What we learned in Florida State’s 56-28 win over Duke

TALLAHASSEE, FL - December 12: A general view of the line of scrimmage of the Florida State...
TALLAHASSEE, FL - December 12: A general view of the line of scrimmage of the Florida State Seminoles and the Duke Blue Devils during the game at Doak Campbell Stadium on Bobby Bowden Field on December 12, 2020 in Tallahassee, Florida. The Seminoles defeated the Blue Devils 56 to 35. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Character Lines) (Don Juan Moore | Don Juan Moore/Character Lines)
Published: Dec. 14, 2020 at 5:11 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Florida State hasn’t taken the big leap back towards national prominence as many may have hoped in Mike Norvell’s first season. Although, there have been several moments that make it easy to be excited about what Norvell could be building in Tallahassee.

There was the win over North Carolina behind a dominant first-half performance, an unexpectedly competitive loss at Notre Dame, and at times a dangerously explosive offense since Jordan Travis became the primary quarterback early in the season against Jacksonville State.

However, on the other side of those occasional moments of brilliance have been a maddening inability to sustain success and put together a long stretch of consistent, high-level football.

So, it was only fitting that after Florida State built a convincing 28-0 first-quarter lead over Duke, the Seminoles took their foot off the gas in the second quarter and allowed the Blue Devils to cut the lead to 28-21 heading into halftime.

The Jekyll and Hyde first half didn’t end up costing Florida State (3-6), which pulled away in the third quarter to secure a 56-35 win over Duke (2-9).

Much like the win over North Carolina earlier in the season, the Seminoles avoided a complete meltdown, but the consistency over a full game was an issue once again.

“You always want to make sure that even with success, you learn from the experiences that you had and you continue to get better,” Norvell said. “You always want to continue to have that edge and the focus is that 1% growth. The focus is going out there and being the best version of yourself because there were a lot of things that we took from that game, areas that we’ve got to get corrected, we’ve got to improve.”

Some inconsistency should not come as a surprise with a team that has a higher composition of freshmen and sophomores (75%) than any other power-five team.

Having a first-year coach during a pandemic that wiped out most of spring practice and offseason team activities adds to that challenge. So does not playing a game in over a month due to COVID issues within the program. But the ability to sustain success throughout a game will definitely be a point of emphasis for Norvell this offseason.

Duke, obviously, is not a very good football team, but any win for Florida State this season is a step in the right direction for Norvell and company. The Seminoles will have one more opportunity next week at Wake Forest to end 2020 on a high note.

1. Young players handle adversity, star in an increased role

Again, Duke not a great football team. However, no game for Florida State has been a guarantee this season. The Seminoles have also become increasingly short-handed over the past several weeks due to injuries and players opting out of the season.

With all of the recent roster turnover that’s occurred, it was encouraging to see Florida State re-gain momentum in the third quarter after establishing it early and then losing it in the second quarter.

Just take a look at the dichotomy between those first two quarters were:

1st Quarter

Florida State: 28 points, 217 yards, 9 yards per play

Duke: 7 points, 70 yards, 5 yards per play

2nd Quarter

Florida State: 0 points, 27 yards, 2.3 yards per play

Duke: 14 points, 179 yards, 6.6 yards per play

Florida State then outscored Duke 14-0 in the third quarter to pretty much put the game out of reach. It’s been quite a while since a Florida State team has responded that well to losing momentum built earlier a game.

Even more encouraging was how numerous underclassmen played an integral role in Saturday’s win.

Potential first-round pick in CB Asante Samuel Jr. was one of many players lost for the season since the last time Florida State had played a game. In his absence, sophomore Brendan Gant stepped up in a huge way. He forced a fumble on Duke quarterback Chase Brice early in the third quarter, which quickly led to a 27-yard touchdown run by Travis to give the Seminoles a 35-21 lead.

Gant also had a spectacular interception in the second quarter when he wrestled the ball away from Duke tight end Jake Marwede while falling to the ground.

Freshman running back Lawrence Toafili also saw an increased role with La’Damian Webb opting out the week before. He had 143 yards on 10 touches, including a 73-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Freshman wide receiver Ja’Khi Douglas had three catches for 77 yards and two touchdowns with top receiver Tamorrion Terry recently opting out, as well as the Seminoles being down to just four scholarship receivers at one point in the game.

The young offensive line, without its two best players, also allowed just one sack against a Duke defense with two of the best pass rushers in the ACC in Chris Rumph II (8 sacks) and Victor Dimukeje (7.5 sacks). They also paved the way for the Seminoles to average 7.5 yards per carry on Saturday.

Then there was the redshirt sophomore Travis, who was dynamic once again as a runner and made some of the best throws of his young career Saturday in just his fifth career start.

He threw a bad interception in the second quarter on a 3rd-and-12 play, but he finished 13-of-18 for 192 yards and three touchdowns (one rushing).

His 90 rushing yards on the day also broke Charlie Ward’s FSU single-season rushing yards record for a quarterback.

2. Hamsah Nasirildeen makes a huge difference on defense

This defense really missed Nasirildeen all season. Nasirildeen was recovering from a knee injury for most of the season until he made his debut against NC State on Nov. 14. He predictably looked a bit rusty in that game, but he looked like his old self against Duke.

The senior had nine tackles, an interception, a pass breakup and a tackle for loss. The first-quarter interception was an early momentum creator that helped Florida State build a 28-0 lead, but his veteran also seemed to pay dividends for the younger players in the secondary.

Duke leads the ACC in turnovers but all four turnovers Florida State forced Saturday came from the secondary. Gant and Travis Jay each had an interception of their own and Gant forced a key fumble in the third quarter.

Nasirildeen makes elevates those around him with his versatility and dependable tackling. The Florida State defense definitely missed his presence throughout the year.

3. Florida State still has a long way to go

Seeing Florida State respond to the adversity and having a lot of young guys contribute was a step in the right direction. However, Florida State still has just three wins this year and will finish with its third losing season in a row even with a win at Wake Forest next week.

Norvell is going to have to find a couple of impact players in the transfer portal. The recruiting also has a ways to go as Florida State’s 2021 class ranking a modest 31st nationally with signing day coming Wednesday.

The defense still allowed a few too many big plays for comfort and the offensive drought in the second quarter almost allowed Duke to come back from a 28-point deficit.

The talent level and consistency both need improvement in 2021 for FSU to get back to the levels of success it saw during the Jimbo Fisher era.

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