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First impressions: FSU is own worst enemy in historic loss to Jacksonville State

FSU was a four-touchdown favorite heading into Saturday night’s game against Jacksonville State in what most people assumed would result in a blowout win for the Seminoles as they head into ACC play next week at Wake Forest. FSU needed to build on the momentum they gained in last week’s close OT loss with a convincing win over an FCS program. Someone forgot to tell the Gamecocks. JSU shocked FSU and the rest of the college football world by winning the game 20-17 on an improbable 59-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play. There will be much to digest and evaluate in the day’s to come about the 2021 version of FSU football but the loss to JSU certainly left a huge impression on those that follow the program closely. Here are my initial takeaways from FSU’s stunning and unfortunate loss to the Gamecocks:

Cover What?

The last play of the game will haunt Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller and FSU fans for a long, long time. Norvell said after the game that his defense played a Cover-2 defense (two deep safeties) with man coverage underneath because JSU had one timeout remaining with six seconds left in the game. What? It was essentially fourth down and 59 yards to go. Could JSU have thrown the ball down the middle of the field and called a timeout and kicked a field goal to tie the game? Maybe. But the chances were very, very remote. The only thing that could get you beat was giving up a touchdown. Not playing some kind of prevent-type of coverage or at the very least some kind of Cover-4 (four-under, four-deep) or Cover-3 (five under, three-deep) concept is quite simply inexcusable. There is no rationale where the decision not to protect the goal line instead of the goalpost (playing against the field goal first) is acceptable. It certainly wasn’t the only mistake on the field or on the sidelines made on Saturday night but it is the one that will leave the biggest hangover on Sunday morning for coaches, players and fans alike. A hangover that could haunt this program for days and weeks to come. I am not sure I have ever seen a fourth-and-59 situation in all the years I have been around the game of football and I certainly never thought I would see one converted. And we shouldn’t have.

Defense’s Achilles heel

FSU’s defense giving up big plays in the passing game has been one of its biggest weaknesses over its last 11 games that make up the Norvell and Fuller tenure. And to be fair it was a trademark of the defense they inherited. But this was Jacksonville State, a team that FSU should have been able to limit in the big play category and they did for the most part until it mattered most. FSU gave up eight pass plays last week of over 20 yards against Notre Dame, three of which resulted in touchdowns. Against Jacksonville State the Seminoles surrendered two scoring passing plays of over 20 yards in the second half, including the infamous game winner. Statistically the secondary played better than it did a week ago. JSU quarterback Zerrick Cooper had been held in check throwing the ball most of the game, finishing 17 of 38 for 242 yards, but did the bulk of his damage in the second half where he threw for 152 yards. Over half of those yards came on his two touchdown passes. Statistically speaking the defense was better than it was last week but the Achilles heel of the FSU defense made its presence known once again. And the passing attacks it will face moving forward in the ACC will be even harder to slow down.

Focus Was a Factor

Norvell said in his postgame press conference that he and his staff didn’t have FSU ready to play and it’s hard to argue with that. One of the questions coming into this game was could this team, whose 53-man two-deep roster consist of 37 players who are redshirt sophomores or younger, play with the same focus, intensity, effort and resolve it did against Notre Dame. I am not going to question this team’s effort or resolve but the focus and intensity levels were markedly different than a week ago. You assumed that FSU might wake up at some point once Jacksonville State took a 7-0 lead, but the team, especially offensively, never really did. The signs of lack of focus and discipline were on display from the outset.

After drops not being an issue for FSU in the season opener it was against JSU and it started early. McKenzie Milton threw two beautiful deep balls on the first drive of the game, one of them on fourth down, that if completed would have been a touchdown.

Penalties were also an issue for FSU. Several positive plays offensively were called back for an ineligible man downfield, illegal blocks or holding, which led to long-yardage situations that FSU could not overcome and ultimately stalled drives.

FSU’s defense also had issues with penalties and two big ones came when you could least afford to have them. On Jacksonville State’s second touchdown drive to cut FSU’s lead to 17-14, the defense gave up two penalties that moved the ball 25 yards further downfield and resulted in automatic first downs, which extended the drive and kept the Gamecocks in the game. The defense, which played extremely well against the run for most of the game, did miss too many tackles and allowed JSU to be to efficient on third down, where the Gamecocks converted 47 percent of those opportunities into first downs.

Another sign of a football team that still hasn’t fully matured was the inability to finish off an undermanned FCS football team at home. FSU’s offense couldn’t find answers to JSU bend-but-don’t break defense or reproduce the big-play capability it displayed against Notre Dame. Defensively, FSU gave up two touchdowns to JSU on its last two drives. Late in the game, the advantage should have been in FSU’s favor. FSU has 53 players, no matter how experienced or inexperienced, on its two-deep. JSU and all FCS programs are allowed just 63 full scholarships. Late in a game like this FSU’s advantage in numbers and depth should have played in its favor. It didn’t and it is baffling.

Silver Lining Playbook

Because of the epic nature of the collapse and who it came against there were several that were validated despite the loss. The FSU defense was very stout again against the run allowing JSU just 108 yards on 39 carries. FSU also ran the ball well for the second straight week in a row, where it averaged 5.5 yards per attempt and totaled 202 yards on the ground. Unfortunately not enough of those runs ended with the ball carrier in the end zone. Special teams was once again solid. Punter Alex Mastromanno has been outstanding so far this season. He averaged 45 yards per punt against JSU, two of which resulted in JSU starting possessions inside its own 20-yard line. JSU didn’t produce any yards in the return game other than a 25-yard kickoff return. Ryan Fitzgerald made a 53-yard field goal to give FSU a 10-point lead in the second half, and Keyshawn Helton averaged 11 yards per punt return on three attempts.

Wake Up Next Week

You can’t argue that this loss was a huge setback for the FSU football program. It was a game where FSU should have been able to validate what it did well against Notre Dame by repeating that performance. It was a game that should have allowed FSU shore up its shortcomings from a week ago. This was a game that FSU should have gotten better. This was a game for the more inexperienced players on FSU’s roster to get a chance to play. This was a game FSU should have dominated from start to finish. This was a game FSU should have won and frankly had no business losing. We thought this was an FSU football program that had taken a big step in the right direction last week but that was all erased by an uninspired performance against an FCS team. It has to be one of, if not the most embarrassing losses in the program’s history, which ended on a play that should have never happened and will forever be burned into the minds of FSU fans.

FSU now must do next week what it could not do this week: Put this game behind them and move on to the next one. Wake Forest and the rest of the ACC schedule await the Seminoles. We wanted to know after the Notre Dame game if the resolve we saw from Mike Norvell and his team would be a trademark we saw week-in and week-out. After a shocking and inexcusable 0-2 start to the 2021 season we are about to find out. Simply put, this team, coaches and players alike, have to prove they can win a football game.