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Column: Noles applying pressure, learning to perform under it, too

CHESNUT HILL, Mass. — On a crisp, late autumn day, the 2021 Florida State football team did something it hasn’t been able to do in a long while — the 5-6 Seminoles “won ugly” to set up an epic showdown against arch-rival Florida (5-6) with a chance to earn a bowl bid.

Before we get into that Florida matchup, let’s take a look at why this nerve0wracking Sod Game win in Chestnut Hill was another step in the right direction for this 2021 football team.

Throughout the year you’ve heard head coach Mike Norvell talking about the margins of victory being so small his team cannot afford to make mistakes and win. Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote Florida State is like a pencil with lots of lead but no eraser. It is an analogy that’s become less true in consecutive wins, 31-28 over Miami and 26-23 over Boston College.

Saturday, here on the beautiful campus of Boston College, the Seminoles committed 13 penalties for 120 yards, dropped a few passes and missed more than a few tackles, yet managed to beat a pretty good Eagle team because they made enough good plays to erase their mistakes. 

Sod game captain Keir Thomas, who played his best game, clipped a chunk of the sod from the BC turf as the Seminoles were underdogs in this road game. Furthermore, this was a “trap game,” sandwiched between FSU’s hated in-state rivals Miami and Florida.

The players did not allow the gratuitous pats on the back after Miami to effect their preparation as they executed well for the first 32 minutes and 37 seconds to take a 26-3 lead, which the defense preserved.

After that drive, many of the same mistakes that caused FSU’s 0-4 start raised their ugly heads, but the Seminoles overcame them to win, the first time this year they have done so.

FSU has now won five of its last seven games.

Something, or should I say some things, have changed. 

The Seminoles are protecting the ball better, they are emotionally more mature, they have a maturing quarterback in Jordan Travis, they now have more big play capability on both offense and defense — the eraser for bad plays — and the coaches have honed in on what this team does best.

Certainly, the fact FSU is not turning the ball over has something to do with winning but the Seminoles won this game because FSU made more big plays than big mistakes and more big plays than Boston College. The Seminoles scored four touchdowns, a safety and recorded an interception of Phil Jurkovec. 

That interception was a critically big play as BC was driving to tie or win the game with less than two minutes. That was the 11th interception this year after picking only eight balls in nine games last year. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller has also dialed up more pressure on quarterbacks with 32 sacks this year compared to 10 in a nine-game 2020 season.

As they had all game, Thomas, Jermaine Johnson and Robert Cooper pressured BC’s quarterback, a projected first-round NFL pick, and Akeem Dent caught Jurkovec’s desperation pass to preserve the Seminoles’ victory.

Would that play have happened last year? Would it have happened earlier in the season?

The defense came up with numerous big plays in this game, leading Norvell to hand the sledgehammer to his defensive coordinator to do the honors of “Breaking the Rock” in the postgame locker room and it thrilled his players. 

FSU beat a good quarterback with a veteran offensive line and a balanced running attack, holding BC to only seven plays of 12 or more yards. By comparison, FSU logged 19 such plays.

“We had to make (Jurkovec) uncomfortable,” Norvell said. “You look at that offensive line, the number of starts, the way those guys have operated together, it’s hard to get pressure on him. But I thought our defensive front played relentless. To be able to finish there at the end, to be able to force that, force the ball and throw the pass at the end, great job by Akeem to high-point it to end the game.”

Well-prepared first half

The Seminoles were electrifying through the first 32:37 minutes of the game against the third-best defense in the Atlantic Coast Conference, taking a 26-3 lead on the opening drive of the second half. Had the Seminoles not shot themselves in the foot with penalties — several questionable — the game might have been ruled a technical knockout by half. 

“I think we had 70 yards of penalties at halftime. You just can’t have that,” said quarterback Jordan Travis.

Norvell agreed overcoming mistakes and penalties as the team did to win a game on the road is a sign the team has taken another step.

“It’s an indication of belief with the way our guys battled,” Norvell said. “Overcoming some adversity. Some of it self-inflicted, some of it things we couldn’t control (officiating). To be a football team that has that identity of never giving up. There’s a great deal of growth within our program. I’m excited about the steps we’re seeing but we are going to be disciplined, we’re going to clean up some mistakes that were made.”

While he would not comment on officiating, which had the press buzzing, he said penalties can be frustrating to everyone, himself included, and can create distractions if you allow them.

“Penalties make a huge impact in a game,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we continue to control the things we can control and play to the best of our ability.”

The Seminoles could not maintain a three-point lead late against Clemson because FSU could not manage the adversity of three 15-yard penalties on four plays. 

While he was not proud of his own emotional response, Norvell said the players have grown in that respect.

“I thought they did a good job,” he said. “There’s frustration but at the end of the day, we can’t control some of the judgements, but we can control our response. We’ll go back, watch it and continue to work on our fundamentals, continue to work on decisions and the positions we put ourselves in. There were some, we absolutely have to make better choices. We want to be a well-established, disciplined football team. That’s got to be week in, and week out. When you have 13 penalties, it’s tough to win. There were close to 80 yards of hidden yardage in the penalty difference. And that’s tough. Our guys overcame and continued to respond but we’ll be better there.”

FSU had a good game plan

Give Norvell’s staff credit for having the players ready to execute what was a good game plan for the second consecutive week.

“(FSU) came out and played a really good first half,” BC coach Jeff Hafley said. “He had them ready, had a good plan. They hit us with a few things and really had us on the ropes. They got two really good defensive ends and a defensive tackle. Jurkovec took some shots early. I thought we adjusted well and he took less shots in the second half. They threw some new stuff at us, and they executed at a high level. We couldn’t protect early and we couldn’t stop them early. It kind of snowballed.”

While the NFL scouts were here to see Jurkovec, they had to notice Travis’s line. FSU’s sophomore quarterback was 20 of 34 for 251 yards — completing passes to 11 different receivers — with no interceptions and two touchdowns. Jurkovec was 10 of 24 for 148 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a completion that led to a safety. There’s no question, Jurkovec is a draftable quarterback — big, strong, elusive and, when given a moment to throw it, threw a bull’s-eye to Zay Flowers on that 36-yard touchdown toss.

Travis’ performances the last two weeks have given FSU an eraser for a lot of other mistakes as he continues to improve in the passing and decision-making categories. Those improvements give FSU momentum heading into the final regular season game against Florida, with a chance to earn a bowl game. 

Adds even more drama to Florida Game

After starting the season 0-4, what were the odds FSU would go into the UF game with a chance to earn a bowl game? 

“It sets us up for a huge week ahead,” Norvell said, clearly emotional. “Being able to stand in front of those guys in the locker room and to know they battled back to this point. We’re 0-4 at the beginning of the season. Not many people gave us a chance. We’re going into this last week with an opportunity to earn one more. That’s special. These guys have tremendous heart, they’ve got tremendous character. They continue to battle.”

This 2021 Seminole-Gator game is a clash of teams headed in opposite directions. While the Seminoles have won five of their last seven games, the Gators have won just one of their last five (70-52 over Samford). The Gators’ five wins have included wins over Florida Atlantic, South Florida, Samford, Vanderbilt and a signature win over Tennessee back in September. 

What would a bowl bid do for Norvell’s program?

A win over the Gators is always huge. It’s been said that you can go 1-10 as long as the one is Florida. A win over UF would also give FSU the state championship with a win over Miami in pocket. A win would give FSU’s alumni and Norvell’s recruiters bragging rights for 365 days. A win over Florida would also make FSU bowl-eligible, which more than anything allows the coaches a couple of extra weeks with the players to help them get better for 2022. 

“It would be huge, huge for our program,” Norvell said of a win over Florida. “We’re going to enjoy today, got a nice little flight home that we can enjoy, but when we get back, it’s a big weekend. Our focus is to continue to improve, control what we can control, get better from all the experiences we had today. And go prepare to play one heck of a game (at Florida). If we can do the things and build upon that, I’m excited about what that can mean for our program to get more practices. Another opportunity to give these guys one more chance to leave their mark to this ‘21 Seminoles football team.”

The media continued to press with questions about the importance of beating BC to keep a chance to go to a bowl in play.

“Oh, I want one more game with these players,” he said. “We talked about that from the beginning of the season throughout, we talked about it today. That’s what makes this group special, because it is a family. When everybody says that, it sounds good. Watch this group, how they compete, how they care about each other. How they push each other. We knew whatever it took today, we just had to find a way to be victorious. …It is a really, really impressive group of young men. I don’t know if many people would’ve given us much a chance to put ourselves in this position.”

No. Most teams that start 0-4 implode. Most teams become finger pointers and what coaches call “locker room attorneys,” debating everything the coaches say and complaining about everything from the food to the temperature of the hot tub. 

Norvell didn’t want to look too far ahead with Florida looming and altered the media’s focus on Florida. “Alright. Got to have a great week ahead,” he said, “looking forward to the next challenge in front of us.”

Bowl won’t compare to these two weeks

While bowl games are usually a fun time in a fun city for fans, whatever bowl game FSU could be awarded at 6-6 will pale by comparison with the fun FSU fans had in Boston this past weekend. And whatever matchup the Seminoles might draw in a bowl game won’t compare to the one they face in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium this week.

There’s no reason to look ahead. 

This is the week. This is “The Game.” Florida State vs. Florida. 

Thanks to the “ugly win” in Chestnut Hill, this FSU vs. UF game has added consequence as it will determine which 5-6 team goes to a bowl and which goes home.