FSU hits new rock bottom with loss to Jacksonville State: ‘It’s just embarrassing.’

Florida State fell to an FCS opponent for the first time in school history after previously...
Florida State fell to an FCS opponent for the first time in school history after previously being 26-0 against such teams(247Noles)
Published: Sep. 12, 2021 at 8:48 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - As lackadaisical and as undisciplined Florida State looked throughout most of Saturday night, at the very least, it seemed the Seminoles would do just enough late to avoid a catastrophic loss. FSU narrowly led Jacksonville State 17-14 with just six seconds left as the Gamecocks faced fourth-and-10 from their own 41.

All Florida State needed was one final hold to escape with a victory and head into ACC play without a goose egg in the win column. Considering that Jacksonville State had not produced a play longer than 27 yards all night, what were the odds they could find the end zone from 59 yards out on one play? Even the most explosive offenses in the country would be challenged to score in such a situation.

In the ensuing play, defensive coordinator Adam Fuller decided to be aggressive. He deployed four down linemen with only two high safeties, while the other five defenders lined up about 10 yards past the line of scrimmage to take away a quick, underneath completion.

“It was a two-deep man under. We wanted to make sure we tried to get pressure on the quarterback but having coverage over the top.” FSU head coach Mike Norvell said. “They still had one timeout. Just to not give up something quickly underneath or in the intermediate passing game with the timeout, so we did not go to immediate prevent.”

Florida State rushed four as JSU quarterback Zerrick Cooper took the snap. There was no pressure from the FSU pass rush. He waited about three seconds before comfortably heaving the ball downfield. Waiting on the opposite end of the field was Damond Philyaw-Johnson, who got behind the Florida State secondary. Jarivs Brownlee provided tight coverage but Cooper dropped it right in the bucket for his receiver and the pass was caught just inside the 20. Brownlee was in good position to make the tackle but rather than wrapping up, he idly swiped his left hand for the ball and whiffed, allowing Philyaw-Johnson to escape. Sidney Williams then had an angle as Florida State’s last hope but overran him. Philyaw-Johnson stuck his foot in the ground at the 10 along the right sideline and cut back across the field before finding his way into the end zone.

The junior receiver raised the ball up with his right hand as the entire Jacksonville State sideline made a beeline towards him. It was just before midnight and the remaining Florida State fans in attendance watched in dead silence. Norvell stood on the sideline incredulous with his left hand tucked into his lower lip. A group of Florida State players stood right behind him perfectly still, completely shell-shocked by what they had just witnessed.

Florida State, which had erased an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit itself against Notre Dame the previous week, this time found themselves on the wrong end of a late surge. Jacksonville State (1-1), after trailing by 10 at the end of three quarters, had come back to stun Florida State (0-2) at Doak Campbell Stadium, 20-17.

Damond Philyaw-Johnson scores on the final play of the game to seal JSU's upset win over FSU
Damond Philyaw-Johnson scores on the final play of the game to seal JSU's upset win over FSU(247Noles)

What seemed near impossible just 10 seconds earlier turned into a nightmare scenario for the Seminoles.

“We didn’t execute how we were supposed to,” FSU defensive end Jermaine Johnson said. Kind of embarrassing but all we can do is watch the tape and what we did wrong and fix it.”

As Florida State players slowly walked towards the tunnel with their heads down in disbelief, Gamecocks players raced around the field named after the late legendary coach Bobby Bowden. The same FSU team that willed itself back from down three scores in the fourth quarter last week in a resilient effort that would have made Bowden proud, returned six days later only to turn in an epic collapse that would have never been synonymous with a Bowden-coached team.

Once most of Florida State’s team exited the field, the JSU celebration culminated in defensive end DJ Coleman waving his team’s flag and planting it on the Seminole logo at midfield.

Everything about it was a mess. Norvell’s explanation for the defensive scheme on the final play sounded like a head coach covering for his defensive coordinator who has quickly fallen out of favor among the fan base just 11 games into his tenure. Wanting to take away an underneath completion with a timeout remaining makes some sense in theory, but there were only six seconds left in the game and the Gamecocks were 59 yards away from the endzone. JSU kicker Alen Karajic’s career-long is only 46 yards, so it was highly unlikely the Gamecocks could pull off a play that got them close enough to attempt a game-tying field goal in under six seconds even if they still had a timeout to burn. Not going with a prevent defense allowed for just enough space over the top to clinch FSU’s worst loss yet under Norvell.

Last season, there were a number of games that one could have pointed to as rock bottom for Florida State. The 52-10 loss to archrival Miami comes to mind. As does the 48-16 loss at Louisville. Or the 41-17 loss at home to Pitt.

But even for a program that suffered through three straight grueling seasons under .500 from 2018-2020, nobody could have possibly fathomed a loss this incomprehensible. Florida State’s loss Saturday night marked the first time in program history that it lost to an FCS opponent. It had previously been 26-0. The Seminoles were a 28-point favorite. Since 1978, they were previously 97-0 when favored by at least 27 points. There is simply no way to beat around the bush. This is a new level of rock bottom for Florida State. It is hard to find a more disgraceful loss in the program’s illustrious history than what unfolded Saturday.

“It’s just embarrassing,” FSU quarterback McKenzie Milton said. “It’s embarrassing the way we performed on the field today. We’ve got to own that. That’s who we are. That’s who we are today.”

“Embarrassing.” Milton and Johnson each repeated that word several times during their postgame pressers.

What’s alarming is how such a result took shape despite this same exact opponent putting a minor scare into the Seminoles just one year ago. When these two programs met at Doak Campbell Stadium last season, Jacksonville State led FSU 14-0 at the end of the first quarter. The difference was the Seminoles regrouped and eventually won 41-24. Florida State was obviously reeling after having very little time to get acclimated to its new coaching staff, but it was clear who the more talented team was. That talent gap was not so obvious this time.

McKenzie Milton completed 18 of 31 passes for 133 yards with a touchdown and an interception in...
McKenzie Milton completed 18 of 31 passes for 133 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his first start since Nov. 23, 2018.(247Noles)

Florida State’s first drive of the game looked promising. Milton was making his first start at quarterback since his horrific leg injury on Nov. 23, 2018, another milestone in his extraordinary recovery. The Seminoles marched the ball 38 yards in six plays down to the JSU 42. Then Treshaun Ward was stuffed for a two-yard loss on third-and-2. Norvell left the offense out on the field. On fourth down, Milton surveyed the defense and lofted an accurate ball deep down the right sideline to a wide-open Keyshawn Helton. The guy who was touted as Florida State’s most consistent, reliable receiver all offseason let the pass slip through his hands and fall to the ground. The rare drop by Helton, who did not record a reception in the game, prevented what would have been an easy, walk-in touchdown and set the tone for a disoriented night littered with self-inflicted errors.

Just like last week, Florida State consistently shot itself in the foot with penalties in critical situations. The Seminoles drew 11 more flags for 114 yards a week after committing nine penalties against Notre Dame. They converted just 5 of 14 third downs, partly because they faced an average distance of 7.7 yards in such situations. Furthermore, after producing five plays of over 20 yards last week, FSU generated only one such play Saturday. This was against a Jacksonville State team that had just allowed 517 yards of offense in a 31-0 loss to UAB a week earlier.

“Offensively, there was no rhythm,” Norvell said. “Every time that we would get something going there would be a penalty or a mistake that would put us in a long-yardage situation. We were very inconsistent in our passing game. Too many negative plays and poor on third downs. Just, everything that it takes to be successful to play the game of football offensively we did not do.”

Milton’s first start in almost three years was rather uneventful. He completed 18 of 31 passes for just 133 yards with a touchdown and an interception. His longest completion of the night went for just 17 yards.

With the lack of explosiveness in the passing game all night, it was puzzling to see Florida State not commit to the ground game more, especially as it led by double digits for most of the fourth quarter and looked to burn the clock. The Seminoles had far more success running the ball than throwing it all night. They averaged 5.5 yards per rush on 37 carries and just 3.9 yards per pass on a nearly identical 34 attempts. Jashaun Corbin ran for 109 yards on just 15 carries (7.3 avg.) but oddly did not receive any carries on Florida State’s penultimate possession that lasted 15 plays.

Corbin was asked about not being used during that series. There was some speculation that he was hurt late in the game, be he denied that in his postgame presser. If Corbin was available, how Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham deployed the running back rotation at that point in the game was perplexing. On that drive alone, Lawrance Toafili, who registered just 22 yards in the game, received five carries. Toafili has been a surprising non-factor through two games, and that drive felt like a forced attempt to make up for the touches he had not been getting up to that point.

Florida State labored into halftime with a 14-7 lead after allowing Jacksonville State to get on the board first for the second consecutive year. Even those two touchdown drives didn’t come easy though. The Seminoles were gifted with a facemask penalty on each possession to bail them out and extend both drives.

When Florida State had multiple chances to put the game away late, it could not capitalize. During that same drive late in the game that did not feature Corbin once, the Seminoles had first-and-goal from the 9 but a false start penalty pushed them back. The drive ended with a turnover on downs after Malik McClain couldn’t quite haul in a contested goal-line fade from Milton while falling out of bounds. JSU’s subsequent possession resulted in an 11-play, 97-yard touchdown drive that cut the FSU lead to three points.

“Biggest thing was the penalties,” Milton said. “You keep putting yourself in those situations, it’s a recipe for disaster and we just couldn’t find a rhythm putting ourselves in situations like that.”

Most back-breaking of all was the penalty on FSU’s defensive possession after the turnover on downs. Jacksonville State faced third-and-18 from the FSU 38. Cooper’s pass was picked off by Jarvis Brownlee, which might have sealed a victory, but Kalen DeLoach’s hit on Cooper was flagged for targeting. The penalty negated the interception and gave JSU a fresh set of downs. To make matters worse, DeLoach will have to miss the first half of next week’s game at Wake Forest because of the targeting call.

Two plays later, JSU took advantage of a busted coverage in the FSU secondary, as Cooper found Ahmad Edwards wide open downfield for a 23-yard touchdown. For the second consecutive week, big plays in the passing game were another major problem for the Florida State defense. It allowed five more completions of 20-plus yards after giving up eight last week. This was against a Jacksonville State team that threw for just 91 yards last week.

“I expected a much different result and that definitely did not show up to the standard of how we want to play,” Norvell said. “I thought defensively like I said for the most part of the game, I thought we did play with good effort. I thought our guys did a nice job, but there late in the game it looked like we wore down in situations and helped extend drives for them with untimely penalties that come back to fundamental errors and just not putting ourselves in the best position to achieve success.”

Jacksonville State celebrates after scoring on the final play to beat FSU
Jacksonville State celebrates after scoring on the final play to beat FSU(247Noles)

Throughout the entire offseason, the momentum within the program seemed to be shifting. Norvell finally seemed to be turning the corner on unifying what had been a fragile locker room for the last several years. Players were finally buying into Norvell’s process. From just being at practice throughout the offseason, one could feel that there was an exuberance within the program that hadn’t been present for years.

The resilient comeback against Notre Dame last week, even if it ended in an overtime loss, provided evidence that a new era for Florida State football seemed to be emerging in Norvell’s second season. Milton suggested after Saturday’s game that the praise Florida State drew from that loss may have contributed to what transpired on Saturday.

“I think when you’re satisfied after a loss, this is the kind of stuff that happens,” Milton said. “I’m not saying like we’re okay with losing last week, but you get patted on the back for your effort and things like that, but we still lost.”

Even though the Notre Dame game resulted in a loss, FSU’s performance seemed to suggest that the days of it being noncompetitive and struggling against significantly less talented opponents like Jacksonville State were over. After Saturday though, it’s fair to question if Florida State is any further along now than it was when Norvell began his tenure last year. It’s difficult to answer where the Seminoles go from here.

“I apologize to our fanbase, to our university, to all Seminoles for the performance that we had,” Norvell said. “Take ownership of it. You go and you work. You correct the things that have to be corrected to play to the level that we’re capable of playing. This team has talent. This team has heart. They truly believe in what we can accomplish but we have to go execute it.”

Often times it can be difficult to distinguish good teams from bad teams in the first couple of weeks of the season. After last week’s overtime thriller against Notre Dame, the consensus was that Florida State is significantly improved from last year. However, with Notre Dame barely squeaking by Toledo at home earlier in the day, along with the debacle that ensued in Tallahassee later on, it seems far more likely that neither team is good.

Saturday was always going to reveal just as much as the Notre Dame game about where Florida State is in its rebuild. It’s important to look competitive against top-10 opponents, but good teams also know how to win comfortably against the teams that have a significant talent disadvantage. The latter was something Florida State had particularly struggled with in recent years, and Saturday night was an opportunity to change the narrative. It is clear though that this program’s long and arduous rebuild is a long way from over. In fact, it may not even be further along than it was three years ago. As bad of a state as the program was in back then, it never lost to an opponent like Jacksonville State.

That is the sobering reality for Florida State. This program has been so desperate to emerge from an abyss that it has not hit since the mid-70s. The Notre Dame game last week provided a glimmer of hope that a turnaround was finally happening.

But just as Florida State seemed to be heading back up, the worst had yet to come. Saturday was a new rock bottom for Florida State, and it’s time to adjust expectations for this team accordingly.

Now, that offseason program built on discipline, attention to detail and response to adversity will be tested more than ever before.

“It hurts,” Johnson said. “We can mourn on it for 24 hours, but we’ve got to shake it off…We can’t say we’re about good responses when things are going good. That’s what this whole offseason was about, so we can’t be fakes. We can’t do that. We got to put our best foot forward, have a great response, attack the next week and flush it.”

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