'The same things are still showing up’: Recurring issues plague Florida State in loss to Louisville

Oct 24, 2020; Louisville, Kentucky, USA;  Louisville Cardinals wide receiver Tutu Atwell (1)...
Oct 24, 2020; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; Louisville Cardinals wide receiver Tutu Atwell (1) runs the ball against Florida State Seminoles defensive back Raymond Woodie III (31) during the first half of play at Cardinal Stadium. Jamie Rhodes-ACC Pool(Jamie Rhodes | Atlantic Coast Conference)
Published: Oct. 25, 2020 at 7:52 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WCTV) - For the first few minutes of Saturday’s game at Cardinal Stadium, it appeared Florida State was picking up right where it left off following last weekend’s thrilling upset-win against UNC.

It took only two minutes and 30 seconds for the Seminoles to march 65 yards down the field and score early against Louisville. Jordan Travis, who began his career at Louisville before transferring to Florida State after the 2018 season, took his first snap, rolled to the right and found his tight end Camren McDonald underneath for a gain of 30 yards after a tough run after the catch.

Travis then made two terrific plays with his legs, evading the rush on a 3rd-and-4 situation and scrambling to his right for a 16-yard first-down run into the red zone. Two plays later, Travis made one of the most electrifying plays of the entire college football season.

Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham called for a zone read on 3rd-and-5 from the Louisville 8. Travis took the shotgun snap and fumbled the ball while pulling it from Jashaun Corbin. The ball bounced up off the turf and Travis, retreating all the way back to the 15-yard line, deftly crossed the ball over from his right hand to his left like a point guard to keep it away from a diving Tabarius Peterson.

He then quickly juked around three more Louisville defenders and ran by everyone for an incredible touchdown run to add to his already long list of highlight-reel plays this season.

It was an excellent start for a team coming off maybe its biggest win in several years, and early indications were there would be no letdown against the 1-4 Cardinals.

But that first drive pretty much summed up the good news column for the Seminoles on Saturday.

Louisville’s explosive offense subsequently torched the Seminoles' defense, scoring touchdowns on its first four drives, followed by a 28-yard field goal to take a 31-14 lead into halftime.

For the second week in a row, Florida State’s offense put up zero in the second half with the team’s lone points of the final 30 minutes coming on FSU’s only sack of the day by Emmett Rice for a safety. Louisville would tally 17 more points in the second half on its way to a 48-16 win, collecting its first ACC victory of the season and dropping the Seminoles to 2-4.

“We won the game last week, but there were still lessons that had to be learned,” head coach Mike Norvell said. “We played a really good half of football last week and we missed out on some opportunities in the second half and did some things that are going to cost you. That showed up today and you’re not gonna be successful if those things continue to show up within the way that we play.”

Louisville deserves plenty of credit for its performance Saturday. The Cardinals are a much better team than their 1-4 record coming into Saturday’s game indicated. Three of their four losses were to ranked opponents and they took No. 3 Notre Dame to the wire last week on the road in a 12-7 loss.

However, Florida State’s defense offered little resistance to Louisville’s plethora of explosive playmakers, allowing 9.3 yards per play on the afternoon, including five completions of 20 or more yards (66, 58, 42, 23, 20) and eight rushes of 10 or more yards (70, 11, 35, 10, 10, 33, 10, 41).

“We just weren’t doing our jobs,” Rice said. “Like eight of the 11 (defensive players) would do their jobs and the big play would happen. If all 11 did their jobs, we wouldn’t have those big plays.”

Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham had a nearly flawless afternoon, completing 16 of his 24 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns, along with 40 rushing yards on seven carries. Cunningham threw just one incompletion in the first half and eight different receivers caught a pass for the Cardinals.

Javian Hawkins was also electric with 174 yards on 16 carries (10.9 yards per rush) and three touchdowns. It was the third time in six games this season Hawkins eclipsed more than 150 yards on the ground.

“There’s times we had pretty good calls into some of these plays and there were times that we probably could get better situations,” Norvell said. “Everybody’s got to make sure that we’re communicating. We have 11 guys playing as one.”

“When you’re playing a zone team that is as efficient as they are -- it’s a good football team, good backs -- we’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to win our gaps. When you have an opportunity to get there and make the plays, you’ve got to make the plays.”

The defense’s performance last week, particularly in the first half, against a talented and explosive UNC offense, looked like it could be a catalyst for the remainder of the season. However, FSU’s starting front four of Joshua Kaindoh, Marvin Wilson, Corey Durden and Janarius Robinson combined for just three total tackles and one tackle for loss against the Cardinals.

Cunningham and Hawkins are a dynamic backfield duo who can create big plays against good defenses, but it becomes very difficult to slow them down without generating any pressure from the front four.

Combine that with numerous missed tackles at the second level throughout the afternoon and Louisville went on to put up 569 yards of total offense and converted on a perfect 6-for-6 in the red zone.

“If you let them get in space, there’s a chance that they can really make you pay,” Norvell said. “Obviously, that happened with some missed tackles. It did not allow us to play the way that we’re capable of. We are a team that is a continued work in progress. We’ve seen flashes of it, we’ve seen moments, but right now, we are not playing consistent enough to be able to sustain that.”

Saturday was also the fifth time in six games this season Florida State committed double-digit penalties. The Seminoles had 11 more today and are now averaging just over 10 penalties per game in 2020. They are the only FBS team to play multiple games and average double-digit penalties this season.

“That’s something we’ve got to continue to work on,” Norvell said. Honestly, a choice has to be made. There’s not been a day that’s gone by that I’ve been here that there’s not been accountability in what our standard is. There’s going to continue to be accountability for that, but obviously, the message needs to continue to get across, a choice has to be made and that’s in aspects of what we’re doing."

On a positive note, Florida State’s offense again showed flashes throughout the afternoon. The Seminoles tallied 406 yards of total offense, including 265 rushing yards and a very solid 6.6 yards per rush. It was the third consecutive ACC game the Seminoles had 405-plus yards of total offense, which is the longest such streak for them in such contests since 2016.

The offense is absolutely in a much better state than it has been over the past several seasons, and it was an encouraging sign to see all three of Florida State’s primary running backs, Corbin, Lawrence Toafili and La’Damian Webb, combine for 211 yards on just 25 carries (8.4 yards per rush).

However, Travis was not as effective through the air this weekend, completing only 14 of his 32 attempts for 141 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

“We weren’t consistent. We came out last week. We’re making big plays,” Travis said. “This week, we weren’t making plays. That’s the only thing. We just have to come up and we have to make plays as a team. We have to rally around each other and just make plays and that’s all we need to do.”

Travis had shown off some impressive deep ball accuracy in Florida State’s previous three games, but Louisville had a clear defensive game plan to keep everything underneath and force the Seminoles to score with long, methodical drives.

The Cardinals executed that plan well, as they allowed only one completion over 20 yards all game. That came on Florida State’s first play from scrimmage. Even that play though was an underneath drag route to McDonald, who made that catch 13 yards past the line of scrimmage and then bulldozed his way through a herd of Louisville defenders to pick up 30 yards.

Travis made some nice plays with his legs again, but Louisville’s defense taking the deep ball away from him exposed some of his limitations as a passer.

He periodically could not make the Cardinals pay for loading up the box on him to stop him from running the ball and he threw several off-target passes that could have been intercepted.

Louisville seemed to have provided a blueprint for how to slow down Florida State’s offense with Travis under center. They loaded up the box to limit his effectiveness as a runner and forced him to be a precision passer by taking away the deep ball.

“We just got to get better. It’s not about Louisville or anybody that we play,” Travis said. “It’s about us. It’s got to get more consistent, starting for me. We have to get back to work. And I’d say get back to work this week. We got to work on our confidence. I think our confidence isn’t there. You’ve lost it throughout the game. We just have to be consistent. That’s the main thing.”

In fairness to Travis, he got little help from his supporting cast in the passing game. Florida State’s offensive line allowed only two sacks on the afternoon, but Travis was under constant duress and was frequently forced to get rid of the ball quickly before any of his receivers' routes could develop downfield.

It also made a big difference not having Tamorrion Terry (knee) available for the second week in a row. The Seminoles didn’t seem to miss a beat without their All-ACC receiver against UNC, but they clearly missed him this weekend.

Florida State receivers had five dropped passes in the game, including one by Ontaria Wilson that bounced right off his hands high in the air and led to an interception. The Seminoles definitely could have used Terry’s ability to run after the catch and make plays on 50-50 balls to take some pressure off of Travis.

For those hoping last weekend’s upset win over UNC would foreshadow significant improvement to come for the rest of the season, Saturday’s game was a sobering reminder of the rebuilding project Norvell has inherited in his first season at Florida State.

There are moments of brilliance, but also, as Norvell said, still an abundance of inconsistency across the board. Norvell has talked a lot about building a winning culture since accepting the Florida State job and that takes time to create.

It was the same story in his previous job at Memphis and for most coaches who take over rebuilding programs. His first year there, in an 8-5 season, saw many of these same consistency issues that Florida State is experiencing now. But two of his next three years at Memphis resulted in 10-plus wins.

Florida State hired him to orchestrate a similar turnaround, knowing that it will not be an overnight project. The challenge for him in the rest of his first season at Florida State will be to minimize the inconsistencies and establish the building blocks of a winning culture required to lead Florida State back to national prominence in the coming years.

“We challenged our guys this week to go out there and push themselves to improve in all aspects,” Norvell said. The same things that have shown up early in the season are still showing up so we’ve got to re-evaluate the way that we are holding guys to that standard of what we expect. I didn’t have the team prepared to the level that they’re capable of today so that goes on me. It will be corrected and we’ll continue to grow, move forward from this point."

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