So Maybe We Temper Our Expectations A Bit? - Louisville Instant Reaction

By Dave – October 24, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, FL – Florida State came out of the gate against Louisville the way we’d hoped (and sort of expected after our big win last week against UNC) — we saw aggressive offensive play-calling by the coaching staff; sheer willpower from Cam McDonald, carrying a literal pile of Cardinals defenders for double-digit yards, in a way that made us think: wait, how did Nick O’Leary get another year of eligibility?; we saw Jordan Travis continue to look like a magician at quarterback, excelling outside of the pocket, making incredible escapes from would-be tacklers, and exhibiting pure determination on elusive and gritty runs. At the end of the drive, we led Louisville 7-0. Early on, it seemed like a continuation of the momentum we generated against the Tar Heels.

But then, the Louisville offense happened. Again and again and again and again.

The Seminoles' first two plays on defense inspired a bit of confidence, forcing Louisville into a third-and-long situation. But then miserable deep-middle coverage led to a long gain for the Cardinals' star-receiver Tutu Atwell, and miserable tackling and attack angles led to a Javian Hawkins rushing touchdown on the very next play. There were really only two players to watch out for on the Louisville offense – Atwell and Hawkins. And Florida State allowed both players to burn it on the Cardinals' very first drive.

After an ineffective second drive on offense (three-and-out), FSU promptly allowed a touchdown on a single play—a 70-yard scamper by Atwell—due to the same poor tackling, containment, and attack angles we’d come to expect from this defense.

From there, it was much of the same—all Louisville. At halftime, Louisville led 31-14, largely due to an ineffectual passing game for the ‘Noles (7/20 passing for 88 yards), and a PAC-12-like defense (410 yards and 5 scores allowed). As indicated by FSU’s passing statistics at halftime, Jordan Travis was harassed, often running for his life (at times for impressive first downs, and at others for big losses), being caught in numerous third-and-long situations, and struggling to connect with receivers all game long.

Unfortunately, Louisville's success and FSU's struggles persisted throughout the game. As you probably know by now, Louisville ultimately prevailed 48-16, compiling 569 total yards on nearly 10 yards-per-play. For the second week in a row, Florida State failed to score a point on offense in the second half.

If you’ve listened to our podcast, you know we’ve become huge fans of Jordan Travis. But this game exposed some obvious weaknesses in his pocket passing capabilities. Louisville stuffed the box and dared FSU to pass from the pocket, and the Seminoles were not up to the challenge with Travis at the helm. Travis has proven he’s a capable passer, but is he a competent one (at least on a consistent enough, down-to-down basis)? And is that uncertainty sufficiently outweighed by his superior rushing abilities? These are questions sure to be debated this week by FSU faithful, and presumably to be considered by the coaching staff. Is there a better option at QB moving forward? We certainly don’t know the answer, and I’m not sure the coaching staff does either at this point. Perhaps it's unfair to even ask these questions; clearly Travis was playing hurt, and he's earned the right to start. But regardless of the answer (and to Travis' credit), it's tough for any QB to succeed when receivers cannot catch even easy, uncontested passes.

Despite the significant yardage and point total allowed by the defense, that side of the ball arguably didn’t play as poorly as the numbers might suggest. No doubt, the linebackers continued to leave the middle of the field far too vulnerable, leading to far too many easy chunk plays by Louisville, poor contain on Cunningham, and open lanes by Hawkins (who amassed a career game in both yardage and scores – hopefully we’re not back to starting the Heisman campaign of opposing teams’ players). But, in fairness, the 'Nole defense was put in bad situations by the offense all game long, the defensive line created pressure on numerous occasions throughout the game, Asante Samuel continued to play on a reliably elite level, and defenders generally appeared to have been put in the right positions by the coaching staff (despite ultimately failing to make a play or complete their assignment). That said, Adam Fuller has a lot of work to do, and a lot of questions to answer, for a unit that continues to play well below its ostensible capabilities.

This game was a setback, at least relative to expectations following the big win against UNC. Hopefully, that top-5 win will not prove to be an outlier or aberration, but let’s not forget that this is year zero and the coaching staff is still implementing their scheme and culture. We saw the reemergence of Lawrence Toafili, who posted a 10+ yard-per-play performance, and an overall successful rushing attack (nearly 7 yards per attempt). We saw the defensive line continue to demonstrate effort and move/collapse the pocket (unfortunately, Cunningham was able to effectively escape and make plays regardless). And we finally, to the delight of many, saw Chubba Purdy make his first ever appearance in Garnet and Gold, making some impressive throws (albeit not reflected whatsoever in the box score, thanks to numerous, inexplicable drops). And the special teams (already ranked #1 nationally) continued to be a strength, blocking yet another kick.

Again, this game feels like a disappointment. We lost by more than 30 to a 1-4 Louisville team. That is not good. And it feels even worse considering that Willie Taggart’s teams went 2-0 against Louisville. And frankly, it seems like everything that could have gone wrong this game for FSU, did go wrong.

There are some important positive takeaways for the ‘Noles, but the coaching staff is certainly not impervious to criticism—Norvell, Dillingham, and Fuller will clearly need to make some important adjustments and decisions moving forward, as both sides of the ball were far too ineffective, and attention to detail was disappointingly sparse, in a winnable conference game.

Was the big win against UNC a fluke? It’s probably (hopefully) too early to tell. There is obviously much left to learn for the players, much left to teach (and learn, too) for the coaches, and much work left to be done to revamp this roster and institute the scheme and culture necessary to reach, much less even approach, the lofty expectations and capabilities of this program.

Today may not feel good, but if we’re going to go through growing pains, at least it’s in a Covid-year-zero. This may sound to some like excuse-making, but it's a very practical reality. And we’ve seen enough from this staff that we should still have hope for the future, so patience is warranted and necessary. Perhaps more patience than most would like, but Norvell and Co. obviously have quite the hole to dig out of (thanks, Jimbo and Willie) to return Florida State to prominence.

It may not be easy, but keep perspective, stay patient, and as always, Go ‘Noles!

A Top-5 Win and a New 'Noles Culture

By Dave – October 20, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, FL – Sweet, sweet victory! We just watched the best half of Seminoles football in years, behind a gutsy, gritty, and glorious performance by our first true QB1 since Francois, culminate in Florida State defeating a top-5 team under the lights in Doak Campbell Stadium for the first time since this year’s crop of first graders were born. Should UNC have been ranked #5? Who cares. That was their ranking, and we beat them. And. It. Feels. Good.

Most importantly, this was a proof-of-concept for what this staff is trying to build, and capable of building. That is a culture of effort, work, attention to detail, and adherence to the philosophy that how you do anything is how you will do everything.

The effort movement is in full swing and Coach Norvell seems to have taken a sledgehammer to the losing mentality that has plagued this program for far too long. Since the second quarter of the Jacksonville State game, we’ve seen a roster that appears fully bought in and committed to CLIMBing.

Sure, it was a tale of two halves and the Twitter curmudgeons will say that it takes away from the win. Ignore them. If you watch any amount of football, you should know that good teams make adjustments, but the scoreboard doesn't lie. We saw what this staff is building in all three phases of the game, and the results their work can bring.

Jordan Travis commanded an electric offense that found the endzone four times and sustained drives when it needed to in the second half. Yes, they could have played better. Coach Dillingham said on Monday that he had the offense walk through corrections on at least 17 of the 55 plays they ran. Think about that. They could have run nearly a third of their plays better, and they still beat the number 5 team in the country. Imagine what this offense will look like when that number is closer to 5 or even 10%.

When the offense sputtered, the defense stepped up. Despite injuries, ejections, and 10-ply soft roughing the passer/facemask calls, they held on to win the game. Pop quiz for those who are not excited yet: when was the last time we won a tight game without having the ball last?

Players do not magically get stronger, faster, or more athletic in one week. This was a product of buy-in and effort. We saw hints of this in South Bend. In fact, Jordan Travis said post-game how important that final 4th down stop against ND was for the defense going forward. Seeing effort pay off, regardless of score, is critical to building a winning culture. Trust the process, as they say.

Defensive Coordinator, "Boston Adam" Fuller, put it best: "There were some real grit stops." Said Fuller, "when you’re trying to build a foundation of work, toughness, and grit, those things show up in the game. You can point to that and show them that they can do it."

Just as Norvell promised us in his initial press conference, we saw how game-changing a great special teams unit can be. Florida State blocked two punts in the first half and now ranks #1 in the nation in special teams, per PFF. Both of these blocks led to points and were the result of a culture in which you do everything right, or at least your best, every time.

Finally, we saw this new culture reflected in how the coaches called the game. With only a minute left in the half, UNC found the endzone (see above reference to 10-ply calls).

Much like an older brother asserting dominance in a heated contest of Madden, Norvell had no interest in heading to the locker room. He yelled "AMERICA!" and pushed the gas pedal to the floor. After 45 seconds of game time, Camren McDonald was standing in the UNC endzone with the ball in his hands. If this raw aggression and dedication to scoring doesn’t excite you, then I don’t know what will.

There is undoubtedly room for improvement in all aspects of the game. But Rome was not built in a day. We are seeing a winning culture embed itself into a program in which finding ways to lose had become a way of life.

We were asked for patience as this new staff got to work, and that patience was rewarded on Saturday. However, it is just one (glorious) win, and there is still much work to be done. Florida State will head into Louisville as an underdog with a chance to show what they are really made of. Savor the fact that we’re even in position to have a "letdown" in a conference game this weekend, because that necessarily means we’re already a better team and no longer simply expect to lose.

We do not know what the rest of the season holds. What we do know is that Mike Norvell preaches adherence to a standard, and he is working tirelessly to hold this locker room to that standard. "The standard is to get better," said Norvell. "That never allows for a let up, because the standard is the standard. Either we do it or we don’t." Well, it appears they're already doing it.

Enjoy the win and the reinvigorated faith, and, as always, Go ‘Noles!

What I Want To See Against Notre Dame

By Dave – October 8, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, FL – Hey! We won a game! While it has been fun to revel in that for a few days, we now turn our attention to the fifth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

The reality is, we are unlikely to beat the Irish. The ‘Noles are three-touchdown underdogs, and doing so would go down as the biggest FSU road upset in modern history.

FSU and Notre Dame have surprisingly similar talent. Looking at 247Sports composite recruiting rankings, Notre Dame’s players account for 866 points, while FSU fields a team worth 832 points. Unfortunately, these numbers do not measure coaching and player development since arriving on campus.

Nevertheless, as the group discussed on this week’s podcast, there are reasons to look at this matchup – or at least the future of the Norvell Era – with some optimism.

We want to win every game. However, being entirely results-oriented right now is counter-productive, as progress requires patience.

Through that lens, here are a few things fans should want to see during this game, regardless of the final score:

Jordan Travis

If you listened to this week’s podcast, you know I love what I saw from Travis in terms of play and effort against Jacksonville State. He demonstrated that a defense must account for his arm and played with increasing poise and confidence. In fact, it was a bit odd to see an FSU quarterback not look like a tackling dummy standing behind center.

Now, a scholarship QB for FSU should shine in that kind of game. Travis’ confounding interception against Miami still happened. As did the game against Florida last year. But so did touchdowns on 6 of 7 drives last weekend. For the first time in a long time, we have a reason to be happy with QB1.

I do not expect video game numbers this weekend. However, if Travis can limit mistakes, sustain drives, and continue playing with the level of effort we saw last weekend, against a seemingly elite Irish defense, I will feel better heading into Sam Howell Hate Week.

Offensive Line

The FSU offensive line play we have seen since 2014 makes that unit’s 2020 performance difficult to comprehend.

In 2019, FSU’s offensive line ranked: 115th in line yards, 66th in opportunity rate, 105th in power success rate, 112th in stuff rate, and 115th in sack rate. You don't need to be an expert statistician to understand that those grades are downright terrible.

Yet, with only three spring practices and a bevy of injuries, offensive line coach Alex Atkins has FSU’s OL ranked: 9th in line yards, 8th in opportunity rate, 21st in power success rate, 8th in stuff rate, and 67th in sack rate. Read that again, slowly. That is a bigger transformation than 2018’s Joseph Burrow to 2019’s Daddy Joe.

The backs have had space to run and our quarterbacks are able to carry life insurance again. If this offensive line can muster even an average performance against a Notre Dame defensive line that ranks top-10 in almost every metric, we will need to raise money for a statue of Alex Atkins.

Running Game

With the transfer of former 4* RB Jashaun Corbin from TAMU, the addition of top-20 RB Lawrence Toafili, and signing of the #4-ranked JUCO RB La’Damian Webb, I had high hopes for this unit. After two games, those had gone the way of Tavarus McFadden’s draft stock.

But, as I confessed on this week’s podcast, I owe those guys an apology. I was loud wrong.

On the season, those three RBs have combined to average over six yards per carry. Last week, Toafili alone rushed for (nearly) 100 yards, and the group had a total of 217 rushing yards on 36 carries.

With the emergence of a competent offensive line, and a dynamic QB that defenders must respect, this trio of RBs could be the offense’s secret sauce.

We might not see six yards per carry, but a similar performance by the running backs against a top-5 Notre Dame defense would make me feel very, very good about the potential of this group, and the offense as a whole.

[Continued] Effort Movement

After the Miami game, a lot of fans and pundits called for a youth movement. We called for an effort movement.

Well, for the first time this year, we saw guys who cared—like really cared. We saw Jordan Travis putting his body on the line, running into defenders, and throwing lead blocks. We saw La’Damian Webb refuse to be held out of the endzone on a highlight-reel run. We saw Asante Samuel, Jr. grab his nation-leading third interception of the season, and we saw young linebackers hustling (even if not always to the right spot).

Sure, we know that “effort” is the bare minimum. But we haven’t seen it in years so, if we see guys fighting to win for 60 minutes, it will go down as a moral victory in my book.

Be patient, have faith, and as always, Go ‘Noles!