Upon Further Review: Takeaways from FSU’s win over UNC
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Mike Norvell was showered with Powerade at midfield as time expired. Florida State earned its first ACC win of the season, beating #5 North Carolina, 31-28, at Doak Campbell Stadium Saturday.
It was the Seminoles' first win over a top-five opponent since defeating Notre Dame on October 8, 2014.
FSU survived a ferocious late comeback attempt from the Tar Heels, despite being blanked the entire second half, after UNC failed to convert a 4th-and-9 with 44 seconds remaining.
UNC quarterback Sam Howell scrambled to his left and threw to his running back Javonte Williams, who was wide open in the flat beyond the first down marker, but he dropped it to force the turnover. It was the last of three dropped passes in a row by UNC receivers to effectively end the game.
FSU took a 31-7 lead at halftime after scoring 24 points in the final 3:29 of the second quarter. Jordan Travis scored on a one-yard touchdown rush, followed by a pick-six by Joshua Kaindoh and a 12-yard touchdown pass from Travis to McDonald on FSU’s next possession.
Travis finished the game 8-for-19 with 191 passing yards, one touchdown and an interception. He also had 107 rushing yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns.
One week after playing through an injury to his throwing hand against Notre Dame, Travis battled through a shoulder injury late and turned in a gutsy performance.
The Tar Heels outgained FSU 558-432 and had nine more first downs, but the Seminoles averaged 7.9 yards per play to UNC’s 6.9 and held UNC to just 2-for-11 on third downs.
FSU now holds a 16-3-1 all-time advantage over the Tar Heels and has beaten UNC coach Mack Brown in all 10 meetings.
Offense flashes potential again but stalls late
For the third straight game, Florida State’s offense looked dynamic and showed the ability to generate explosive plays with Travis under center, an element that was severely lacking with James Blackman starting at quarterback the first two games of the season.
The Seminoles averaged a whopping 10 yards per play in the first half and showed great balance offensively.
Sophomore running back La’Damian Webb had a breakout game, averaging 9.1 yards per carry and finished with 109 yards after a solid performance against Notre Dame last week. Webb has clearly established himself as the top running back on the team to this point.
Travis also completed passes of 26, 58, 39 and 33 yards in the first half, all four of which went to different receivers, not including FSU’s top pass catcher in Tamorrion Terry, who was out with a knee injury.
The offense looked like a completely different unit in the second half though. Travis not only failed to complete a pass over 15 yards for the rest of the game, but he had just two completions total the entire second half.
FSU moved the ball down the field on the first drive of the third quarter and got down inside the five yard line, but a personal foul penalty on sophomore guard Dontae Lucas forced FSU to settle for a field goal that Ryan Fitzgerald missed from 33 yards out.
Florida State averaged just 5.6 yards per play over the final 30 minutes of play and became significantly less aggressive after building a big lead in the first half.
One positive was that FSU still ran the ball well, averaging 6.8 yards per rush on 21 attempts in the second half, but Travis' struggles in the passing game after halftime caused the offense to sputter in key spots down the stretch.
The 31-7 lead at halftime ultimately proved to be enough cushion for the rest of the game.
Travis has shown some impressive deep ball accuracy over the past three weeks, but he’ll need to be a bit less reliant on the home run and be more precise on the intermediate-range throws for FSU’s offense to take the next step forward.
For the third straight week, FSU’s offense had some great moments and looks much improved since the beginning of the season, but the consistency over a full 60-minute stretch isn’t quite there yet.
Penalties are a recurring issue
As has been the case all season, penalties killed Florida State again this week.
On UNC’s final drive of the second quarter, FSU was flagged for three personal foul penalties in a row, starting with a targeting call on Corey Durden on 2nd-and-7 from the FSU 7. Marvin Wilson then committed a roughing the passer penalty on the next play to give UNC 1st-and-goal from the 3.
JaVontae Williams then found the endzone to put the Tar Heels on the board, and on the subsequent PAT, Robert Cooper was charged with a roughing the kicker penalty.
The Seminoles also committed multiple penalties that killed drives: The personal foul penalty on Lucas that resulted in Fitzgerald missing the 33-yard field goal was a killer.
In the fourth quarter, FSU had 3rd-and-3 from the UNC 14 and Devontay Love-Taylor committed a false start penalty to force a much more difficult 3rd-and-8 situation. It resulted in a missed 38-yard field goal from Fitzgerald.
Both of Fitzgerald’s kicks off those two penalties are ones that he should make, but given how much FSU’s passing attack was struggling in the second half, going from 3rd-and-3 to 3rd-and-8 in that spot made a huge difference.
The Seminoles had 12 penalties against North Carolina, bringing its average to 9.8 penalties per game this season.
That ranks 71st among FBS teams in 2020, and that would probably be much lower in a normal year with every FBS team playing on the same timeline.
The penalties didn’t cost them on Saturday, but the discipline issues will come back to bite them sooner or later if this trend continues.
Defensive shows early promise, struggles late
The FSU defense played arguably its best half this season during the first half against a potent UNC offense that hung 56 points and 656 total yards against Virginia Tech last weekend.
In the first half, the Seminoles held UNC to just 5.4 yards per play and consistently got pressure on Howell.
The Seminoles sacked the true sophomore quarterback four times in the game and almost brought him down several other times throughout. Howell, the former FSU commit, looked as uncomfortable as he has in his 17-game career at UNC.
Howell was not given enough time to push the ball downfield and create big plays early. His first completion over 15 yards did not come until UNC’s final drive of the first half, when he found Beau Corrales for a 36-yard gain.
As mentioned earlier, Howell also threw a pick-six to Kaindoh on a swing pass intended for Williams that he telegraphed. But Kaindoh did a great job reading Howell the whole way and making a game-changing play.
FSU, for the most part, was also significantly better against the run this weekend after getting gashed for 353 rushing yards against Notre Dame last week. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams were two of the ACC’s top-six rushers coming into Saturday. Carter, who was averaging 10.1 yards per carry before this weekend, was held to just 65 yards on 17 carries.
FSU’s defense came up with big play after big play in the first half, but faded as the second half went on.
The Seminoles also made two huge fourth-down stops in the red zone.
But much like the tale of two halves for FSU’s offense, it was a similar story for the defense.
After just one explosive pass play in the first half, Howell had eight completions of 20-plus yards on his way to throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns in the final 30 minutes.
To Howell’s credit, he made several spectacular throws into tight windows and looked much more like one of the top quarterbacks in the country that he’s shown himself to be over the last two seasons.
FSU continued to get pressure on Howell but struggled to bring him down late in the game.
Despite holding Carter to a modest game on the ground, Williams ran for 119 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. FSU allowed 8.8 yards per play in the second half.
The Seminoles were very fortunate at the end of the game too. After UNC forced a three-and-out, the Tar Heels moved the ball down to the FSU 41 and Howell had some poor luck from there.
On 2nd-and-9, Howell lofted a gorgeous deep ball down the right sideline for Corrales. He had a step on Meiko Dotson, who got away with tugging Corrales' jersey, but he could not make the play.
The very next play, Howell’s pass over the middle for Dazz Newsome was a bit high but should have been caught for a first down.
That brought up 4th-and-9, which resulted in a drop by Williams to force the turnover on downs. Three drops in a row by UNC receivers to end the game.
If even one of those passes is caught, UNC would have had a great chance to tie the game or take the lead.
Seeing the defense finally play to its potential for a half was noteworthy, but the Seminoles again surrendered too many explosive plays and were the beneficiary of three key drops at the end of the game.
Special Teams roller coaster
Florida State special teams set the tone early for the rest of the team. After the Seminoles forced a three-and-out on UNC’s first possession, true freshman Ja’khi Douglas blocked a punt that led to a 23-yard touchdown run from Travis on the very next play.
Then senior defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, who has six tackles, blocked UNC’s second punt of the day.
The Seminoles have now blocked five kicks this season – two field goals, two punts, and one extra point – after totaling just one block combined over the last two seasons.
Wilson has been responsible for three of the blocks.
Norvell has a strong track record of special teams' success with his team finishing inside the top-five in special teams efficiency in two of his four seasons at Memphis.
He’s quickly transformed FSU’s special teams in year one to the point where it’s now one of the team’s strengths after ranking 75th and 87th in special teams efficiency in each of the previous two years.
Those two early plays ignited the crowd early and gave the rest of the team a lot of confidence for the rest of the first half.
On the other hand, Fitzgerald missed two field goals from inside 30 yards, including one that would have put the Seminoles up 13 with just under eight minutes remaining.
Despite struggling to close out, FSU played well enough to collect a huge win and generate plenty of optimism going forward.
Knocking off a top-five opponent for the first time since 2014 is a major step for a program that has not had much to celebrate over the past few seasons.
There have been plenty of times over the last few seasons that Florida State failed to close games, including its last meeting with UNC.
It wasn’t perfect, but this was arguably Florida State’s biggest win since the Orange Bowl against Michigan in 2016.
Norvell still has a long way to go, but his Seminoles finally look like a competitive team with a chance to make some noise in the ACC, and that’s more than anyone could say four weeks ago.
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