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Florida State isn’t built to overcome injuries to key players

Pitt would outscore FSU 38-3 over the final 50:11 of the game to win 41-17.
Pitt would outscore FSU 38-3 over the final 50:11 of the game to win 41-17.(247Noles)
Published: Nov. 8, 2020 at 7:06 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - All of Florida State’s issues cannot be solved in just one bye week. That much was clear on Saturday even after a promising start.

Florida State scored touchdowns on its first two possessions of the game to build an early 14-3 lead. When Jordan Travis took a read-option carry 88 yards to the end zone, the Seminoles offense looked to be in a groove.

By the end of the first quarter, FSU had already rushed for 146 yards against a Pitt defense that had not allowed any team to rush for more than 116 yards in a game all season.

But what was a fast start quickly dissipated and by the time the game clock hit zeroes, the Panthers had rattled off a 38-3 scoring run on their way to a 41-17 win at Doak Campbell Stadium. The loss snapped FSU’s two-game home winning streak.

Travis did not play the second half after being removed due to an undisclosed injury. Neither of his replacements, James Blackman and Chubba Purdy, could produce a single point.

The FSU defense was actually much better than it has been for most of the season, allowing just 358 total yards, but that couldn’t overcome a plethora of mistakes from the offense.

The Seminoles had three turnovers – one interception from each quarterback – and the Panthers scored touchdowns off of all three of them. The last one was a 50-yard pick six by Brandon Hill off Purdy late in the fourth quarter.

Starting quarterback Kenny Pickett’s return to the lineup was also a big boost for Pitt, which scored just 22 points combined in its previous two games without him.

Pickett had an efficient day, completing 21 of 27 passes for 210 yards.

FSU’s second-half offense has been a major problem the last several games and those concerns only grew after being shut out again in the final two quarters on Saturday.

The last time Florida State’s offense scored a point in the second half of a game was Oct. 10 at Notre Dame on a seven-yard touchdown run by La’Damian Webb. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s now been almost an entire month since the Seminoles have found the end zone in the final 30 minutes of a game.

In fact, the only points they’ve scored at all in the second half since then was a safety against Louisville two weeks ago.

“There’s a lot of things that are contributing,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said. "The last few games scoring down in the red zone, we really struggle in the second half. It is all about consistency, penalties, being in long-yardage situations.

“The thing tonight was turnovers and having negative plays that showed up. Right now, we are young up front. That was a great experience against the best defensive line that we’ve played when it comes to creating pressure. We tried to mix it up in the screen game and doing different things to help us especially when we had a couple of guys go down but they were able to get those negative plays.”

Blackman started the second half after Travis was injured, but he played just two series, which resulted in zero completions on two attempts and an interception.

Blackman did not return after that and the crowd then cheered when Norvell pivoted to Purdy, but he threw for just 38 yards on 12-of-21 passing.

FSU’s offensive line had a difficult assignment against Pitt’s defensive front. Pitt led the nation in sacks (32) and yards per rush allowed (1.94) coming into the game, while also ranking fifth in total defense among all power-five conference teams.

Without Travis' threat as a runner in the second half, the Seminoles had no way to generate any output on the ground.

FSU had only seven yards rushing the entire second half and averaged just 1.4 yards per play.

“Obviously, you get behind and in longer yardage situations and that’s where it hurts you,” Norvell said. “When you’re sitting at second-and-13 and third-and-extra-long, you can’t live in that. You take some high percentage passes to try and chip away at some of those even on early downs but obviously, we weren’t very good tonight.”

The Panthers had seven more sacks against FSU, which is as many as the Seminoles had allowed in their last three games combined.

“We put together some pressure packages and we tried to mix it up with six and seven-man protections trying to move the pocket,” Norvell said. “There were times where we got a couple of opportunities, but it was a challenging situation for us and a young quarterback to go into.”

The Seminoles have statistically seen a gradual improvement along the offensive line over the past three seasons, but after a game like this one against an excellent defensive front, it is clear Norvell still has a long way to go with this group.

As for the quarterback situation, there is no obvious answer if Travis isn’t healthy. We’ve now seen in full games against Georgia Tech and Miami, in the first quarter against Jacksonville State and in the second half against Pitt that the offense stagnates without Travis' dual-threat ability to catalyze the rest of the unit.

Obviously, Blackman is not a great solution. That was made clear in the first two games of the season and by the onslaught of boos from the Doak Campbell Stadium crowd after his interception against Pitt.

Purdy could very well be FSU’s quarterback of the future, but he is only a true freshman. If Norvell envisions Purdy as that guy, does he begin to see more time with the first-team offense in an effort to build towards the next couple of seasons?

Or is he still focused on winning now with Travis as his guy? Does he see Travis as FSU’s quarterback of the future? When Travis is healthy, it seems like the answer might be yes, but his health is now a weekly unknown too.

These are all questions that will have to be answered over the final four weeks of the season that includes a matchup against No. 4 Clemson on Nov. 21.

There are no panaceas this season for an FSU team that is still in the early stages of a rebuild with a first-year coach.

The Seminoles right now just aren’t stocked with the same level of talent and depth that they were during the Jimbo Fisher era, so it’s difficult to overcome injuries to key players like Travis and Marvin Wilson, who did not play Saturday.

“Some of this experience is ugly right now and nobody wants to go through what we went through, in finishing a game like that happened,” Norvell said. “But I believe in these guys, I believe in their development, I believe in where we’re going to go and what we’re going to do. It’s just that process the continued investment in every aspect, on the field and off the field, in the classroom. All of that matters. And we’re going to do this the right way.”

It will take two or three good recruiting classes from Norvell to stockpile the Seminoles with the necessary talent to start being competitive against most teams in the ACC again.

The good news is Norvell looks poised to sign back-to-back recruiting classes that rank inside the top-20 nationally. Future talent is on the way.

For now, Norvell has to work with a mostly inexperienced group in the first year of his rebuild. Only time will tell if he can develop the players he has and build the culture necessary to get Florida State back to being a national power.

“There’s certain things, you look at the roster, you look at the youth that’s playing, guys that are kind of being forced into action, we’re probably playing 75-80 percent freshmen or sophomores at some key positions. And that’s challenging,” Norvell said. “But I have seen positive strides. I’ve seen positive strides in a lot of areas.”

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