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Column: Learning curve painful as Noles seek answers in weekly tests

The Florida State football team is currently a pencil without an eraser.

That statement is not a condemnation of the team — coaches or players — nor is it a diagnosis of a terminal condition. It is simply this writer’s observation of where the 2021 team is today.

As Mike Norvell has said in every pre-game or post-game press conference, the margins of error are thin for this young team who must play especially clean to win. This tenacious team paid a dear price once again in a 28-14 loss to NC State not simply because they made too many mistakes but because they lacked the explosive capability — the eraser — to overcome those mistakes.

If you watch much college football, you see teams miss tackles, drop passes and incur penalties but still win because they are able to erase those mistakes with an explosive offense — North Carolina 58, Wake 55 — or with first-round picks on defense who are able to score points or give their offense short fields, Clemson a case in point.  

FSU does not have that luxury yet.

While other teams can sustain a drive by overcoming a negative play, or answer a score with a score, whatever mistake FSU puts onto the play sheet is written in indelible ink.

In a game in which the Seminoles lost by two touchdowns, they gave up three scores of 62, 45 and 43 yards with a busted coverage on the first and missed tackles on the second and third. 

Those three plays belied an otherwise solid performance by the defense, which had a night of feast and famine. 

The Wolfpack had 400 yards of total offense but 311 came on just 13 plays (23.9 ypp). The FSU defense held the Pack to just 89 yards on the other 56 plays (1.59 yards per play). 

As you watched the game, how many times did you catch yourself saying “good play, good play, good play, #%*!”

Think about this stat: On 26 of NC State’s 34 second-half plays, the Wolfpack netted just three yards (.111 ypp)! 

The other eight second-half plays, not so good, as NC State netted 173 yards (21.6 ypp).

Inconsistent, right?  

“We had some missed tackles there that allowed some explosive plays. We had the one coverage bust, something we have stayed away from the last few weeks that showed up on their first touchdown,” Norvell said. “I appreciate the ways guys are competing. I knew we would make a run but just not good enough to finish it off there in the fourth.”

FSU lost this game and the others because they currently aren’t able to win one-on-one battles on a consistent enough basis to sustain or stop drives. 

It’s fair to say the 2021 team does not have enough experienced playmakers as the roster is filled with freshmen and sophomores. It’s fair to question whether the coaches are putting the players in position to manufacture production within those segments but there’s little argument that right now FSU has to play a lot cleaner than its opponents to win football games.

Urge to gamble

You’d also be correct in wondering if the current lack of firepower might be the reason Norvell feels compelled to go for it on fourth down as much as he does (2 for 4 Saturday) or to try an onside kick to open the second half. One didn’t work and led to an NC State touchdown from the FSU 43. One worked and sparked a couple of FSU touchdowns. Both were gambles and motivated by a need to sustain a drive or steal a possession. 

Bobby Bowden was known as the Riverboat Gambler back when his teams were underdogs. Everybody remembers the “The Puntrooskie,” which beat Clemson in 1988. But you’ll notice as his teams became more talented in the 1990s the number of Rooskies diminished. It may have been the forgettably failed “Fumblerooskie” at Auburn in 1990 that cured him. 

The Seminoles were leading 17-10 with 6:04 to go when Bowden tried the play on fourth down on his own 43-yard line. The play would have worked if the nose guard had not taken the play off. But he saw the ball and fell on it, which ignited the Tiger crowd and swung momentum in Auburn’s favor.  The Tigers won the game 20-17.  

“It was a gutsy call,” quarterback Casey Weldon said after the game. “They didn’t rush as hard as they had been. It’s the kind of play Bobby Bowden will make. He wanted to win the game.”

A couple of Bowden’s assistants, who will remain unnamed, weren’t so complimentary of the call.

“When will he learn we don’t live in a trailer anymore?” they asked of the Riverboat Gambler. “We have superior players. Let the players decide the game.”

Bowden figured it out. He didn’t need to take risks like that with a roster full of aces and seldom did after that game.

Norvell has only a couple of aces on his roster right now with a few in development. He does not yet have a pat hand, where the margins are in his favor. It will take another recruiting class and the transfer portal before the margins are in his favor and the urge to take risks won’t be as tempting or as necessary. 

A lack of firepower 

Right or wrong, the urgency to go for it on fourth down builds as your team manages just 2 of 16 on third-down conversions.

In the scoreless first half, the Seminoles’ offense had two plays of over 10 yards, a 35-yard McKenzie Milton pass to tight end Jordan Wilson and an 18-yard pass to Andrew Parchment. 

In the second half, Milton completed a 23-yard pass to Keyshawn Helton during their second drive, a 75-yard beauty to close the Wolfpack’s gap to 21-14. The only other chunk play was a 28-yard throw to Jordan Young very late in the game. 

FSU had 271 yards on 71 plays (3.8 ypp) with 123 coming on just eight plays of 10 yards or more. On the other 63 plays, FSU netted 148 (2.34 ypp).

The Seminoles’ defense didn’t generate a turnover other than Jammie Robinson’s interception of a Hail Mary pass to end the first half. FSU’s special teams didn’t create a big play either, aside from the onside kick and the consistency of Alex Mastromanno’s right (and sometimes left) foot. 

Nothing comes easy for this Seminole team, particularly against quality opponents.

Everything has been a grind and, as you know, it’s rare to sustain a long drive without a penalty, negative play, dropped pass or missed assignment. 

FSU had two penalties in this game, for just 12 yards, which is excellent, but they had as many as seven catchable balls hit the ground, which has been uncharacteristic this year. Had the receivers won those one-on-one battles there would have been more chunk plays, longer drives and less fourth-down temptations.  

Practice affects performance 

If you said dropped passes and missed tackles are the result of coaching, you’d stand on solid ground but the guys wearing the whistles can’t prepare the players for Saturday if the players are not available to practice Tuesday to Friday. To be fair to the guys who had those miscues, and to their coaches, missed practice was a major issue this week. With the margins as thin as they are, this team needs to be at full strength at practice Tuesday to Friday in order to execute on Saturday.

In his 22-month career at Florida State, Norvell has faced a gauntlet of surreal circumstances from inheriting and flipping what was a dysfunctional roster, to the Covid pandemic and now a new chapter to the book of the bizarre, a non-Covid virus that wreaked havoc on the FSU campus this week.

The intestinal virus depleted the ranks of various Seminole teams to where the FSU-UF swim meet and fall baseball intrasquad game had to be cancelled. By Thursday, there were so many football players unavailable to practice the administration feared they may not have enough to play on Saturday.  

“It was a challenging week for everybody,” Norvell said. “(The virus) was in the community. There was some sickness that spread and really made it challenging. Probably over 25 guys missed at least one of the practices.”

On Tuesday, four offensive linemen were unavailable to practice and, by Thursday, some position groups had only one player available.

Jordan Travis, the closest thing the Seminoles have to a “human eraser” missed the entire week. 

Travis and Dillan Gibbons were the only two starters missing from the offensive lineup on Saturday but plenty more missed significant portions of the week’s preparation. 

“We struggled. You could see a little bit of it show up there in continuity of execution early,” Norvell said. “That’s not an excuse. It’s part of football. The guys who are on the field have to be able to execute.”

Norvell said he is pleased with the players and the athletic training staff’s efforts to field a team in time for the game.

“There was no way Jordan could play today,” Norvell said. “He is doing everything he can. It’s tough. A lot of guys probably didn’t feel great but did everything they could to be available. It definitely added to the challenge.”

Nonetheless, Norvell said the coaches must prepare whichever players are able to play better so they are able to execute at a higher level. 

“You have to give credit to NC State but there were missed opportunities we had there early, too many three and outs, just not any effectiveness going down the field, dropped balls, missed throws, missed opportunities in the run game. It was just a very poor first half,” he concluded.

“We had a couple of untimely drops here, a missed pass there early, not being able to get things established in the run game makes it extremely challenging for us because it forces those long-yardage situations,” he said. “We are still not a team that operates well in third-and-long and we got ourselves in too many of those tonight.”

Milton fulfilled a much-needed role but the Seminoles missed Travis, their most dynamic playmaker, whose feet can extend plays when protection breaks downs or when receivers don’t come open right away. 

While there are no excuses, an uncharacteristic number of dropped passes and missed tackles makes a strong case for why teams practice and why coaches spend so much time running pass routes and banging bodies in tackling drills. Throwing and catching oblong footballs and tackling elusive athletes isn’t like riding a bicycle, it requires coaching, perfect practice and repetition or you get the result you got on Saturday. 

Give the players on this resilient team credit for not giving into the bug, for not taking Saturday off and for once again not capitulating when falling behind.  While this team may be a pencil without an eraser, it is a pencil absolutely loaded with lead.