Evaluating the quarterbacks in Week 1: Travis’ up-and-down night and Milton’s spark

Jordan Travis congratulates McKenzie Milton after leading a touchdown drive
Jordan Travis congratulates McKenzie Milton after leading a touchdown drive(WCTV)
Published: Sep. 6, 2021 at 9:15 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - The quarterback battle between Jordan Travis and McKenzie Milton dominated offseason headlines for Florida State football. Both of them played Sunday night against Notre Dame with Travis getting the start and playing for the first three-plus quarters.

Milton entered about halfway through the fourth after Travis got his helmet knocked off and was forced to come out of the game. He led the Seminoles to 11 points on consecutive drives to send the game to overtime, where No. 9 Notre Dame (1-0) eventually topped Florida State (0-1), 41-38.

Below are some observations from the two quarterbacks’ performance in Week 1.

Evaluating Jordan Travis’ up-and-down night

The biggest question all offseason heading into Week 1 was who would win the quarterback battle between Jordan Travis and McKenzie Milton? Mike Norvell did not tip his hand at any point over the last several months, but it was ultimately Travis who started the game and took all the snaps for the first three-and-a-half quarters.

Travis earned the job with his consistency throughout spring ball and in preseason camp. He was already a dynamic athlete, but he also showed clear improvements as a pocket passer throughout the offseason. All of that time spent on improving as a passer this offseason culminated in an up-and-down performance Sunday night.

Let’s start with the good. There were two particular plays that stood out.

The first play came on Florida State’s first possession of the third quarter where Travis connected with Ja’Khi Douglas for a 60-yard touchdown pass. Faced with a third-and-7 from the FSU 40, Travis lined up in the shotgun with four wide receivers and Treshaun Ward in the backfield to his right.

Travis to Douglas TD pre-snap
Travis to Douglas TD pre-snap(WCTV)

In this play, Douglas runs a simple fade route out of the left slot. Notre Dame is playing Cover 1 with a single-high safety in Kyle Hamilton. What Travis does extremely well here is recognize that the Irish are playing man coverage across the board, so he uses his eyes to move Hamilton slightly to the right side of the field and give Douglas more space to operate.

Florida State creates a great matchup here, getting the faster Douglas on Notre Dame safety Houston Griffith. Once Travis sees Hamilton take the bait, he sees that Douglas has Griffith beat, makes a quick decision and makes a perfect throw to Douglas for the score.

This play is also a great example of how accurate Travis can be when his feet are set. Here, he gets his feet underneath him, maintains a strong base, and can drive the ball downfield and put it on the money.

Travis’ other touchdown pass was a fantastic play that shows the kind of improvisational skills he has.

The play here was designed to be a rollout to the left. Once Travis recognizes that nothing is there, he looks to run, but the hole fills up. He responds by going back to the other side of the field and making two defenders miss before firing across his body to Kansas transfer wide receiver Andrew Parchment for the touchdown. Credit to Parchment here too. The play was not designed for him, but he did a great job getting open and sealing his defender once he saw Travis was in trouble.

These are the kind of plays that you can’t teach. Travis has a tendency to put the ball in harm’s way at times, but sometimes you live with that because of these types of plays he can make.

There were a lot of negatives from Travis’ performance on Sunday too though. Other than one 25-yard scramble, Notre Dame did an excellent job of containing him in the pocket and taking his running ability out of the game. When Travis’ legs aren’t a factor, he is much less dangerous.

As much as Travis improved in the offseason, his pocket presence, decision-making and accuracy can all be a bit erratic.

Travis was sacked four times Sunday, and while the pass protection often was not great, Travis has a tendency to create his own pressure by looking to leave the pocket too early.

Here is one example.

Notre Dame is going to rush four on this play and do a twist with the two defenders lined up over FSU left guard Dillan Gibbons (No. 75).

Travis sack pre-snap
Travis sack pre-snap(WCTV)

FSU center Maurice Smith is late to pick up Notre Dame defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola (No. 57), which gives him a lane up the middle.

Pressure up middle
Pressure up middle(WCTV)

What Travis needs to do here is slide to his left and fill the hole that Gibbons and his left tackle, Robert Scott have given him. However, he instead decides to spin out to his left right where a defender off the edge is waiting for him.

Pressure off edge
Pressure off edge(WCTV)

That defender does not wind up making the sack, but he slows Travis down just enough for a second and third defender to come over and finish him off. If Travis had stepped up to his left a bit he would have bought himself more time to either make a throw or run for a decent gain rather than take a sack.

Here is another example. This play leads to his first interception of the night.

Notre Dame rushes just four here and the Florida State offensive line give Travis a clean pocket with plenty of time to operate.

Travis first INT clean pocket
Travis first INT clean pocket(WCTV)

However, when Travis’ first receiver is not open, rather than continuing to work through his progressions, he prematurely decides to scramble to his right, which gives two defenders a much easier angle to him.

Travis leaves pocket
Travis leaves pocket(WCTV)

Travis’ throw then becomes much more difficult because he has a defender in his face. Travis also just makes a very poor decision on this play, trying to force the ball downfield to Jashaun Corbin, who is covered by Hamilton, one of the best defensive backs in college football.

Hamilton is much bigger than Corbin and is with him step for step. It was a costly turnover, as Notre Dame would find the end zone on the subsequent possession.

On Travis’ second interception, he had Corbin open down the sideline, but he was late and the ball was underthrown a bit. Hamilton makes an incredible play here, covering a ton of ground to make the catch, but Travis underthrowing the ball allowed him to undercut the route.

The bottom line is, when Travis has a clean pocket that allows him to get his feet underneath him before he throws, he can be an excellent passer. However, when under pressure, which he sometimes creates himself, Travis’ production drops off significantly.

According to Pro Football Focus, Travis had a 187.8 passer rating with a clean pocket in Week 1, which rated 26th out of 121 qualifying quarterbacks. Conversely, Travis’ 19.3 passer rating under pressure Sunday ranked 112th out of 121. It is wrong to say that Travis has not improved as a passer, but handling pressure and cleaning up his decision-making is the next step for him.

McKenzie Milton provides spark

Just seeing McKenzie Milton get back on the field and complete an incredible journey back to playing again was a great story. But the spark he provided was his arm once he entered the game midway through the fourth quarter was palpable.

Three plays, in particular, stood out. On his first play from scrimmage, he climbed the pocket, made a quick decision and delivered a strike to Douglas for 22 yards.

His most impressive play of the night came on a crucial third-and-11 situation as the Seminoles trailed by 11 with just over six minutes left in regulation.

Notre Dame disguised its coverage a bit more here than it did on Milton’s first throw. The Irish showed blitz and dropped seven into coverage. Milton reads it well and makes a perfect throw over the linebacker and in stride to Keyshawn Helton for a huge first down. That play set up a touchdown run two plays later to cut Notre Dame’s lead to just three.

Finally, how about this play on the possession that would send the game into overtime.

I’m not sure whether this play was by design, but judging by the way Milton held onto the ball until the very last second, it seemed improvised. That decision took excellent instincts, which is not something one would expect from a quarterback who hasn’t played a game in almost three years.

Milton’s final numbers won’t jump off the stat sheet. He completed 5 of 7 passes for 48 yards, but he provided the kind of precision passing from the pocket within the structure of the offense that Travis had struggled to produce throughout the game.

The way he was inserted was bizarre, as Travis got his helmet knocked off on a blitz. Milton took advantage of the moment though and did not come off the field after he took his first snap. After the game, Norvell was noncommittal about what Milton’s role will be next week, but one has to think he will be a bigger part of the offense going forward if his performance on Sunday night is the bar.

Further reading: Week 1 standouts and more takeaways: Upon further review

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