Without Travis, FSU sputters early and rally falls short

Without starting quarterback Jordan Travis, Florida State looked lost offensively in the first half. That’s the nice way to put it.

After a hard-fought but heartbreaking loss to Clemson in Death Valley, the ‘Noles came home to a city undergoing a wave of the flu. With multiple players battling sickness and others simply not available, as well as Chubba Purdy’s transfer, it was going to be a challenging Saturday afternoon.

Entering halftime, the Seminoles only mustered 78 yards of total offense — surprisingly all through the air. They had -1 rushing yards at the half and ended the game with a season-low of 38. 

After rushing for over 100 yards in six of its first seven games, Florida State has failed to surpass that mark in its last two contests. 

With a surprise onside kick to start the second half, Mike Norvell put some wind in the sails of his football team and produced a light at the end of the tunnel. Two scores on back-to-back drives in the third quarter gave Florida State a chance to tie the game in the fourth. 

But when it came time to bring the game back to even, FSU couldn’t fully close the gap. A questionable decision to go for it on fourth-and-4, a pass attempt that fell incomplete with eight minutes left, led to a turnover on downs in Seminole territory. That gave NC State its best field position of the day and all the momentum. They scored 20 seconds later and the Wolfpack cruised the rest of the way to a 28-14 victory.

Despite playing well and keeping Florida State in the game, poor tackling, blown coverages and chunk plays on key drives let the Seminoles down defensively in the second half. Wolfpack quarterback Devin Leary threw for 314 yards and four touchdowns as NC State produced 400 yards of offense on the dot. 

For all the progress Florida State has made towards playing complete football games, Saturday looked like a regression back towards playing a “one half on, one half off” style of football. Maybe it was unpreparedness due to sickness, maybe it was just poor play. Perhaps it was the product of both. 

“It was a challenging week,” Norvell said. “It was emotional for all of us. I love these kids, man, it’s hard when you see them sick and hurting. Our training staff did an excellent job getting them ready. At times we only had one player at a position group during practice. I told them pregame today that I was proud of them.”

According to Norvell, 25 players missed practice due to the bug that has stormed campus and Tallahassee over the last week. Regardless, he doesn’t want to “use that as an excuse” and neither do the players.

“I think we should have played better,” receiver Keyshawn Helton said. “In college football, when somebody goes down, it’s next man up. It shouldn’t be that big of a difference. We just need to do a better job with the plays that are called.”

The Seminoles were a pitiful 2 of 16 on third down and consistently failed to produce much of anything against one of the ACC’s best defenses — a defense that supposedly was completely surprised by McKenzie Milton starting. They had been preparing for Jordan Travis all week, according to Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren.

“We had a tough time running the ball and that’s kind of our identity,” Milton said. “We tried to get some rub routes, but they kept jumping them. We just didn’t execute. Those possessions are so few and far between, so precious, especially in the close games we’ve been having. We can’t waste those. In the end we have to put up more than 14 points to win.”

Milton, who was supposedly one of the players sick with the flu earlier in the week, threw for 233 yards and a touchdown.

Exactly how much of this loss can be chalked up to illness is uncertain. Norvell hinted throughout the postgame press conference that players were still battling sickness up until kickoff and those that could play did take the field. Even though the flu may be the scapegoat, Norvell’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 on their own side of midfield with 8 minutes left in the game is likely where fans may point their fingers.

Regardless, Florida State has one of it’s most important games of the season next week at home against Miami (3:30 p.m. on ESPN) that is getting hot at the right time and is no stranger to close games. 

FSU will need to win out the rest of the season if they are to make a bowl game this season. 

“If anybody needs to get hyped up for this game, they should not be playing at Florida State,” Helton said. “This is the reason you come to Florida State — to be in games like this. I haven’t beat them but it’s a new year and I’m ready to go to work.”