum was building in the Swamp and frustration was building on the Seminole sidelines. 

  • On second-and-1, FSU schemed UF into man coverage against Andrew Parchment, it’s best deep-threat receiver. It was a great opportunity. The pass sailed inside, rather than on his outside shoulder, where only Parchment could get it and the UF defender was able to make the contested interception. The defense was back on the field again. 

“We try our best to keep emotions out of situations like that,” Johnson said. “You control what you can control, and you can’t let the momentum pass over from the offense to the defense. We knew when we were on the field, we were going to have to make a stop and make things happen. We just kind of flushed what happened and when our unit was called, we did our best. And that’s what this team is built on. You can’t let emotions get in the way. You can deal with emotions after the game, not during.” 

Whether it was emotion or the defense being on the field too long, the Gators found a running game, pounding FSU on runs of 6, 8, 12, 12, 17 and 8 yards to the FSU 5 where an unnecessary roughness penalty against UF set them back to the 20. But on the next play, an unnecessary roughness penalty on FSU put the Gators back in business, first-and-goal at the 10. On fourth-and-goal at the 3, UF scored to go up 24-7 with 12:36 in the fourth quarter. 

As Florida was gut punching FSU, you hoped the Seminoles might hold UF to a field goal on one of those two touchdown drives. Even one field goal, or a fourth-down stop, may have turned momentum quicker and altered the outcome of the game.

That’s how close this game was and how narrow the gap was between the teams in spite of a variety of muffed plays. But FSU was unable to do so. In any of the past few years, you’d have said this game was fixing to become a blowout but not with this FSU football team. There was never a question of them quitting or not fighting back. 

“It’s a rivalry game a big rivalry game and you know people are going to show passion,” Johnson said. “I said that before in an interview, it’s a matter of controlling it to an extent. We let that slip away from us a couple of times. It’s football. If you’re not passionate about it, I don’t want to be teammates with you.”

Travis leads the comeback

FSU quarterback Jordan Travis, who was injured on the first series of the game but returned to knot the score at 7-7 at the half, led the fourth-quarter comeback. FSU drove 71 yards in seven plays, including a 34-yard Travis run, to bring score to 24-14 with 9:46 remaining.

The defense held Florida on two possessions to give Travis the ball at the FSU 8 with 3:35 remaining. Travis led a 92-yard touchdown drive on 16 plays and accounted for 80 of those 92 yards, the other 12 coming on UF penalties. 

“He’s a baller,” Johnson said of the sophomore. “When I think of Jordan, I can’t even put it into words. The amount of hate and stuff that guy gets, it’s insane. The fact he can show up every day and believe in himself and go out there and do his best for us; that’s all we can ask. He goes above and beyond being able to brush that stuff and tune out all that noise. I’m proud to be his teammate.”

Johnson obviously thinks FSU’s future is bright with Travis at the helm.

“I’m just thankful to be a part of this family,” the Georgia transfer said. “It’s bigger than football. The kind of lessons this place has taught me is astronomical. I love this university. I love Tallahassee. I love the program and I’ll definitely be back (to visit). Some of the most fun in my life I’ve had playing for Florida State.” 

2022 team begins today

Norvell boarded a plane at 6 a.m. Sunday to find recruits with Johnson’s brand of team-first character, with the early signing period beginning Dec. 15. Recruiting will be critical to the program’s continued growth, which reminds me of a prophetic, pregame quote from an FSU fan in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium: “We could win by a lot or lose by a lot but the one thing I know is we are the team wearing the medium-sized pants.”

“We’re hitting the road first thing tomorrow morning because it is critically important we continue to find the right fit for Florida State and who we bring in here,” Norvell said. “As we get into this offseason, we just have to continue to grow up as a football program. The little things, the fundamentals, the consistency of execution.” 

For Norvell’s team to grow into the larger pants it will take recruiting, an intense off-season development program and to find quality transfers like Johnson, Keir Thomas, Fabien Lovett, Jammie Robinson, Devontay Love-Taylor, Dillan Gibbons and Jashaun Corbin. 

Johnson believes their experience can help Florida State sign the right players.

“I don’t know if it’s just Florida State selectively, but I just think that it will show a lot of players to just believe in yourself,” Johnson said. “Always choose yourself and don’t let anyone put limitations on you or put a ceiling. Your dreams are the most precious thing you have in life. The moment you let anybody put a cap on that, you’re lost. I think it just shows guys when you get your turn just take it. Life goes fast. I feel like I was just at JUCO and now I’ve played my last college game. I’m just blessed. I thank God because without him I wouldn’t be here. There were tons of times I could have been done with football. By the grace of God, he kept me strong and got me to Florida State and I love it. I love Florida State for the rest of my life.”

Driving out of Gainesville, my view is the 2021 season is a turning point. The culture has changed and Norvell’s coaching staff has the program headed in the right direction. That was Johnson’s postgame sentiment as well.

“I believe Bobby Bowden said, ‘When you’re building a program, you lose by a lot then you lose by a little, then you win by a little and then you win by a lot,’ ” Johnson quoted accurately. “In my book this program is on the right track. The mindset of these guys shows in every game we play. It doesn’t matter what happens. We’ll be down 50 and these guys are still gonna fight. You’re not gonna catch us rolling over. It all starts with the mindset and the foundation of this program. That’s something we attacked this year and I feel strong and confident in the guys in this locker room. I don’t think they’re gonna let anything slip and I think you’ll see this program get back to where it’s supposed to be and continue to make progress, that’s for sure.”