‘We want to be a group of finishers’: Florida State holds off UNC late for first ACC win

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 17: Runningback La'Damian Webb #8 of the Florida State Seminoles...
TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 17: Runningback La'Damian Webb #8 of the Florida State Seminoles avoids a tackle by Linebacker Tomon Fox #12 of the North Carolina Tar Heels at Doak Campbell Stadium on Bobby Bowden Field on October 17, 2020 in Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Character Lines) (Don Juan Moore | Don Juan Moore)
Published: Oct. 19, 2020 at 4:28 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 19, 2020 at 4:37 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Mike Norvell was showered with Powerade at midfield as time expired and shared several hugs with his players and assistant coaches.

Florida State earned its first ACC win of the season, upsetting #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.

Norvell in his first five games as Florida State’s head coach has already orchestrated quite the turnaround. After a blowout loss to Miami in Week 2, with many already questioning if players were buying into Norvell’s system, those concerns seem moot now.

In the last two weeks, the Seminoles went on the road and competed with #3 Notre Dame for three quarters and knocked off a UNC team that scored 56 points against a ranked Virginia Tech team last weekend and was a two-touchdown favorite over Florida State.

“So very proud of our football team. We talked to them all week about just continuing to prepare, continuing to push,” Norvell said. “There’s been plenty of adversity that’s shown up throughout this year, throughout the early course of this season. These guys, they believe in what we’re doing.”

“Coming off of last week, we saw moments, we saw flashes, we saw a team that was playing harder and really working to play together. This week, we challenged that we needed to see that consistency show up. I thought this was our best week in preparation.”

It was not a perfect performance by the Seminoles: They did not score a single point in the second half after building a convincing 31-7 lead going into halftime.

UNC quarterback and former FSU commit Sam Howell nearly led an improbable comeback, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.

Howell quickly drove the ball to the FSU 41 on UNC’s final possession. On 2nd-and-9, he lofted a gorgeous deep ball down the right sideline for Beau Corrales, who had a step on Meiko Dotson, but he could not haul it in. 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.

Finally, on 4th-and-9, the Florida State defensive front, which played its best game of the season, collapsed the pocket again and forced Howell to roll to his left. He floated a pass to his running back Javonte Williams, who was wide open in the flat but could not corral it.

Three drops in a row by UNC receivers to end the game. If even one of those passes is caught, the Tar Heels have a great chance to either tie or take the lead.

But the drops aside, Florida State’s defense deserves a ton of credit for playing well enough most of the game and making the stop they needed to seal the victory, especially considering its struggles to close out games in previous years.

“The defense played amazing today. It was great,” quarterback Jordan Travis said. “They are the reason why we won the game, to be honest. They came up big in the fourth quarter and made a great stop, the biggest stop of the game. But their energy that they brought, it just made everyone else just go.”

“It means everything. I think we’re going to be able to learn a lot from the film we’ll watch tomorrow and the experience that we had,” Norvell said. “But these guys finished. And that’s something that’s so critical, it’s one of the core values of our program and what we want to be. We want to be a group of finishers.”

Florida State fans have become all too familiar with letting late leads evaporate over the last couple of years. It happened in 2018 when the Seminoles squandered a 20-point lead against rival Miami and again in last year’s season opener against Boise State.

On Saturday, the defense was more physical than it has been all year, with players swarming to the ball and mostly slowing down UNC’s potent rushing attack. Even when mistakes were made, they did not pile up this time and they did just enough to win.

“I think it just came down to a matter of heart during those last two minutes,” said Jaiden Lars-Woodbey, who had eight tackles and a tackle for loss. “We just had to lay it on the line. All the scheme and everything went out the window during those last two minutes, it is just where is your heart. Are you willing to put your life on the line for your teammates? I think that we all did that as a coaching staff and as a team.”

“They had confident eyes…you see it in their response, you see it in their body language. They were ready for the next one,” Norvell said. “That’s all they were focused, trying to finish to the best of their ability. They put us in a great position to win that game and they finished the job.”

Florida State’s defense allowed UNC to average 8.8 yards per play in the second half, showing that this group still has to be more consistent, but the Tar Heels 6.9 yards per play for the whole game were still below their season average of 7.6. That was due to a dominant first half by the Seminoles defense, particularly upfront.

“I think it was just everybody doing their job and playing together,” Lars-Woodbey said. “I feel like that is one of the main things that we talked about all week was just playing together and making sure that everybody does what they need to do and just at the end of the day playing football.”

It was the first time this year that the front four played to their game-changing capability, with Marvin Wilson totaling six tackles, a blocked punt in the first quarter, as well as two QB hits and one QB hurry on the final three plays of the game.

“Marvin is a tremendous player. We needed him to show up big today, and he’s just continued to work,” Norvell said. “Tonight, in those key moments, I thought he showed up at a very high level…He’s an extremely hard worker. And I think that showed up tonight in a big-time moment.”

Meanwhile, edge defenders Joshua Kaindoh and Janarius Robinson were outstanding at times. Kaindoh, the former five-star recruit, perfectly read a Howell swing pass late in the second quarter and jumped it for a game-changing pick-six. Robinson also had two sacks and three tackles for loss.

The return of Dennis Briggs Jr., who opted back into the season this week and had three tackles Saturday, was another huge boost for the Florida State defensive line.

The Seminoles had four sacks in the game, which tied their season total, and eight tackles for loss. Saturday was the first time they recorded a sack against an FBS opponent since the season opener against Georgia Tech.

“We came back after Notre Dame and we just made up in our mind that we were going to practice harder. I feel like it carried over to the game,” Kaindoh said.

Quarterback Jordan Travis was again electrifying at times for the third week in a row. The Seminoles averaged 10 yards per play in the first half and showed great balance offensively even without top pass catcher Tamorrion Terry, who was out with a knee injury.

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.

Despite not scoring a point in the second half and Travis completing just two passes over the final 30 minutes of play, Travis had some great moments and has clearly made the offense much more formidable.

On the first play from scrimmage after Ja’khi Douglas blocked a punt on UNC’s opening possession, Travis put Florida State on the board with a 23-yard touchdown run.

Travis also completed passes of 26, 58, 39 and 33 yards in the first half, all four of which went to different receivers.

The five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in 45 seconds that he led at the end of the first half following UNC’s first scoring drive of the night may have been the most impressive Florida State drive of the season.

“He made some unbelievable plays tonight,” Norvell said. “We got limited a little bit later in the game, trying to be smart with all we’re asking him to do, but he led this offense. I think there’s a great deal of confidence with the job he does. He was able to extend some plays tonight, what he did as a runner.”

“He really embraced the package that we put together for this game and I thought did an extraordinary job in this game to manage different situations.”

Travis' impact on the entire team since taking over the first-team reps in the second quarter against Jacksonville State two weeks ago has been remarkable.

In the Seminoles' first two weeks against Georgia Tech and Miami with James Blackman as the starter, Travis was used almost exclusively as a runner in occasional sub-packages.

Even when Florida State decided to pivot from Blackman in its third game against Jacksonville State, it was true freshman Tate Rodemaker who got the start over Travis. But after falling down 14-0 and appearing to be on the verge of hitting a new rock bottom, Norvell inserted Travis, who proceeded to lead five straight touchdown drives.

He’s been the guy ever since then and Florida State’s offense has been astronomically better with him taking the snaps.

Florida State’s much-maligned offensive line also deserves a ton of credit. This unit has been arguably the biggest weakness on the team since the end of the Jimbo Fisher era, but the group allowed just one sack and paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged 6.7 yards per carry against UNC.

“I feel very comfortable. But I couldn’t feel comfortable without the guys up front blocking. That is where it starts. It starts in the trenches,” Travis said. “They are giving me all day to sit back there and make plays and the receivers are making great plays. There is no reason not to be comfortable in this offense. I’ve got my guys behind my back, pushing me and telling me that they trust me. That is just a great feeling.”

There is no doubt that the Seminoles still have a lot of work to do. The consistency on both sides of the ball is still a work in progress. The offense averaged just 5.6 yards per play in the second half, while the defense allowed four consecutive second-half scoring drives and surrendered eight completions of 20-plus yards over the final two quarters of play.

Ryan Fitzgerald also missed two field goals from inside of 40 yards that would have taken a significant amount of pressure off the Seminoles' defense late in the game.

Furthermore, penalties have become a recurring issue with 12 more this weekend. Florida State is now averaging 9.8 penalties per game this season, which ranks 71st among FBS teams that have played in 2020.

However, for a program that endured two consecutive losing seasons in 2018 and 2019 and looked poised for a similar type of season after starting 0-2 in 2020, Saturday was a night to be celebrated.

It wasn’t perfect, but Saturday was arguably Florida State’s biggest win since the Orange Bowl against Michigan in 2016.

All a sudden, the Seminoles look like a real team and one that can make some noise in the ACC.

“I believe in these guys. I’ve said that throughout the process. I want them to have these experiences and play to the level they’re capable of,” Norvell said. “I know we’re capable of so much more…There’s no limits I’ll put on what this football team can accomplish, and we’ll continue to grow.”

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