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McKenzie Milton falls short in comeback bid but completes unprecedented redemption story

Mckenzie Milton is back.
Mckenzie Milton is back.(FSU Football)
Published: Sep. 6, 2021 at 4:26 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - The crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium grew more and more anxious as the fourth quarter waned, while McKenzie Milton calmly stood on the sideline with his helmet on and hands rested on his hips.

Florida State trailed No. 9 Notre Dame by 11 points with just over nine minutes left in regulation, and Milton continued to watch his teammate, Jordan Travis, try to will the Seminoles back from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit.

Travis and Milton were in a closely contested quarterback battle throughout spring ball and preseason camp. Second-year head coach Mike Norvell delayed announcing a starter for as long as possible. While Milton’s transfer drew most of the offseason headlines, all signs seemed to be pointing towards Travis winning the job as camp concluded. Indeed, it was Travis who took snaps with the first-team offense during pregame warmups Sunday night and it was Travis who eventually led the offense out onto the field for Florida State’s first possession of the 2021 season. Milton had passed for 8,683 yards and 72 touchdowns in three seasons at UCF before a gruesome leg injury that sidelined him for almost three years, but Travis ultimately winning the job was not a huge surprise. Travis had been the most consistent quarterback on the roster throughout camp and had shown clear improvements as a passer to supplement his dynamic running ability.

Milton stayed ready though. He was listed as a co-starter with Travis on the depth chart this week and it was likely he would see the field at some point.

Travis labored through an up-and-down performance through three-plus quarters, showcasing both the electrifying big-play ability that makes him a dangerous dual-threat quarterback and the limitations he still has as a passer.

He uncorked a gorgeous 60-yard touchdown pass along the left sideline to Ja’Khi Douglas early in the third quarter. Then to begin the fourth, he eluded multiple defenders before scrambling back across the field and firing a dart over the middle to Kansas transfer Andrew Parchment for an eight-yard touchdown pass. But Travis also threw three interceptions and often looked overwhelmed by a stout Notre Dame defensive front.

Norvell was faced with a conundrum throughout the night. Should he stick with the high-risk, high-reward play Travis offered or give Milton a shot to see if he could distribute the ball more efficiently.

Midway through the quarter, that decision was made for him. Travis was pressured and had his helmet knocked off. Per NCAA rules, he was required to sit out the next play. Milton emerged from the sideline and was greeted with a roar of applause from a crowd of 68,316.

“His helmet pops off and you just got to be engaged and ready to go on the sideline,” Milton said. “I ran out there and thanked God, but it was time to roll. I didn’t have time to really process any emotions or anything like that. A job had to be done.”

Milton wasted no time making an impact, as he took his first snap and fired a strike downfield along the left sideline to Douglas for a 22-yard first-down completion. Seven plays later, with Florida State facing third-and-11 from the Notre Dame 20, Milton was still in the game and threw another completion, this time to Keyshawn Helton over the middle for 15 yards to pick up a huge first down.

When Treshaun Ward took the snap out of the wildcat two plays later and punched it into the endzone, Milton, who was lined up out wide to the left, unloaded an emphatic fist bump before running to the goal line to celebrate with the rest of the offense. As he made his way back to the sideline, Travis was among the first to congratulate him. He had a smile so wide that he looked like a young kid on Christmas morning.

“That makes me so happy,” Travis said. “I can’t get the smile off my face. Just seeing someone that’s been through so much come back and be able to perform that way. To see him run out on the field, that gave me chills. That’s my boy.”

Jordan Travis congratulates McKenzie Milton after leading a touchdown drive
Jordan Travis congratulates McKenzie Milton after leading a touchdown drive(WCTV)

After the Florida State defense forced a Notre Dame three-and-out with just over four minutes to go, Norvell sent Milton back into the game with Travis battling cramps in his calves. Travis smiled and slapped Milton on the helmet. Milton subsequently led a 10-play, 46-yard drive to set up a 43-yard field goal from Ryan Fitzgerald that would send the game to overtime.

Florida State outscored Notre Dame 18-0 in the fourth quarter and there was a buzz inside Doak Campbell Stadium that had not been felt in several years.

The Milton-led rally would ultimately fall short. Norvell called timeout just before Fitzgerald knocked in a 50-yard field goal during overtime. Officials had ruled the previous play a fumble and Norvell correctly challenged that the play was an incomplete pass instead. Fitzgerald then got to kick from 13 yards closer, but this time he missed from 37 yards. Notre Dame kicker Jonathan Doerer answered by connecting from 41 yards out to give Notre Dame (1-0) a 41-38 win over Florida State (0-1).

As the Seminoles slowly walked over towards the end zone in disappointment, many of the spectators remained in their seats to applaud their team’s gutsy performance. It was a valiant effort in Florida State’s first game since the passing of legendary head coach Bobby Bowden. Although FSU came up short, there was plenty to like about what transpired Sunday night and it is clear Norvell has the program heading in the right direction again after three consecutive losing seasons.

“Disappointed we came up short but so very proud of the way that our guys battled for 60-plus minutes,” Norvell said. “We came into this week talking about having to be together. We knew there was going to be good moments. We knew there would be times that we get knocked down and our guys just continued to respond.”

The Seminoles rushed for 264 yards as a team on 5.5 yards per rush, despite Travis (12 carries for nine yards) being a non-factor on the ground. Florida State’s offensive line has been the most heavily scrutinized unit on the team since the end of the Jimbo Fisher era, but they are finally beginning to make noticeable strides. A run defense that allowed 199.2 rushing yards per game in 2020 had nine tackles for loss and allowed just 65 yards and 1.9 yards per rush against one of the best running back duos in the nation in Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree. And while Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan had a career night, throwing for 366 yards and four touchdowns, Florida State’s secondary forced him to make several perfect throws through tight windows.

It was not a perfect performance by any means. Florida State’s three turnovers and nine penalties were costly, but Sunday night was something to build on for a program that hasn’t had much to hang its hat on over the last three years.

The brightest spot though was the long-awaited return of Milton, who completed one of the most remarkable redemption journeys in college football history. When he went down with the injury during a game at UCF in 2018, doctors at the time were more concerned about saving his leg than reviving his football career.

A forceful hit dislocated his right knee, caused two ligaments to tear and left behind inauspicious nerve damage. Milton had successful surgery but it took him several days to regain any feeling in his leg. His initial prognosis was that he might not ever be able to play football again, but Milton gradually worked his way back up to speed.

After the veteran quarterback sustained the injury, he wrote on Instagram that his journey back would be a long process but that it would be a great story.

On Sunday night, that story finally came to fruition and he provided a magnificent spark to an FSU offense when his number was called.

“McKenzie is a great competitor,” Norvell said. “We went into this week and he just continued to tell me, ‘Coach, I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready.’ You never know when that opportunity is going to present itself. Jordan had a couple things happen there late, and McKenzie came in and he was ready. He prepared well, such a wonderful competitor. It was great to see him get the opportunity to go out there and compete.

“Anybody who knows his story and all that’s gone into it, he’s somebody that you cheer for. He’s a special young man and to see him rise up in that moment, I was really proud of him.”

Milton wasn’t cleared to play football again until the start of this past spring, over two years after the injury. By that time, his successor at UCF, Dillon Gabriel, had established himself as one of the best young quarterbacks in college football. That led Milton to head to Florida State as a grad transfer in December. After he was cleared to play, he predictably experienced some growing pains throughout practice leading up to the season. He had to juggle learning a new offensive scheme with trying to rediscover how to play at full speed after having not done so for a couple of years. As the offseason progressed though, he began to look more and more like his old self and it was only a matter of time before college football fans around the nation saw him in action again.

As Milton’s family and thousands of fans nervously watched from afar, bracing themselves every time he was pressured or took a hit, the quarterback each time turned the page to the next play like it was business as usual and handled the moment with remarkable poise. If there was any timidity remaining about playing on his repaired leg, it was not noticeable.

“It felt just like it was three years ago,” Milton said, “and I was just playing ball.”

Milton finished his brief night completing 5 of 7 passes for 48 yards. The numbers aren’t gaudy, but the momentum shift he created once he entered the game was palpable. Norvell was noncommittal after the game about Florida State’s quarterback situation going forward, but in his first game in almost three years, Milton provided a comeback story for the ages.

“I was very happy,” said defensive end Jermaine Johnson, who had seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in the game. “I’m close with McKenzie…I know that guy is all about it and he came up when his number was called and he showed up and showed out and did what he was supposed to do. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Milton leading a thrilling comeback in his first game back, even though it ultimately resulted in a loss, is part of what makes sports so enjoyable to watch. Over the last three years, Milton has tested the limits of what is humanly possible. Most people had written him off, but on Sunday night, he overcame a seemingly insurmountable obstacle on national television and delivered a different kind of comeback that college football fans can cherish for life.

“God is real. That’s the one thing I can say,” Milton said. “God is real. Nobody’s ever come back from an injury like this. I’m not tooting my own horn. He just answered the prayers of thousands of people praying for me from the moment I got hurt. My coaches believed in me. From UCF to coach Norvell. My teammates believed in me. I’m not here without all the support, all the prayers.”

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