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Column: Noles learning how to CLIMB

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My recent trip to Notre Dame reminded me of a thought I had back in the 1970s and 80s, before the Dynasty, when you wondered how FSU could ever compete with Notre Dame, Alabama and Southern California. Many of you may be wondering the same thing today. What we learned way back then is there’s no elevator to the penthouse of college football. 

Back then, when FSU had aspirations of ascending in the polls and in the national conversation, I visualized a very tall wooden ladder with hundreds of rungs to be climbed, hand over hand. Every day, every game, every year was a challenge with two rungs gained and another lost.

On Saturday, in Notre Dame Stadium, Florida State’s offense continued its climb up the ladder but it sure seemed every time FSU scored and managed a modicum of momentum, the defense fell ass over teakettle back to earth. 

As I was watching, I thought the offense played better but not the defense. When I reviewed the play by play later in the night, I realized the offense, defense and special teams had their moments, good and bad. The entire team had a hand in both covering the spread and of falling short of victory. The real reason for the loss is the Notre Dame program made the commitment three years ago and has been making the arduous climb back to a top 5 team and Florida State has not paid the piper yet.

It’s that simple. ND has done the work to be a top 5 team and FSU, which had a false start with the hiring of Willie Taggart, hasn’t paid its dues yet under Mike Norvell.

Frankly, I thought the Seminoles competed better in this game than they have in a while, which is to say they climbed one more rung up the lower part of the ladder.

As I was thinking about the ladder analogy, I thought about the acronym Mike Norvell told us he builds his program upon, CLIMB, which stands for Commitment, Little things, Intensity, Mental toughness, Brotherhood. (More on CLIMB here.)

Sounds simple, right? Five steps, but of course we know each of those categories are monumental, each with a series of increasingly higher steps.

Norvell was disappointed in his team’s performance Saturday. He felt bad for the players who he said are putting in the work. In a lot more words, I summarize his statements in this brief phrase: we ain’t there yet.

“…I was overall disappointed in the outcome,” he said.  “I thought our guys battled till the end. 

“This football team is continuing to grow. We’re continuing to work our way through our process and I definitely believe in what the future holds. We’ve just got to do a better job, coaches, players, everybody, in applying the lessons that we’re learning and the things we’re implementing throughout the course of the week. When you play good opponents, you have to apply that through 60 minutes. There were bright moments, but we obviously didn’t get the job done.”

FSU did play a good opponent with a record-setting quarterback who managed a clean game behind a man-sized offensive line. The Irish defense is also formidable as they have held 28 of their past 30 opponents to 30 or fewer points, including the following ranked opponents: LSU, Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Clemson, Georgia, Virginia and Navy. 

The most glaring issues were on FSU’s defensive front seven, where ND running backs found large lanes, rushing for more than 300 yards. Eleven times a ND back raced free for 10 or more yards, including runs of 65 and 67 yards. When the defense did force the Irish to punt – and they did three times – FSU’s offense didn’t play clean enough to convert the opportunities, which could have flipped or sustained momentum. 

“We struggled to stop the running game, we failed to convert on third downs offensively. Missed a couple opportunities just throughout the contest,” Norvell said. “But I thought our guys did battle. I was really proud of them, even there at the end, down 16, Notre Dame had the ball down at the goal line and guys continued to fight to keep them out of the end zone just so we could have another possession, another opportunity.”

I agree with Norvell. FSU failed to stop the running game most of the night and missed on some opportunities to score touchdowns in the red zone, which is critical for a 21-point underdog to do in order to pull off an upset. I like it that Norvell waives off any acceptance of moral victories. Close counts only in horseshoes and hand grenades, but I believe he sees players buying in to what it will take to climb the ladder high enough to close the gap with ranked  teams.

What’s getting better?

The Noles didn’t quit, even after the disappointing moments, which they have been prone to do in years past. 

I saw several tests passed. One came in the first quarter when the FSU defense recovered a fumble on the first series and FSU kicked a field goal to lead 3-0.

The second small victory came after ND mounted two long touchdown drives that covered 150 plus yards in just seven plays  to take a 14-3 lead. The Irish averaged 21.5 yard per play. Seed doesn’t go through a goose that fast and the Catholic school boy in me thought, “Our Lady of Mercy, pray for us.”

This is where the Florida State we have grown to know and loathe would have capitulated, quit, whatever you choose to call it.

But not this team. And not this night and that is the second victory. FSU engineered two quick drives – one aided by a special teams fumble recovery and the second after the defense forced a punt after three ND plays. Rather than fold, Jordan Travis scored on a three-play drive to stop the bleeding at 14-10 and then put together a longer four-play drive to take a 17-14 lead.

Howdy! We have not seen an FSU team score on a top-5 team in back-to-back possessions in a while, let alone against any FBS team. The offense is creating an identity with Travis at the helm and the play calling is becoming interesting to watch.

Notre Dame responded like an angry bear, mauling FSU’s defense for a touchdown to take the lead back at 21-17.

What gets lost in the details of the game is the FSU defense did hold ND to a three-and-out possession, giving the FSU offense an opportunity to answer back. The offensive line shot themselves in the foot with a lineman down field penalty, negating a 5-yard gain on second-and-7, and a false start one play later. This was one of those missed opportunities Norvell talks about. The intensity, the focus, was lacking and must become consistent for FSU to pose a true threat to top-5 teams.

I don’t know what the mindset was of the defensive players when they went out on the field with 7:15 remaining in the half but the result wasn’t good. ND advanced the lead to 28-17 in four plays, travelling 81 yards, including passes of 13 and 17 yards and a 45-yard run. 

FSU’s offense answered back with a nice drive that reached the ND 12 with less than two minutes remaining. A touchdown here puts FSU right back into it at 28-24 at halftime. 

But there was an opportunity missed here too and I believe this is the series Norvell referred to when he said he’d like to have a few calls back. This drive was already nine plays long, with six rushing plays by Webb for 41 yards and two carries by Travis for seven. Two passes attempted in this drive fell incomplete. On first-and-10 at the 12, I expected FSU to run the ball, to dance with what had brung them. I expected them to call Webb’s number or Jordan’s to gain yards and to eat the clock, but with nine ND defenders in the box, FSU threw the ball, a high slant to Terry, which bounced off his outstretched hands and ate no clock. I liked the first-down call with ND bunched into the box. I liked the attempt to score a touchdown rather than kick a field goal mentality.

But I question the second- and third-down calls, when FSU chose to throw, rather than run and burn the clock and the number of timeouts ND had remaining. Sometimes you need to protect your defense. The incomplete passes stopped the clock, leaving ND ample time for another possession. On fourth down, FSU kicked its second field goal of the night, to bring it to 28-20 but left 1:09 seconds on the clock.  

I believe if Norvell could call this series again, he’d have thought more about his defense and run the ball and the clock, kicking the field goal – if they didn’t score on the runs – with a minimum amount of time left on the clock. If he’d gone that route, he may have taken a 28-20 or 28-24 score into the locker room at halftime, where he could have delivered a genuinely encouraging “we got them right where we want them” sermon. But that’s not what happened. 

By throwing three consecutive incompletions, the Seminoles left 1:09 on the clock, which is an eternity for a guy like Book.

Matters got worse when ND returned the kick 36 yards and an unnecessary roughness penalty (focus failure) tacked 15 more yards onto the play to set ND up at the FSU 46. FSU would add another 15 yards for another unnecessary roughness. You get the picture. The Irish went through the Seminoles like a hot knife through butter. 

While some will blame the defense for that touchdown – fair enough—Norvell may take responsibility for not managing the clock better.

I say this to say, the little things make a difference on offense, defense, special teams and coaching.

Noles pass test on opening second-half drive

I think the Seminoles – Norvell included – passed a big test on the first drive of the second half, which was absolutely critical. The FSU offense got it done, driving 75 yards in seven plays and cutting the lead to 35-26 with a two-point try dropped.

FSU put themselves, absolutely, positively, back in the game at this point, which is another test passed and another rung up the ladder. These are little victories but necessary to climb high enough to deserve the right to compete with top 5 teams like Notre Dame.

While ND moved the ball in the second half, they only scored one touchdown, winning the second half scoreboard by a margin of 7-6.

Didn’t feel like it, did it?

Another test came in the fourth quarter, trailing 42-26. 

The Noles mounted a nice drive down to the ND 5-yard line with enough time on the clock to make a game of it if again. A touchdown and a two-point conversion would make it a one-score game. It was yet another test. But on third-and-5, an Irish defender intercepted the pass ending the threat.

Instead of celebrating new life on the sideline, determined to force a three-and-out, the Seminole defense was back out on the field facing the Irish’s first unit, who were looking to pad the score. 

In weeks and years past, the Seminoles defense wouldn’t have put up much of a fight.  While the Irish did march inside the FSU 5-yard line, where ND students were chanting “go for it” on fourth-and-goal, the Seminoles held. The intensity was at a fevered pitch with students chanting for the Seminoles’ head while FSU coaches exhorted their defense to hold on, which they managed to do against the very dangerous Irish offense.

That’s a step up the ladder, as basic as that may sound, something we didn’t see at Miami.

Little moments like those are bigger than they seem and are necessary rungs in the ladder to be climbed if you plan to become good enough one day to defeat a top five team. 

I know it’s not fun to watch but those are the laws of football physics. Every rung climbed must be earned.

“I’m proud to see our guys competing but at the end of the day, this is about going out there and competing to be the best you can possibly be in all aspects,” Norvell said. “It starts with myself. Players, coaches, everyone involved. There’s things I would like to have done better throughout the course of the contest. A couple calls, a couple situations that I have to improve in, and then we’ve got to apply the fundamentals.”

CLIMB. One rung at a time. One day at a time. Even in defeat, you can climb.

Notes

Hardest ticket I’ve seen to get. Notre Dame sold seats only to students, faculty and staff and to the parents and guests of players, with no seats sold to the general public. I don’t know how many Seminole fans managed to find their way into the stadium but I did see three Seminoles among the 10,486 in attendance. Clearwater attorney Doug Prior, who hasn’t missed a Seminole game – home or away – since 1978 was at the game, as was Matt Pave – a Key West resident – who hasn’t missed a game since 1991.

The third Seminole, John Stout, came from Tallahassee to visit with his daughter, Madelyn, a freshman at Notre Dame. He loved the campus visit and looks forward to coming again when there’s 80,000 in the stadium. “I didn’t have another group of people within 10 yards of me,” Stout said. “I like to people watch and there were so few people there wasn’t much of that so it was not the typical fan experience in that respect.”

The only concessions available were beverages — soft drinks, water and sports drinks. No food.

I mentioned in my Saturday scene setting story that the renovations to Notre Dame Stadium were eerily similar to the University Center Complex in Tallahassee, a combination of a classrooms and office buildings serving student academic functions. On the way up to the press box on level 7, I mistakenly got off on the fifth floor – which is home to Notre Dame’s School of Psychology – which  was good to know in case this game went further south for the 21 point underdog. 

How strange is 2020? In Notre Dame’s 132-year history this is the first and only year it has played in a conference (the ACC).

Notre Dame is 25-7 (.774) against ACC opponents since the scheduling agreement began during the 2014 season, including 3-1 against Florida State. The Noles won in Tallahassee in 2014 (31-27) but lost in South Bend in 2018 (42-13) and in 2020 (42-26). 

Seminole fans who missed this year’s game will have the opportunity to see their team play in South Bend in the years 2024, 2030, 2032 and 2036. The Irish will play in Tallahassee in 2021, 2026, 2029.