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Column: Noles growing before our eyes into a ‘new team’

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The self-doubt reared its ugly head, and yet again quite early. It began with a 10-play UNC drive for a field goal and a 12-play UNC drive for a touchdown. 

Sandwiched in between was a busted FSU drive: A false start, a run for no gain, two incompletions and a punt. Before the Seminoles could get settled in, they were behind 10-0 after 12:05 of football. 

We’ve seen this movie before, we thought. The slow starts, a trademark of FSU in 2021 in every game but the victory over Syracuse, appeared to be showing a re-run.

But we also knew FSU had fought in every game. Would this be a replay of the Wake Forest debacle, where penalties and turnovers added up? Would the Seminoles continue to dig the deficit like they did against Louisville before mounting a comeback?

Or would FSU instead put together one of its best 15 minutes of football all season in the second quarter? As fast as it looked like the game could be slipping away — that’s how fast the game turned on a dime. 

FSU goes 59 yards in 12 plays. Touchdown.

UNC went three-and-out.

FSU goes 65 yards in three plays. Touchdown.

UNC drove but tossed an interception.

FSU goes 80 yards in eight plays. Touchdown.

UNC tried a Hail Mary before the half. Nothing.

“I really believe this is a new team, and this is a team that’s investing the work in all areas,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said. “The way that they’re working on the field, off the field, in the weight room, in every aspect. They’re trying to push and improve in who they are, what they’re about and they do believe.”

These may be the same players that played flawed football in September. There are certainly still flaws. But this is a collection of players, a team, that has figured out how to bottle the self-inflicted flaws and play to its strengths, which was evident with a 21-point second quarter as part of the Seminoles’ 35-25 win over UNC on Saturday.

Adversity was there again. A 10-0 deficit. An injury to Devontay Love-Taylor on the second drive. And a road game — FSU hadn’t won away from Doak since exactly 23 months ago at Boston College on Nov. 9, 2019. Which, coincidentally, was the FSU debut of Jordan Travis, a quarterback who didn’t throw a pass but weaved around Eagles defenders for two long touchdown runs.

On Saturday, Travis was at his best. Those two incompletions on the first drive? They were the only ones that would hit the turf the rest of the day as he finished 11 of 13 for 145 yards and three touchdowns. And there was what he did with his legs, 14 carries for 121 yards and two touchdowns. Nobody in FSU history, not even Charlie Ward, has had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games.

FSU 2.0 is 2-0 in October. And it’s of no coincidence Travis has been the quarterback in both game games. This isn’t a knock on McKenzie Milton in the least. It’s acknowledging that Travis is the right quarterback for this offense, a combination of an injury-plagued offensive line but also the catalyst of a ground attack that has proven to be the identity of the team: Run the ball. But also? Stop making the silly mistakes.

“We have been looking for an identity and we know what we want it to be,” Norvell said. “Early in the season, had a lot of self-inflicted issues. Last time we went on the road, turned the ball over six times. Those things, it’s hard to achieve success when those things show up. 

“When you’re willing to make that investment in the film room and on the field, all of a sudden you see that consistency inch up and get a little better each. And every drive, it’s game-changing for us.”

Game-changing? How about season-saving? FSU went from optimism in defeat to Notre Dame to a debacle to an FCS program and the spiraling of an 0-4 start. And now the Seminoles have positioned themselves to completely turn their season around, after a bye week that could not come along at a more opportune time.

Travis can now get a few days off. But first he could savor every moment. He praised the offensive line for continuing to work and tuning out the “outside noise.” He praised Jashaun Corbin for a block on his 53-yard touchdown run. He praised the receivers for getting open. He also praised God.

When asked what it meant to be the sod captain and to have the chance to cut a piece of sod, a present that will return to Tallahassee and be remembered at the Sod Cemetery, from the Kenan Stadium turf, Travis again smiled. 

“It’s a blessing from the man upstairs,” Travis said. “I’m just so thankful. These past couple months I’ve gotten a lot closer to God. Going through a lot. Just the man upstairs and the guys around me that allow me to do that.”

Travis has gone through plenty. But he has taken hits and bounced back up. He has missed practices — this week an observer on Tuesday and a limited participant on Wednesday. It was a similar story in the week leading up to the Syracuse game. 

That’s not ideal and far from normal in college football. But it is toughness as well as a commitment to getting the rehab he needs each week to max out what he can do on the field on Saturdays.

“You guys get to see it every day,” Norvell said. “The challenges that go into a week of prep. The things that most people get to see is all the work he’s putting in in the training room, the little things he’s doing with his film study, I thought he played exceptionally with his eyes. Those things won’t show up in the stat line, but being in the right spot, he’s going through his progressions. He’s 11 of 13 throwing the football, pushed the ball down the field. He’s competing at a very high level. He’s going to continue to get himself 100 percent, but I’m excited about his continued development and what he brings to this offense.”

There was always a working theory among optimists: If the Seminoles could clean up the turnovers and penalties, they could be competitive. And if they were competitive, they could win.

The last two weeks, we have our answer: The coaches have done their jobs in the film room and on the practice field, limiting the miscues. And FSU has won two games.

“I know we talk a lot about it,” Norvell said. “You start a season, you’re 0-4. There’s not a whole lot of positive things that are being said. At the end of the day, these guys had the choice of what they wanted to do with it. Coaching staff, players, everybody involved, we just kept working and kept believing, and holding to the standard of how we want to operate and play. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but it puts you in position to achieve it if you’re willing to make that investment. 

“There’s still mistakes that we’ve got to get corrected and I believe we’re better than in some areas that we’re showing. These guys, they know the work that it’s a necessity. And when you’re willing to make that investment, that’s where true confidence shows up. I think we see a confident football team with how they’re playing with some of the success they’ve had with what we’ve seen these last few weeks.”