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Florida State continues to make self-inflicted errors in critical moments: Upon further review

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, center top, dives into the end zone for a two-point...
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, center top, dives into the end zone for a two-point conversion against Florida State during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)(Chris Carlson | AP)
Published: Sep. 20, 2021 at 10:50 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - All of the optimism that permeated Florida State’s program throughout the offseason and after the overtime loss to Notre Dame to open the season has seemingly vanished. Just two weeks ago, the Seminoles seemed poised for substantial improvement in Mike Norvell’s second season at the helm after three consecutive losing seasons. Now, there’s a distinct possibility that Florida State could be heading for its worst season since Jimbo Fisher left at the end of 2016.

Florida State’s 35-14 loss at Wake Forest on Saturday dropped the Seminoles to 0-3 for the first time since 1976. The last two weeks have unveiled significant flaws up and down the roster after such a promising performance in Week 1.

FSU still does not have a clear answer at quarterback with Jordan Travis and McKenzie Milton each showing flashes but not being consistent enough to separate from the other. The Seminoles still have major issues along the offensive line and lack playmaking in their receiving corps. In addition, the secondary continues to allow too many explosive plays in the passing game, while the defensive line has underwhelmed the past two weeks after an impressive first game.

There is still plenty of time for FSU to flip the script, but with each passing day, it’s becoming more difficult to imagine the Seminoles avoiding a fourth-consecutive losing season. That has happened only twice in program history (1959-1963, 1973-1976).

Here are some observations from Saturday after re-watching the game.

Critical penalties loom large again

Arguably the single-greatest concern with Florida State coming into this week was the number of penalties on both sides of the ball. Norvell has repeatedly emphasized over the past couple of weeks that the Seminoles are making too many self-inflicted errors in critical situations on both sides of the ball.

Florida State came into Saturday leading the ACC in both penalties and penalty yards. That was a concern against a Wake Forest team that was one of the most lightly-penalized teams in the nation through two weeks. Florida State committed seven more penalties on Saturday, an improvement from its first two weeks. That number was actually one less than what Wake Forest committed Saturday, but two of them, in particular, occurred in pivotal situations and resulted in serious damage.

The first of which came with 5:43 left in the first quarter on a Wake Forest punt when Darion Williamson drew a flag for roughing the kicker. Williamson shot through the A-gap at the line of scrimmage but appeared to lose his footing on his way around the final blocker in front of the punter. Williamson has played only six games in his career, and that penalty was just a case of an inexperienced player being a bit overaggressive.

The penalty extended the Wake Forest drive, giving it an extra set of downs from the FSU 47. The Demon Deacons would score five plays later to take a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter.

The other back-breaking penalty was a bit more controversial but still very costly. With just over 12 minutes left in the second quarter, Wake Forest was faced with 3rd-and-14 from the FSU 36.

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman makes a quick read and takes the routine completion underneath short of the marker. Jarrian Jones does a nice job to come up and quickly make the tackle, but he holds onto Taylor Morin too long after the play was blown dead and draws an unnecessary roughness penalty to give Wake a fresh set of downs. The Demon Deacons would find the end zone three plays later to extend their lead to 21-7.

Yes, the flag was debatable. Jones did not maliciously toss Morin to the ground. It was mostly a case of Morin just losing his footing, which causes the hit to look much more egregious live than it does after watching the replay several times. However, there is no need to still have the receiver wrapped up for that long. Jones is still holding Morin after they are several feet out of bounds and then lets go of him while his momentum is moving toward the bench. That partially contributes to Morin losing his footing. One can argue that a personal foul penalty was unwarranted, but Jones has to know better in that critical of a situation. He was beaten deep for a touchdown earlier in the game, so that could have just been a frustration penalty.

Norvell has said numerous times dating back to spring ball that Florida State is an emotional team and that they still need to work on eliminating these kinds of mental errors. That play was a great example. What’s disheartening is that Florida State has routinely made these types of mistakes for the last several years and that this was an area that was supposed to be improved with Norvell having a full normal offseason. Three games in, Norvell still clearly has plenty of work to do in that department.

Finally, Sidney Williams was ejected for targeting midway through the third quarter.

The targeting rule is incredibly flawed in that intent is not measured in these types of plays. There is no indication that Williams is attempting to make a dirty hit on the ball carrier here, which is why the subsequent ejection is unfortunate. However, a rule, even if imperfect, is still a rule, and by the letter of the law, this was the correct call. Williams clearly initiates contact to the head area with the crown of his helmet. This play is exactly the type of dangerous impact that the targeting rule seeks to eliminate from the game.

Wake Forest was up 27-14 by that point and did not seem to be in any danger of squandering the lead. The more pressing issue for Florida State is that Williams will also miss the first half of next week’s game against Louisville. It will be the second week in a row that a key defensive starter will have to sit out the first half of a conference game because of a targeting penalty.

The intent of the rule is understandable, but it needs to be revised so that players, who clearly aren’t making hits like this one with malicious intent, don’t have to be ejected and miss the first half of the team’s following game. With that being said, the Seminoles continued to get burned by these types of repeated errors.

Turnovers

Florida State committed a whopping six turnovers in the game, and it is lucky Wake Forest scored just 13 points off of them. Otherwise, the final score would have been much more lopsided than three touchdowns.

The Seminoles moved the ball fairly well throughout the day, averaging 6.2 yards per play on the afternoon, but self-inflicted errors again plagued them.

Jashaun Corbin has had an excellent start to the season, but his fumble on Florida State’s first drive of the game led to Wake Forest’s first score. That created some early momentum that the Seminoles never regained.

Norvell has consistently preached ball security since his arrival at Florida State last year. Such emphasis has been noticeable at the beginning of every practice when the coaching staff has each of the skill position players carry a ball in their arm during stretching, while coaches walk around and attempt to knock the ball out.

Corbin gets a little loose with the ball here in traffic, which allows a defensive lineman to reach out and force the fumble. Preferably, Corbin should have his right arm on top of the ball too in order to create some extra protection or tuck the ball closer to his body until he runs through the hole. Those are fundamentals that Florida State has worked on every day under Norvell. After losses, a common theme he’s mentioned has been a failure to apply fundamentals being taught in practice towards games. Here was another example of that.

Milton, who started at quarterback for the second straight week, also committed three turnovers of his own. On one of his two interceptions, he was late on a crossing route to Corbin, which allowed the defensive back to undercut the route and come up with the pick.

His other pick was simply a case of forcing the ball downfield midway through the fourth quarter with FSU down by three touchdowns and in desperate need of a big play. That’s probably not a throw Milton would make under normal circumstances.

Does this play look familiar?

If you watched Wake Forest’s first touchdown of the game and thought that it looked like a similar play Jacksonville State ran on the last play of the game last week, you were not alone.

Wake Forest receiver A.T. Perry just runs a straight fly route down the right sideline. Jones is completely beat at the line of scrimmage and gives Perry almost no resistance in his path to get downfield.

Meanwhile, Hartman does a nice job manipulating Williams, the safety, with his eyes to create more space for Perry over the top. Just like last week, Williams gets pulled too far over to the other side and is late on getting over to help over the top.

Dave Clawson and Wake Forest clearly paid attention to the game-winning play against Jacksonville State during their film study and saw an advantage. They were right. Norvell said early last week that Wake might be the best-coached team on FSU’s schedule this year. That was just a great example of Wake creating a favorable one-on-one matchup with one of its top receivers against a much smaller corner by taking an inexperienced safety in Williams out of the picture.

Florida State’s secondary continues to have issues limiting big plays through the air. The Seminoles have now allowed 16 passing plays of 20-plus yards through three weeks.

Treshaun Ward needs more touches

Florida State averaged just 3.2 yards per rush against Wake Forest, which was well below its average of 5.5 coming into the weekend. However, Treshaun Ward was effective once again in limited action 48 yards on just 6 carries. Corbin’s elite top-end speed makes him a better home run threat, but Ward has been Florida State’s most consistent back through three weeks.

He has shown advanced vision and patience and does a great job exploding through the hole once there is space available. It was also nice to see Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham get him involved in the passing game a bit. He added 3 catches for 34 yards and his first-career touchdown reception against Wake Forest.

Much like last week, it was puzzling to see how little Ward was used throughout long stretches of the game. Florida State gave him just nine total touches on Saturday, which included zero in the second and fourth quarters. That was partly the result of Florida State being down by three scores during the entire final quarter.

The Seminoles have rotated three different backs into their first three games with Corbin, Ward and Lawrance Toafili. The idea is to keep all three of them fresh late in the game, but Toafili has been a surprising non-factor so far this season. It seems like Florida State is just forcing the issue to get him the ball even though it has been ineffective. He is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry after registering 9.6 yards per rush last season. At what point does Norvell trim the rotation and rely more on Corbin and Ward? Those two have been far more impactful when in the game than Toafili.

Offense looks more explosive with Travis at quarterback

Travis was the starter in Week 1 against Notre Dame, but Milton has assumed that role the past two weeks.

Milton provided a spark late in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame, but he has struggled in his two starts, especially with generating explosive plays down the field. Over the last two games, Milton has completed only one pass over 20 yards.

Travis, meanwhile, had two such completions in just six attempts against Wake Forest, including this beautiful toss for a score to Ontaria Wilson.

Travis got his first opportunity to run the offense on FSU’s second series, which saw the Seminoles go three-and-out. He came back in for Florida State’s fourth series and led a 7-play, 75-yard touchdown drive after the Seminoles ran just eight plays combined on their three previous drives. Travis took the bulk of the snaps from that point until he was sacked early in the third quarter and did not return with a shoulder injury.

One of the main criticisms with Travis dating back to last season is that he has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, which can cause him to take hard hits. He missed plenty of action last week and now could miss more time with the shoulder injury.

He is not nearly as comfortable as Milton throwing the ball from the pocket, particularly under pressure, but his athleticism and deep ball accuracy give Florida State’s offense an explosive element that Milton has not been able to provide.

Offensive line rotation

Florida State was very shorthanded up front this week with left tackle Robert Scott and center Maurice Smith both out with injuries. In addition, Dontae Lucas, FSU’s top reserve at guard coming into the season, left the program early last week, so the Seminoles had a dearth of options along the interior.

The starting group Saturday included the following: LT Darius Washington, LG Dillan Gibbons, C Baveon Johnson, RG Devontay Love-Taylor and RT Brady Scott.

Johnson briefly left the game with an injury in the first quarter. With him out, Washington took over reps at center, while Scott moved to left tackle, Love-Taylor shifted to right tackle and Zane Herring was inserted at right tackle.

The good news was Florida State left Wake Forest with no additional health issues up front.

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