CLEMSON, S.C. — The opportunities were plentiful.
Clemson kicker B.T. Potter missed field-goal attempts of 49, 37 and 30 yards. Florida State’s defense produced three takeaways, one of which resulted in Jermaine Johnson’s touchdown. But the offense generated not even a first down on the other two chances.
FSU’s coaches knew going into the game they would need some big plays, and perhaps none were bigger than Lawrance Toafili’s 75-yard catch-and-run. But of FSU’s 14 drives, just two resulted in scores: Toafili’s run and a 10-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in Jordan Travis’ 1-yard pass to Jashaun Corbin.
The run game had been a consistent identity for FSU through seven games, with the Seminoles accumulating six 200+ rushing days. While there was an understanding that the ground attack would struggle against an elite defense like Clemson’s, the result was 34 carries for 43 yards (although 39 yards were removed due to six sacks).
“We just couldn’t get in rhythm with the running game,” Corbin said. “Obviously they’re a great defense and have a great defensive coordinator (Brent Venables). They did good things on defense. We just got to find ways to be better.”
And the Tigers made it clear they were loading the box to force the Seminoles to pass.
“We’re expecting teams to try to stop the run,” Corbin said. “That’s just something we have to expect and something we have to work through.”
FSU had starting guards Devontay Love-Taylor and Dillan Gibbons back in the lineup but the Seminoles’ offensive line was often overwhelmed by Clemson’s front seven. Gibbons had been “very, very limited” in practices, said coach Mike Norvell, who praised him for his toughness.
“I’m proud of them,” Travis said. “Dillan, earlier this week, I didn’t think he was playing at all. Guy comes in smiling today, ready to go. It’s a great feeling for me knowing that the guys want to work for me and protect me. Just keeps me going. Keeps me upright, keeps me smiling on my face.”
The Seminoles were able to create eight big plays in the pass or rush game but the remaining 48 plays generated just 50 yards. FSU was forced to punt eight times, including four that were three-and-out possessions.
FSU also had two pre-snap penalties on first downs, with each possession resulting in a quick punt. The Seminoles had dramatically reduced the penalties but a combination of crowd noise, focus or an anxiousness to make a play or block promoted a mistake.
“It’s all focus,” Travis said. “Everything is focus. We’ve got to lock in. Those are things that we need. We can’t be third-and-12, especially against a team like that. It was very tough to get first down like that. We just got to lock in, do the little things right and win football games.”
That forced FSU to pass, with moments of success, as Travis was 14 of 22 for 176 yards and the touchdown passes to Toafili and Corbin. Travis connected with nine receivers, although the 75-yard pass play meant his other 21 passes went for just 101 yards.
Travis was frequently under pressure, too.
“We got to a point where we had some success throwing the ball, trying to keep that efficiency, but then you have a negative play or the pre-snap penalties that showed up that really haven’t these last few weeks,” Norvell said. “That puts you in challenging situations. Without being able to consistently run the ball, it was difficult. That’s one of those things we have to continue to grow and get better at.”
There was obvious disappointment among the players and Norvell at how the offense came up short so often on Saturday. The effort and competitiveness in a rivalry game was there, something that often had been lacking in past years.
“We worked really hard during the week,” Travis said. “We’re in a game like this, in a stadium like this, and we’re in the game. Working hard. And it hasn’t been like that for a while. Since I’ve been here, I’ve never been in a game like that before. So it’s obviously good that we’re in games and we’re playing hard but, man, losing sucks. Just have to come back this week and work harder.”