Travis delivers promising start but defense gashed in loss at Notre Dame
With just under two minutes left in the first quarter, Florida State had plenty of life. The Seminoles defense had just forced a high-powered Notre Dame offense into its first three-and-out of the game, an encouraging sign after they had forced just one three-and-out against Georgia Tech and Miami in its first two games combined.
Florida State had taken advantage of two early Notre Dame turnovers that showed signs of rust from a team that hadn’t played a game in three weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Nonetheless, Florida State was down only 14-10 by that point when Jordan Travis calmly led the Seminoles offense back onto the field.
All eyes were on the redshirt sophomore quarterback, who made his first career start Saturday night in South Bend after an impressive performance off the bench last week in Florida State’s win over Jacksonville State.
There were still plenty of skeptics though, as Notre Dame’s defense posed a far greater challenge than that of the FCS opponent he saw last week.
But Travis then silenced any questions about his ability to lead an offense against a high-quality opponent with an emphatic four-play, 71-yard touchdown drive to give the heavy underdog Seminoles a 17-14 lead right before the end of the first quarter.
Travis completed 3-of-4 passes on the drive and capped it off with a 48-yard touchdown pass to Tamorrion Terry on a gorgeous deep ball down the right sideline.
Travis' running ability had already been evident before replacing freshman Tate Rodemaker off the bench last week, but his surprising downfield accuracy suddenly added explosiveness that has been absent from the Florida State offense for the last several years.
After completing 4-of-6 attempts for 120 yards on passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air last week, he picked up right where he left off, producing four more pass plays of 20-plus yards against one of the best defenses in the country.
“I thought he played extremely tough. He had a lot of different looks, a lot of different things thrown his way,” head coach Mike Norvell said. “I thought he made some really good decisions, and there are some things he’ll be able to learn from. But it was a gutsy performance.”
Terry finished the night with nine catches for 146 yards, his best game of the year. He has clearly established solid chemistry with Travis over the past two weeks.
“To see him rise up and have that type of performance. He’s been preparing in a much better way throughout the course of the week,” Norvell said. “The last two weeks I think he’s played his best two games of the season. Continuing to challenge and continuing to inspire him, he’s a very talented young man and I think he did a great job here tonight.”
A gutsy performance from the offense though could not overcome a Florida State (1-3, 0-3 ACC) defense that was gashed for 532 yards en route to a 42-26 loss to No. 5 Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC).
The Seminoles simply had no answer for anything Notre Dame did offensively. The Fighting Irish came into Saturday’s game with the best offensive line in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus, and that group paved the way for a remarkable 353 rushing yards Saturday night.
It was a bad matchup for a Florida State defense that entered the game with a success rate in stopping the run at 47.1 percent, which ranked 61st out of 75 teams nationally.
In the first half, Notre Dame ran the exact same counter play to the left side three different times. The first one resulted in a 65-yard carry by Kyren Williams, followed by a 46-yard touchdown.
It was the same result with Chris Tyree at running back, as his first try at that play was a 13-yard gain followed by a 45-yard touchdown run. Williams and Tyree combined for 288 yards on the ground, good for 9.5 yards per carry.
“We’ve got to make tackles, we’ve got to make sure we’re fitting our gaps. We had some missed opportunities in both of those areas,” Norvell said. "When that happens, and we’re playing a little more man coverage tonight, and it provided some big play opportunities when they broke through the forcing unit.
“There were a handful of those plays, but when it comes down to assignment football, playing with great fundamentals, and then we get an opportunity to make a play we’ve got to make sure we’re running through contact and finishing. It’s something that we’ll learn from and we definitely have to improve.”
Ian Book also had a very efficient night, completing 16-of-25 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns against a Florida State defensive front that did not register a sack and provided almost no pressure all night.
Book had been just average to start the season when pressured, ranking just 33rd among 75 FBS quarterbacks under pressure, but Florida State could not make him uncomfortable.
Notre Dame also had a wide receiver group that had combined for just 11 catches and 110 yards before Saturday. But Notre Dame wide receivers combined for nine catches and 149 yards against the Seminoles defense.
When compounded with Florida State’s issues against the run, Notre Dame had very little trouble moving the ball all game.
It was just the latest chapter of what’s been a disappointing defensive season for the Seminoles so far. Despite all of its talent, including two potential first-round NFL Draft picks in defensive tackle Marvin Wilson and cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., along with a plethora of former high-profile recruits, Florida State allowed 10.1 yards per play in the first half. Coming into Saturday, the unit’s 5.95 yards per play allowed ranked third-worst in the ACC.
“We have to continue to make an impact in our forcing units: D-line, linebacker, safeties,” Norvell said. “Everybody has a role, everybody has a responsibility. It comes down to winning our gaps and making sure when we’re in a position to make a play that we’re finishing the play.”
It was an encouraging performance by Travis and the offense for the second week in a row, but Florida State needed more from its defense to have a chance against Notre Dame.
It’s simply too much to ask for an offense with a first-time starting quarterback, along with a struggling offensive line, to keep pace with an offense that averaged 8.4 yards per play for the game.
Despite the encouraging performance from Travis and Florida State being more competitive than expected, Norvell didn’t entertain any talk about moral victories.
“I’m proud to see our guys competing,” Norvell said. “But at the end of the day, this is about going out there and competing to be the best you can possibly be in all aspects. It starts with myself. Players, coaches, everyone involved. I don’t know if we saw that. I know we didn’t see that.”
“There’s things I would like to have done better throughout the course of the contest. A couple calls, a couple situations that I have to improve in, and then we’ve got to apply the fundamentals.”
Travis finished the night completing 13-of-24 passes for 204 yards with a touchdown and a late red-zone interception with the Seminoles down 16, while adding 96 yards on the ground.
The Seminoles went against a very good Notre Dame defense and averaged 5.7 yards per play, which doesn’t look great, but it was enough to keep them competitive for most of the game. The game plan, tailored around Travis' athleticism, was creative and diverse. Florida State frequently put pressure on Notre Dame in the run game with a variety of designed QB runs and read-option concepts.
James Blackman replaced Travis on Florida State’s final drive of the game after Travis was seen flexing his throwing hand while working with head athletic trainer Jake Pfeil in the fourth quarter.
“That’s something we’ll look at. He was struggling there late, being able to grip the ball. So we made the decision getting James in there late in the contest,” Norvell said.
“My hand is doing good,” Travis said late Saturday evening before FSU began its travel back to Tallahassee. “I’ll get some treatment in the morning, I’ll be fine. But I’m learning that I have to get down and protect myself a little bit. I have to do a lot better because there’s hits that were unnecessary today. I just have to work on that.”
Travis was not flawless, but he has the requisite arm strength and deep-ball accuracy to keep defenses honest and complement his running ability. He has also been productive for two weeks in a row behind an offensive line that has struggled to pass protect and open up holes in the run game, particularly for the running backs.
La’Damian Webb led Florida State running backs with 59 yards on the ground, but 51 of those came on one series late in the second quarter. Before that drive, Florida State had only four rushing yards from its running backs.
The Seminoles still clearly have a long way to go before they are a true contender in the ACC again. The defense has plenty of issues that need to be cleaned up, but Florida State finally seems to have a solid foundation with Travis under center.
The Seminoles will have another tough test next week as they host No. 8 North Carolina for a chance at their first conference win of the season.
“I definitely believe we’re doing things the right way and we’re going to continue to grow from that,” Norvell said. “But I hurt. I hurt like every kid in there hurts whenever we come up short. I appreciate the effort we had to finish it, I appreciate a lot of the things we were able to do, but we came here to win the game and obviously, we did not get that done.”