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Under pressure, FSU’s offense and defense fold – and maybe regress

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After a disheartening loss to Louisville two weeks earlier, Florida State was hoping for a rebound against Pittsburgh on Saturday. Instead, that rebound looked more like a regression as the Seminoles lost 41-17 in the first matchup against Pitt since 2013. 

“I thought our guys played hard,” coach Mike Norvell said. “I didn’t see an effort issue tonight. There have been times throughout this year where that has been in question but I thought the guys worked hard to compete, even when things were not good there late.”

It was an encouraging start. An 88-yard run by Jordan Travis put the ’Noles up by 11 early in the contest. From that point onward, the display on the field was similar to that of the Seminoles’ first game of the season against Georgia Tech.

Once Travis left the game with an injury at halftime, things only got worse. 

James Blackman entered the game and threw a bad interception in Florida State territory, leading to an easy Pitt score. Blackman was quickly replaced by freshman Chubba Purdy, who wasn’t able to produce much more.

All three quarterbacks that saw the field Saturday for the Seminoles suffered from an offensive line that was overwhelmed by Pitt’s defensive front. It did not matter who lined up behind center, they were running for their lives no more than two seconds after the ball snapped – even in the shotgun formation.

“They were doing their ‘twist’ game,” freshman QB Chubba Purdy commented. “I was trying to go through my reads at first but I felt a little pressure so I tried to run around and make a play.”

A little pressure would be an understatement.

The Panthers combined for seven sacks, 14 tackles for loss, five QB hurries, three interceptions and a forced fumble. Pitt came into the game with a Top 20 ranked defense and the No. 1-ranked rush defense. The other top 20 defense that Florida State has played this year was Miami. The stat line was eerily similar (6 sacks, 13 TFL, 7 hurries, 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles). 

The Florida State offense was only able to produce one rushing yard in the last three quarters (sacks accounted for) and only 95 yards of total offense in that same time span.

“Coach Norvell emphasizes owning the ball a lot,” tight end Camren McDonald said. “When you turn the ball over and you don’t own the ball, it’s hard to have success on offense. We’ll have some key points of emphasis coming up.” 

“I’ve never really been on a team that’s been losing and faced all these challenges,” Purdy added. That’s just the way it is. We’ve got to keep pushing as a team and keep getting better.”

The Seminoles were up 14-10 in the first quarter and seemed to be in control but were put in very compromising positions defensively due to two questionable fourth down-attempts offensively by Mike Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham. The first was a fourth-and-1 that turned into a fourth-and-6 due to a false start penalty, and the second was a fourth-and-2 that came two drives later. Both attempts failed and left Pitt with a short field. FSU’s 14-10 lead quickly turned into a 14-24 deficit.

“We use metrics and analytics in all those situations,” Norvell said. “It’s a calculated decision and we are going out there working to win the game and put ourselves in the best position to achieve success. We missed a couple of those opportunities.”

Although plenty went wrong for Florida State on Saturday, the catalyst for the downward spiral was arguably the failed fourth-down attempts.

“It’s pretty difficult,” Janarius Robinson said on being given a short field. “But like I said, on defense we got put in a tough position and we are supposed to stop them from scoring. We didn’t do a good enough job of that tonight. We’ve got respond when we get put in a tough situation so we can come out on top.”

The defense fought with intensity for most of the game, even coming away with a goal-line stand to keep the Seminoles in the ballgame. But in the end, the costly penalties and turnovers were too much to overcome.

“I think we get frustrated when things don’t go our way,” Robinson said. “It’s just heartbreaking. I wouldn’t say that our confidence is down, we are very confident in what we are doing but sometimes we just make mistakes and we got guys that kind of get frustrated. We need to stop that and come back out and respond when things go bad.”

Perhaps the reason this loss stings so badly for so many is the fact that, like the fans, the players and coaches felt true progress was being made with the win against No. 5 North Carolina three weeks earlier. But after two bad losses in a row to conference opponents, it begs the question to whether that progress is regressing, or perhaps expectations were unfairly raised for a team that has a long way to go.

The answer will continue to unravel as the season pushes onward, but the confidence and determination for now, still seems to be there for the Seminoles. One positive note from the confusing loss – Chubba Purdy is game to learn on the fly. 

“I want to and I am going to leave this program in better shape and position than what I received it in,” McDonald said. “However long that takes… that’s my mission and that’s my objective and I’m going to accomplish that.” 

The road ahead has fogged up tremendously for Florida State as they travel to Carter-Finley Stadium to face North Carolina State on Saturday.