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Column: Noles took next step but also showed their character

The next step was having a professional attitude — preparation and focus. Take care of business and Florida State’s starters could enjoy the second half and turn to cheerleaders on the sideline.

We weren’t sure how much we could derive from a Florida State-UMass game on Saturday. In a season where we have often questioned the amount of talent or depth (or both) of the Seminoles, it was quite clear the disparity between an improving Power 5 team and a basement Group of 5 team. It was also evident UMass tackles poorly, which allowed Jordan Travis and FSU’s running backs to enjoy quite the statistical field day.

Beyond the numbers, the 59-3 thrashing, the 365 rushing yards, the dominance on offense and defense, there was a team that was having fun. For every scoring drive and defensive stop, the disparity grew and by halftime it was clear we would get to see FSU’s backups in the second half.

FSU coach Mike Norvell can discuss culture and players can discuss a brotherhood. When does a roster of players become a team? Coaches can point to early morning offseason conditioning and August camp. But it’s also this: When the first-team players have a kick-butt mindset from the start with the knowledge they will get a breather but more importantly a chance to watch and cheer on their teammates. 

It was a chance for the first-team players to reward those players who don’t often get on the field on Saturdays. For the freshmen and veterans lower on the depth chart, those who practice hard on Sundays and then Tuesdays through Fridays, a game like the one against UMass gave them a chance to show what they can do, to have fans cheer for them but also have game film to review and learn and correct.

Norvell shared a story postgame that was not surprising but impressive. Which quarterback would we see in the third quarter on Saturday? While we wanted the answer to be Chubba Purdy, to see the redshirt freshman get meaningful snaps for the first time in 2021, we knew it could also be a tough conversation for another quarterback.

“I talked to McKenzie (Milton), that is a special young man,” Norvell said. “He wanted to see those young quarterbacks get in there and get their opportunity. McKenzie’s ready, he’s done a great job in his preparation. Jordan, just the encouragement towards those young quarterbacks. It’s a special room. That’s what you want. You want that within your football team because that speaks to the culture of what’s here, the relationships, the type of young men that we have. That’s an incredible group and it’s wonderful to see them all support each other.”

Now Purdy’s viewpoint: “McKenzie talked to Coach Norvell and he wanted me and Tate (Rodemaker) and the younger guys to get some reps. I can’t thank him enough for that, I really appreciate that. He wants nothing but the best for me, Jordan, Tate — whoever gets in the game. He is super positive. Jordan and McKenzie have been awesome, they always help me out every time I have a question. So I really look up to them.”

This is really just one example. A few weeks ago, at North Carolina, it was Fabien Lovett telling defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins that Malcolm Ray had earned the start more than Lovett. 

There are undoubtedly others and, in an era where we think athletes are consumed with a “me-first mindset” and how much they can earn through NIL opportunities, it is refreshing to hear these stories about a bond formed through the months and months spent working out together and training. (And don’t forget that Milton is a co-founder of a company, Dreamfield, that represents him and other student-athletes.)

The Seminoles have evolved, from an 0-4 start to a three-game win streak, something no team in the nearly 70-year history of the ACC has done. We’ll ask why, what changed and couldn’t it have happened earlier? It didn’t. This team grew at its own pace. 

“It just shows what type of team we’re becoming,” Travis said. “We’re brothers. Last year you would not see that at all. Guys like seeing other guys making plays. And that’s what is so special. It’s a team game and we’re a team for once. It feels like a team this year. It’s a bunch of guys that love each other. It’s really special.”

And Saturday was the next step: Take care of business against a lesser team and get ready for the next one.

Now this is the next step: Be competitive against a rival and perhaps pick up a win over a rival for the first time since Nov. 2017. It is almost four calendar years since FSU’s win at Florida, and it may feel like twice that if you’ve been hearing from your Miami, Florida or Clemson friends or just feeling the anguish of being at the wrong end of the scoreboard.

What a weird season this has been. We figured FSU would have the chance to stack wins early (yeah, wrong). We figured FSU would have a mess of it late with three rivalry games in the last five as well as NC State and Boston College (yeah, likely wrong — but who knows?).

Saturday’s game offered the best chance for all of us to be right. To walk into the stadium, or turn on the TV, expecting a convincing (and maybe dominating) performance and seeing the Seminoles deliver just that. 

But the Seminoles also delivered another valuable lesson about the close connection among the players and the growth of a young program.