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Final thoughts: On focus, freshmen and the midpoint

On Fridays during football season, we’ll offer a few final thoughts on the week at Florida State, the game ahead and the big picture. The Seminoles (2-4) face UMass (1-5) on Saturday at noon (ACC Network).

What to watch

You can be excused for having very little interest in Florida State’s opponent or the in-game matchup. While there is a storyline of Walt Bell’s return to Tallahassee as UMass’ coach, his team has battled injuries and a roster that doesn’t that doesn’t stack up against FSU.

Why should you come to Doak? Or why should you watch on the ACC Network? Here are a few things we’ll be looking for on Saturday.

Norvell blasted the Seminoles in his post-practice interview on Wednesday. How much should you read into it? Is it a pre-emptive strike, a message to the media that filters out on social media for players to see? It would be more of a worry if FSU were facing a rival or an ACC team, but it is of mild concern when factoring in the lack of preparation and focus ahead of the Jacksonville State game.

The biggest thing we want to see is FSU’s true and redshirt freshmen get some playing time. Did they show preparation, professionalism and focus? FSU’s mindset and energy needs to match Norvell’s words from Monday — “I can promise you we’re not going to look past anybody.”

A true sign of this team will be if the veterans are leading and executing on a good start in the first quarter, something FSU hasn’t really had on offense and defense outside of a quality 15 minutes against Syracuse. If leaders are leading and setting the tone, the first-teamers should deliver points and stops early with the full knowledge that it’s an opportunity for them to watch their friends and teammates play in the second half. If the Seminoles are sluggish early? It would be a continuation of the trend but also an opportunity lost to play freshmen.

We want to see quarterback Chubba Purdy and ideally have him get some drives with the first-team offensive line. The game would need to be in hand or the score and tone of the game well in FSU’s favor but the only way to see if his progress on the practice field has translated to a game day is by getting him on the field on a Saturday. And given the injury history to Jordan Travis and McKenzie Milton, Purdy needs to see the field and we need to see how the offense functions around him.

We also want to see some of the younger offensive linemen, redshirt freshmen like Lloyd Willis and Zane Herring or true freshmen like Rod Orr and Bryson Estes. The beauty of the four-game redshirt rule is Orr and Estes can play up to four games without losing any eligibility. We need to see more of guys like Joshua Farmer, Patrick Payton, George Wilson, Hunter Washington and Omarion Cooper.

If anything, there is curiosity about how FSU performs early but more so how the freshmen look and play late. Yes, it will all be hedged by the asterisk of “against UMass.” But these games are scheduled for the opportunity to develop players and to rest starters. 

The margin of victory is of little relevance in the big picture as it’s not about the Seminoles putting up a number as much as getting numbers of plays for freshmen, who can learn from the on-field experience and the ability to review game film of their performance.

Midpoint thoughts

Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham was asked for his thoughts on the group at the midpoint of FSU’s season and offered a candid answer.

“I think the first half of the year was just inconsistencies, whether that’s the people on the field and the personnel and not being able to practice, and then not being available on game days, whether that’s the identity of who we were offensively, whether that’s inconsistency in getting penalties and dropping the ball and running the right play,” Dillingham said. “You could see those inconsistencies week 1 through 4. The last two weeks you saw a team that didn’t get penalties, you saw a team that, for the most part, 11 guys were doing the same thing. And you saw a team that, for the most part, they were dinged up but you had the 10 or 11 guys on the field that, going into the season, we felt like were going to take the field. So you kind of had what we prepared for this year these last two weeks. And you combine that with we played how we should play in terms of cleaner football. Not clean football, but cleaner football. So moving forward, we just got to be able to build on that.”

Dillingham’s answer is more than fair. Reasons but not excuses for the struggles, acknowledging inconsistency but also improvement that’s derived from the return of several key players (especially on the offensive line). The run game has been fueled by some long touchdowns as well as Jordan Travis’ feet, while Jashaun Corbin (556 yards, four touchdowns) and Treshaun Ward (362 yards, two touchdowns) have been shown impressive physicality and the capability to break tackles.

FSU is ranked 25th in the FBS in rushing offense, surpassing the 200-yard mark in five of its first six games. The last time the Seminoles had five games with 200 or more rushing yards in a six-game span was in 1995.

The defensive line has been a strength, led by Jermaine Johnson (seven sacks) but also Keir Thomas, Fabien Lovett and Robert Cooper. Dennis Briggs will be missed, and it will be critical to continue pushing defensive tackles Jarrett Jackson, Malcolm Ray and Joshua Farmer. 

Overall, the performance of the defense has been well below expectations. There are positives as injured players, especially in the secondary, have returned. There have been game-changing and momentum-changing plays, especially the fourth-down stops by FSU on the goal line against Syracuse and another inside the 10 at UNC. Jarrian Jones’ interception came at a critical point in the second quarter.

“We have seen some growth on the back end,” defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said. “I think part of it’s because they’ve made a decision to play better, with better technique and more consistency.”

FSU’s defensive backfield looks better when Jammie Robinson is at safety and Kevin Knowles at nickel. The Seminoles’ best option appears to be using the 4-2-5 alignment as often as possible, with Kalen DeLoach an undersized but valuable part of the linebacking corps.

The coaching staff also deserves praise for helping correct one of the team’s biggest sore spots. FSU committed a combined 27 penalties in its first three games but has played significantly cleaner of late. In their last three games, the Seminoles have been penalized just 12 times.

The Osceola staff gave its viewpoint of the offense and defense at the midpoint last weekend during the bye. 

Norvell after a bye

FSU is coming off a bye and playing a Group of 5 opponent, one that is undermanned and a 37-point underdog. The bye week clearly wasn’t focused on preparing in full for UMass as it was time spent on fundamentals and evaluating freshmen. Some of the games and situations outlined below really aren’t an apple-to-apple comparison but it’s still good to review history of how Norvell’s teams performed following a bye week.

At Memphis, Norvell was 6-0 in four seasons, with five of those by double figures, following an off week in the regular season. The closest result was a home win over UCLA (48-45) in 2017 and the Tigers’ average margin of victory was 18 coming off a bye from 2016-19.

How FSU performed off a bye in 2020 is tough to evaluate for so many reasons. FSU had a September bye and was drilled at Miami, a game in which Norvell missed due to COVID. The Seminoles had a bye in November and lost to Pittsburgh. And FSU had a few COVID cancellations in November before playing host to Duke, which ended up with a 56-35 win.

One last thought on FSU-UNC

FSU defeated UNC by not giving up a sack, dropping a pass or turning the ball over. There was also an interception and a fourth-down stop. How good is that? Yes, Dillingham said there was a pre-snap penalty. Room to improve but a performance in the final 45 minutes that is among the best we have seen from the Seminoles.

Three in a row

FSU has a chance to win three straight games for the first time since … 2017. The Seminoles knocked off Delaware State, Florida, ULM and then Southern Miss to finish off that season.