Game Preview: FSU vs. Jacksonville State

Florida State Quarterback Jordan Travis on the move against Jacksonville State.
Florida State Quarterback Jordan Travis on the move against Jacksonville State.(KYLE PULEK | Florida State Athletics)
Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 9:00 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Florida State will be back at Doak Campbell Stadium Saturday night at 8 p.m. for its second consecutive primetime matchup to open the 2021 season. The Seminoles have a shorter week of preparation after playing their season-opener against No. 8 Notre Dame last Sunday, where they lost 41-38 in overtime.

This week, Florida State welcomes an FCS opponent in Jacksonville State, which resides in the ASUN Conference. The Gamecocks made the transition from the Ohio Valley Conference following last season and were picked to finish third in the ASUN this year. They opened their season with a 31-0 defeat to a UAB team that should be one of the better Group of Five squads in the nation this year. On paper, FSU is significantly more talented than Jacksonville State, but the Gamecocks have enjoyed the most success in their program history under eighth-year coach John Grass. His 68-21 record over his first seven seasons is the best start in JSU history.

Saturday will be the fourth meeting ever between Florida State and Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks won the first matchup, 7-0, back in 1947, but the Seminoles have claimed the two most recent contests. Their last matchup occurred last season at Doak Campbell Stadium. Jacksonville State surprisingly led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter before Jordan Travis replaced Tate Rodemaker at quarterback and led the Seminoles to five consecutive touchdown drives en route to a 41-24 win.

Florida State is seeking to improve to 27-0 against FCS opponents, while Jacksonville State is 1-5 all-time against ACC teams.

What to watch for when FSU has the ball

Florida State’s quarterback situation entering this matchup last year was about as murky as can be. The Seminoles began the year with James Blackman as their starter, but after he struggled mightily during the team’s first two games, Mike Norvell gave the nod to Rodemaker. It was Rodemaker’s first career start and he looked overwhelmed, throwing a pick-six before Travis replaced him in the second quarter.

Now in Norvell’s second year, there is a clearer picture among the quarterbacks, but after last week, there may be another controversy among the group. Travis was named the starter against Notre Dame after battling with McKenzie Milton all preseason. However, after Travis tossed three interceptions and Milton entered in relief to complete an 18-point fourth-quarter comeback, it is unclear how the two signal-callers will be used this week.

Regardless, expect to see the Seminoles try to establish the run early. Jashaun Corbin ran for a career-high 144 yards last week, highlighted by an 89-yard score in the first quarter. Treshaun Ward added a career-high 76 yards and a touchdown. Lawrance Toafili had a quiet game last week with 34 yards on just six carries, but he broke out in the game against Jacksonville State a year ago. In that game, he ran for 99 yards and a touchdown and was later named the ACC Rookie of the Week. Jacksonville State has been stout against the run over the last year, allowing just three rushes of 20-plus yards in its last 13 games.

If Travis starts at quarterback, establishing the run game would be a great way to take some pressure off him early and help build his confidence back up. Last week against Notre Dame, Travis posted a 187.8 passer rating from a clean pocket. That number plummeted to a ghastly 19.3 when pressured.

Ja’Khi Douglas caught a 60-yard touchdown pass from Travis last week, marking his second consecutive game with a score of 60-plus yards. Keyshawn Helton led the team in catches with four, adding 53 yards. Florida State will look for Ontaria Wilson, its top returning target from last season, to be more involved this week after having just one catch for minus-two yards against Notre Dame.

Florida State will line up against a defense that saw six players warrant All-OVC selections last season. The headliner of that group is safety Nicario Harper, who was the OVC Defensive Player of the Year and an AP First-Team All-American in 2020. The Gamecocks also boast a pair of prolific defensive ends in DJ Coleman and Jaylen Swain, who combined for 23.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks last season. While they won’t be as physically imposing as the group of defensive linemen Notre Dame brought to Tallahassee last week, these two will be an interesting matchup against Florida State’s starting tackles, Robert Scott, Jr. and Darius Washington. Washington was terrific in pass protection from the right side against Notre Dame last week, while Scott struggled mightily at left tackle. The Seminoles last week registered a porous sack rate of 16.1%, which ranked 122nd out of 130 FBS teams.

What to watch for when FSU is on defense

The most encouraging part of Florida State’s defense was how well it defended the run last week against a Notre Dame team that is traditionally amongst the best rushing teams in the country. The Seminoles had nine tackles for loss and allowed just 1.86 yards per carry last week.

Notre Dame’s excellent running back duo of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree combined for just 73 yards on 25 carries after each rushing for over 100 yards against the Seminoles defense last year. Florida State’s defensive line was arguably its most disappointing position group in 2020, but after one game, it appears that unit will be much improved.

The Seminoles have a formidable trio on the interior with Fabien Lovett, Robert Cooper and Dennis Briggs, Jr, while transfers Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas have stabilized the defensive end spots. Johnson had a monster first half last week, tallying seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Quashon Fuller was a pleasant surprise off the bench too with a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.

Second-year linebackers DJ Lundy and Kalen DeLoach combined for 12 tackles against Notre Dame and played well against the run.

The concern for FSU after last week was the large number of chunk plays it allowed through the air. The Seminoles allowed 366 passing yards to Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan, which included eight plays of 20-plus yards. The 10.5 yards per pass the Seminoles allowed last week was the 12th-worst rate among FBS teams.

Jacksonville State’s offense had a difficult time moving the ball against UAB last week, as it recorded just 156 yards of total offense.

The Gamecocks’ quarterback, Zerrick Cooper, is a transfer from Clemson and needs just 76 yards to pass Eli Jenkins (7,652 yards from 2013-2016) as the school’s all-time leading passer. His 8,376 yards of total offense also rank second in school history.

FSU’s secondary should theoretically fare much better this week, as Cooper is devoid of weapons on the perimeter. Jacksonville State lost five of its six top receivers from last year’s team. Running back Josh Samuel is the Gamecocks’ top returning pass-catcher after compiling 197 yards and a touchdown last year. Michael Pettaway is the team’s most productive returning wide receiver, recording 239 yards and two touchdowns last season.

On the ground, Samuel leads the way after posting 773 yards and eight touchdowns in 2020. He added 197 yards and a touchdown as a receiver.

Final Analysis

This Florida State team is much better than the one that saw itself in an early deficit against Jacksonville State last season. Conversely, the Gamecocks lost a lot of production from last year’s squad, particularly on the offensive side.

Despite numerous accomplished players remaining on defense, Jacksonville State allowed 517 yards of total offense to UAB last week, and this FSU offense has more talent than that group.

The key for the Seminoles will be to clean up some of the self-inflicted errors that burned them last week. They committed nine penalties and three turnovers against Notre Dame and had multiple bad snaps as well. Even if they continue to struggle in those areas, they should still be fine against Jacksonville State, but those areas will absolutely be a point of emphasis against an inferior opponent. Norvell said at practice earlier in the week that the difference in the game against Notre Dame was that Florida State made too many self-inflicted mistakes in critical situations.

The other key will be better efficiency on first downs. Florida State often put itself in an early hole last week, particularly in the first half, because of its inability to avoid negative plays on first down.

If FSU can improve in those areas, then it should dispatch Jacksonville State relatively easily. Part of Florida State taking the next step in its rebuild is performing well against obviously lesser opponents. There is no reason to have a repeat of last year’s first-quarter debacle against this same Jacksonville State team.

Saturday should be a game where Florida State takes control early and can get both Travis and Milton a substantial number of reps. As was the case with the Notre Dame game, the Seminoles will likely need both quarterbacks to contribute in key spots at some point this season, so getting both of them plenty of snaps before conference play will be vital. Ideally, Florida State will also work some rotational players into the second half of the game. Building some depth on both sides of the ball will be beneficial as the team heads into ACC play, which begins next week.

Prediction: Florida State 52, Jacksonville State 6

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