Takeaway Tuesday: Cardinal sins, why running wins, teeing it up again

When it comes to college football it is amazing what a difference just one week can make. Just last week Florida State and its fans were basking in the afterglow of defeating then 5th-ranked North Carolina. It was arguably the biggest win for the Seminoles’ program since Jimbo Fisher was the head coach in Tallahassee. It was a classic Seminole Saturday night, the kind people from my generation grew up on. There was a feeling of positivity and a good feeling about Mike Norvell and his team turning the corner and getting the program finally headed in the right direction.

That feeling was short-lived. FSU followed its most impressive, albeit imperfect performance against the Tar Heels with a dud of a game in a 48-16 blowout loss to Louisville on the road. The game was competitive for about three series and was over by halftime. It left Mike Norvell and his team grasping for answers as they head into their last bye week of the season after a horrendous defensive performance, which saw FSU surrender a jaw-dropping 429 yards on 13 plays and 569 yards in the game. And it left FSU fans frustrated after seeing a team that didn’t play with the same effort and energy against the Cardinals that it did in its win against the Tar Heels.

The game against Louisville left me, like you, with a lot to think about when it comes to FSU football and despite an ugly loss not all of it is bad. So with that in mind, here are twelve things I think, I think, about the Seminoles (2-4) as they have hit the midway point of their season.

  1. I think playing well on the road is difficult for the vast majority of college football teams and winning on the road is even harder. Unless you are one of the elite teams in college football like Clemson or Alabama (and it has happened to them too) you better bring your “A” game with you when you leave the comforts of home or you could be in for a long day. Playing on the road, kind of like bathroom lighting and a mirror, has a way of exposing a team’s imperfections and maturity (or lack thereof) and that is exactly what the trip to Louisville did to FSU. The intensity and effort the team played with against UNC didn’t make the trip to Louisville and I think that is reflective of a young football team (33 of the 55 players listed on the two-deep flip card for the UNC game are redshirt sophomores or younger) and I think that immaturity was brought to light on a cloudy and cool Kentucky Saturday afternoon.

2. I think the game against Louisville also brought us back to reality about the FSU defense. It is just not very good right now and hadn’t been heading into the Louisville game. Winning has a way of glossing over a team’s faults and the North Carolina game did just that. And to the defense’s credit it came up with a number of huge plays that were key in the win but it was also holding on for dear life in the second half and was bailed out in part because the offense was able to hold onto the ball for nine minutes in the fourth quarter. FSU’s defense has given up an increasing amount of yardage in each of its five FBS (ACC) games this season. The Seminoles have given up 438, 517, 554, 558 and 569 yards in those games and I think we all know that is a bad trend.

3. One positive coming out of the game was the continued improvement of the running game and the offensive line. FSU continues to show that it can run the ball. FSU ran for 265 yards against the Cardinals. And there is no doubt that quarterback Jordan Travis’ ability to run the ball as been the catalyst for this. But I think the most positive thing about the running game versus Louisville was the fact that Travis was the fourth-leading rusher in the game. The Seminoles are continuing to improve and find success with its running backs. Lawrance Toafili, La’Damian Webb and Jashaun Corbin combined 211 yards on 25 carries. And although Travis was credited with 12 carries, several of those were scrambles when pass protection broke down.

4. I think FSU’s offensive line is the most improved position group on the team when comparing the 2019 team to this year’s team and it isn’t even close. And I never thought I would be saying that coming into this season. Offensive line coach Alex Atkins has done an outstanding job with a mostly young group in a short time, especially given the fact he didn’t have the benefit of the 15 spring practice opportunities. FSU is averaging over 183 yards rushing per game against ACC opponents this season, so the improvement is real.

5. With Pitt’s defense coming to town in a week and a half, I think FSU’s offensive line will face its biggest test of the season when it comes to running the ball. The Panthers are allowing an average of just 1.94 yards per carry this season and have given up just 484 yards in seven games.

6. I think Florida State is a team that needs to run the ball successfully and often to give itself a chance to win moving forward. It is what FSU does most efficiently on offense and helps the Seminoles play complementary football in a variety of ways. A successful running game helps open up big plays in the passing game, shortens the game and helps keep FSU’s defense off the field. Defensively, the answer is easy. FSU must improve. This question is harder: Can the defense improve enough week-in and week-out moving forward to find four wins in its next five games (Pitt, NC State, Clemson, Virginia and Duke) to finish with a winning record? FSU’s defense has to keep its offense within two scores of its opponents. The Seminoles aren’t proficient enough in the passing game to play any further behind than that against evenly matched or better teams. I am not saying FSU wont get better as the season continues, I think they will. It’s almost impossible not to, especially on defense. The tougher questions are whether we see that improvement in the Win-Loss column or in little things we see like individual player or position group development. One thing is for certain, at the halfway point of any season, you have pretty much established who you are as a team and FSU is not who I thought they would be at this point in the 2020 season.

7. I think I am repeating myself. But this season, especially given the circumstances surrounding a program with a first year head coach due to Covid-19 starting back in March, has always been about building for future seasons. That has always been the prism I have looked at this season though given those circumstances and that perspective has kept my expectations realistic. Heck, FSU is not alone in struggling under a first-year head coach. Ole Miss (1-4), Mississippi State (1-3), Baylor (1-2), Michigan State (0-1) and USF (1-5) are all under the leadership of first-year head coaches and all facing similar challenges. Boston College (4-2), Arkansas (2-2) and Missouri (2-2) are the exception in turning around a football program during the pandemic under a first-year head coach. Beyond BC, let’s check back in with the two SEC schools once they have made it past the halfway point of their seasons.

8. I think a winning record would be nice but I think seeing an FSU team that plays with unquestioned effort and intensity as a team in its last five games might be the most important thing fans need to see moving forward.

9. I think FSU punter Alex Mastromanno is quietly having a great season and should be considered for freshman All-American honors if he continues his outstanding play. He is averaging 43 yards per punt, which ranks 33rd in the nation and third-best among freshman.

10. I think no other conference did preseason Covid-19 drama like the Big Ten and they backed that up by providing some on-field drama this past weekend. Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin all came out looking like Top-25 teams in their openers. Purdue and Iowa played a close game. And the ending of the Penn State and Indiana game will be talked about weeks, months and years to come not only by fans of both teams but by anyone that saw the controversial ending in overtime. My two-cents, you had to stand with the call on the field and if they had said Indiana’s quarterback hadn’t scored I would have been fine with that too.

11. I think if I had to choose four teams for the college football playoff after this past weekend’s game it would be Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are undefeated and beat 17th-ranked Iowa State this past weekend. They replace Notre Dame in my top four because the Irish haven’t played a ranked opponent yet. By the way keep an eye on BYU. The FBS independent Cougars are undefeated and are as good as any of the ranked Group of Five teams. Their schedule will cost them a chance at the CFB Playoffs if they can win out but they are still a fun team to watch with quarterback Zach Wilson leading the way.

12. I wasn’t sure we would make this far into the college football season because of Covid-19, but we have and I hope that we get to see FSU and every other team in college football play all of their remaining games or as many as safely possible. And because of the unknown of what will happen moving forward each week, I think, no, I know I am more thankful than ever for football Saturdays regardless of the outcome of Florida State games or any other program that I follow with interest. Not to mention, football is one sport where game experience is the most valuable commodity a team, coach or player can have and FSU needs as much of that as it can get based on the first six weeks of the season.

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