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Final thoughts: Must-win situation, fourth downs

From time to time on Fridays this football season, we’ll clean out the notebook and offer some final thoughts ahead of a Saturday game. Below are a variety of reflections on FSU ahead of Saturday’s game with Syracuse (3:30 p.m. on ACC Network) as well as a few thoughts on the big picture.

Positives, desperate for a win

Florida State has struggled to build off positives under coach Mike Norvell. A big win over No. 5 North Carolina in Oct. 2020 was followed by humbling losses to Louisville, Pitt and NC State. The Seminoles’ overtime loss to No. 9 Notre Dame was followed by a demoralizing loss to Jacksonville State as well as a defeat at Wake Forest. 

Now what? A first-half mess and a second-half rebound against Louisville leave media and fans wondering if they should be looking at the glass half full or half empty. Let’s choose half full but also qualify it with this: The lessons learned and the positives of the loss to Louisville mean little if the Seminoles can’t defeat Syracuse on Saturday. Period.

The Seminoles are desperate for a win. They need a better start to build confidence. They need a feel-good performance. They need to hear the crowd cheering and celebrating. They are also playing Syracuse, which some media and analysts had going 0-8 in the ACC in the summer. 

Confidence and happiness will go a long way for the Seminoles if they can win on Saturday. Players can smile through the aches and sore muscles on Sunday and Monday. Practice on Tuesday could get a spark, too.

Fourth downs

We have hit on third downs a few times, in the final thoughts last Friday and earlier this week. Problems on first and second down become challenges on third down. And if third down doesn’t go well it brings up the debate about fourth downs.

FSU went 0 for 4 on fourth downs against Louisville and is now just 1 of 9 on the season, ranking 125th among the 130 FBS teams. (Oddly, Clemson is 0 for 3 and is one of a few FBS schools ranked lower than FSU.)

Mike Norvell will go for it on fourth downs, to keep his offense on the field and try to sustain a drive that ends in points, but also to rest his defense. The roll of the dice has been costly in 2021 but Memphis’ history has been quite positive: The Tigers converted on 14 of 24 (58 percent) of fourth-down plays in 2019, 11 of 17 (64 percent) in 2018, 11 of 20 (55 percent) in 2017 and 13 of 22 (59 percent) in 2016. 

What does this suggest? In part it contradicts some of my thoughts, which have been to question the fourth-down play calls (also note that Kenny Dillingham was Memphis’ offensive coordinator in 2018). Norvell had good calls on fourth downs at Memphis but it hasn’t worked from an execution standpoint at FSU. Continuity and injuries along the offensive line as well as inexperience at receiver are reasons why the Seminoles have fallen short.

Norvell earlier this week owned up that he would like to have the fourth-and-3 trick play where quarterback McKenzie Milton looked to the sideline and tailback Jashaun Corbin took the direct snap. It’s a cute play but the timing wasn’t right and it wasn’t blocked up remotely well.

On Saturday, FSU’s fourth-down plays:

First quarter: Milton pass incomplete to Camren McDonald on fourth-and-4 from Louisville 49. It followed an incomplete third-down pass, too. Louisville scored a touchdown on the short field.

Second quarter: FSU gets the ball with 31 seconds to go on its own 20. The Seminoles get a first down, an incompletion and a sack. Then a 10-yard completion to Treshaun Ward on third-and-18, but Milton’s fourth-down pass to Ontaria Wilson is incomplete as time runs out on the half.

Fourth quarter: The aforementioned trick play, Corbin picked up 1 yard on fourth-and-3. Milton was sacked on first down, Louisville broke up a pass on second down and after a review a third-down completion set up the fourth down.

Fourth quarter: Milton’s pass for Andrew Parchment was incomplete on fourth-and-7.

Coaches are electing to go for it on fourth down now more than ever, propped up in part by analytics. When it works, the excitement is there on the field and in the stands. When it doesn’t, well, the defense is left to pick up the pieces and that often happens on a short field. There is also the concept of revolutionizing how you call plays on third down because a head coach and offensive coordinator know they will go for it on fourth down, it’s just a matter of which play call and for how many yards.

Kevin Kelley, who was an Arkansas high school coach, decided years ago that he would never punt — regardless of position on the field. He won nine state titles in 18 years and was hired at Presbyterian College in South Carolina earlier this season. Kelley is 2-2 at Presbyterian and, yes, he has punted twice. But he has hit on 9 of 25 (36 percent) of fourth-down conversions.

Let’s stop for one moment and think about going for it 25 times on fourth down in four games. Wow.

“If you crunch the numbers, it definitely tells you to go for it a lot more often than most people do,” Yale finance professor and author Toby Moskowitz told SI.com in May. “The other thing I’ll add to that is—as Kevin Kelley talks about, and he’s right — when you go for it on fourth down, it gives you an extra down. It means something very different, then, on what you do for third down and second down. A lot of the teams that he plays against often complain that knowing that he’s gonna go for it on fourth down, they’re not sure what he’s gonna do on third down. Third-and-10 is no longer a passing down for him.”

Defensive shortcomings

Each week seems to be a referendum on a college football program and that’s especially the case for a young coach or a coach in his first year or two on the job. Or a defensive coordinator with no Power 5 experience, like FSU’s Adam Fuller.

FSU’s coaches deserve credit for hitting the transfer portal and improving the front four. Jermaine Johnson has been a difference maker and his energy has made the entire group better, be it veterans or freshmen. Coaches said Keir Thomas had his best game against Louisville and there has been praise for young ends like Derrick McLendon and Quashon Fuller. Fabien Lovett, Dennis Briggs and Robert Cooper have been effective on the interior. Coaching, development, recruiting transfers and it has largely worked quite well for FSU’s line.

That’s the positive. The linebackers are puppies who are still learning. But the defensive backfield has been underwhelming with a mix of transfers, veterans and freshmen, continuing a recent trend at FSU where preseason expectations that have fallen short.

While we’re looking for improvement in a number of areas, the bottom line is there is still a difficult stat: The Seminoles have given up on average 37 points per game against Power 5 teams under Fuller and Norvell. And in nine of the 11 games vs. Power 5 teams, FSU has allowed 30 or more points. 

It has been almost a full year since FSU held UNC under 30 — to 28 points — on Oct. 17.

Run vs. run defense

The Orange can run and FSU is capable of stopping the run. Syracuse averages 216 rushing yards per game (20th in the FBS) and will face an FSU rush defense that is allowing just 3 yards per carry (28th in the FBS). Players don’t schedule the opponent, but it’s worth mentioning Syracuse has played just one Power 5 school (a loss to Rutgers) as part of a 3-1 start. How do we weigh what Syracuse and tailback Sean Tucker have done on the ground? It’s impressive but definitely against lesser competition.

History lesson

FSU has never lost to Syracuse in Tallahassee, a 6-0 mark.