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Final thoughts: Third-and-yikes, injuries and measuring effort

From time to time 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 Louisville (3:30 p.m. on ESPN2) as well as a few thoughts on the big picture.

Third-and-miserable

Third-down numbers can be blown out of proportion. Sometimes a team’s shortcomings on first and second down create a third-and-8 that just isn’t realistic for a high conversion rate. But there are also very makeable third-and-2 situations where the success rate should be quite high. Coaches may call it a “money” down or give it a catchy name because great teams cash in during high-pressure situations. The Seminoles’ 0-3 record can be attributed to a number of reasons but third-down shortcomings are on the list.

FSU is just 13 of 36 (36.1 percent) on third down through three games, a mark that is 96th in the FBS and the lowest in the ACC. On defense, it’s not much better: FSU is 92nd in the FBS on third-down defense (just ahead of North Carolina, Miami and Duke).

Candidly, as much as the media and fans have critiqued Mike Norvell’s roll-the-dice fourth-down mindset, or at times the play calling itself on fourth down, the reality is the Seminoles have fallen short on third down to force a fourth down. One example was the questionable fourth-and-2 call in the third quarter where McKenzie Milton had blockers but couldn’t get the two yards at Wake. The call itself is a tough one considering Milton’s injury history, but Jashaun Corbin was stuffed for no gain on the prior third-and-2 play. If there was enough push up front to convert or at least get a yard, maybe the fourth-and-1 call is different. Or at least there’s a better chance to convert on fourth-and-1.

What’s frustrating about the Seminoles’ third-down woes is not just that they went 1 of 6 at Wake — it’s that they weren’t really close on the first five opportunities:

A third-and-8 where Jordan Travis was sacked for a loss of three yards

A third-and-1 where Treshaun Ward was brought down for a loss of three yards

A third-and-8 were Travis completed a pass to Corbin for a loss of two yards

A third-and-2 where Travis was sacked for a loss of 10 yards

A third-and-2 where Corbin was stopped for no gain (referenced above)

A third-and-4 where Milton completed an 11-yard catch and run to Ontaria Wilson

FSU’s third-down plays went for -18 yards before converting on the sixth one. A lack of continuity on the offensive line is definitely a reason. But of all the stats — and there are many with the Seminoles from the FBS-leading 10 turnovers to the penalties — these numbers are quite stunning. FSU was quite good (7 of 16) on third downs vs. ND but dreadful (5 of 14) on third downs against Jacksonville State. A Power 5 team playing at home against an FCS team with fewer scholarships should be far more efficient.

And the third-down defense is a display of Wake’s efficiency, where the Demon Deacons converted 8 of 17 opportunities. Some examples: Wake needs five yards and gets eight, Wake needs two yards and gets eight, Wake needs six yards and gets 20 yards, Wake needs 14 and gets seven plus a penalty, Wake needs seven (after being pushed back due to a false start) and gets 11 and a touchdown. Whew. We could keep going but you get the picture.

FSU coaches can sell media and fans that they are close – to being a play or a few plays away from 2-1. And, really, they’re not wrong in the attempt at positivity or spin control. But on third down? FSU wasn’t close last Saturday. 

If you’re taking notes during FSU’s game against Louisville, focus on penalties and turnovers but also how the offense and defense fare on third downs.

Injuries no excuse but a talking point

My eyebrow raised a few times at the candid admissions by Mike Norvell and the assistants this week about how much injuries have impacted the Seminoles. Norvell emphasized on Saturday that injuries aren’t an excuse, and let’s be clear it is a blanket statement for him in the short term and throughout the season. That said, it was surprising to hear Norvell mention that Jordan Travis “wasn’t available all week” going into the Wake Forest game. And it was a talking point for Norvell on a few occasions this week that the Seminoles used four or five offensive line combinations at Wake, while he mentioned midweek that Darius Washington played three positions last Saturday. 

First, Washington deserves praise for the selflessness of learning center — Alex Atkins said he had never played the position in high school or college — and trying to do his best regardless of where he lines up. (It’s also fair to wonder if moving Washington from tackle to center is the best idea given the musical chairs but that’s a long, separate discussion.) Don’t let any “playerspeak” fool you into thinking it’s not that big of a deal or it’s just a different set of steps or it’s just snapping the ball. Technique and continuity are critical components of line play – doing your job the best you can, the way you were taught in practice. It’s also having the experience of practicing alongside a center, guard or tackle and having the communication (spoken or understood) about what each will do when it comes to blocking or using leverage as well as twists and stunts. 

The line will get better as the Seminoles see the healthy return of Robert Scott and Maurice Smith. But it will take time for the continuity to be gained based on practice experience and trust built each week that prepares them for Saturdays.

Measured effort, measured response

Norvell uses his opening statement to share his thoughts before fielding questions from the media. It’s always enjoyable to hear a coach’s talking points and dive deeper with follow-up questions.

“One of the top numbers we’ve had throughout the course of a practice,” Norvell said. “The work is there.”

What Norvell indicated about the GPS numbers is encouraging. Tuesday practices are a big deal, setting a standard for the days ahead as far as installing the game plan and moving forward. But it was also subtle in addressing some of the bigger questions, especially after the Seminoles had a hangover in a Tuesday practice after the Jacksonville State loss. There’s no doubt Norvell has a sense of the fans’ frustration and his comments may alleviate some concerns of these questions: Are FSU players still competing? Are they delivering energy and bought in? These were some of the questions you are asking and we answered earlier this week in a mailbag. 

There are long-term concerns, if 0-3 snowballs on the Seminoles, will the effort be there? Short term, players are still exerting the effort coaches want to see.

Quarterly report

With ambitious goals, it felt like a good idea to take stock of the Seminoles through three games and then re-evaluate at the midseason, nine-game mark and again at the close of the regular season. Not a bad idea but also don’t think too many fans are interested in position-by-position analysis of each group or grades right now. 

Let’s start here, though, and offer a few thoughts. My goal was for FSU to be competitive and fun to watch, for fans to enjoy this team through the wins and losses. The Seminoles need a win on Saturday but they also need to build confidence and affirmation that their hard work on the practice field is paying off on a game day.

Let’s skip the position analysis but at least do a few superlatives. The most impressive position has been defensive line, led by Jermaine Johnson. It’s worth praising Johnson’s production (five sacks) and the energy he has brought, which has sparked 12 sacks — three more than FSU had in nine games in 2020.

The most disappointing group has been the defensive backs, a segment we all thought would be a strength in 2021. No question they have not won the one-on-one battles. They are in position quite often but not coming through.

The best offensive player has been tailback Treshaun Ward, who hasn’t surprised with his first three games because he was often a standout in August practices. But he has also been consistent and dependable.

A few other bright spots – Alex Mastromanno is averaging 43 yards per punt. Fabien Lovett, who has 11 tackles, has also shown his athleticism and looks more comfortable in year 2 after his transfer from Mississippi State.