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FSU first-and-10: The key matchups and storylines vs. Louisville, plus a prediction

Oct 24, 2020; Louisville, Kentucky, USA;  Florida State Seminoles running back Jashaun Corbin...
Oct 24, 2020; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; Florida State Seminoles running back Jashaun Corbin (0) runs the ball against Louisville Cardinals linebacker C.J. Avery (9) during the first half of play at Cardinal Stadium. Jamie Rhodes-ACC Pool(Jamie Rhodes | Atlantic Coast Conference)
Published: Sep. 24, 2021 at 8:48 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Florida State (0-3, 0-1 ACC) returns home this Saturday after a 35-14 loss at Wake Forest in its ACC season-opener last weekend. The Seminoles welcome the Louisville Cardinals (2-1, 0-0 ACC), who are coming off a thrilling 45-35 victory at home over UCF.

With another loss, the Seminoles would drop to 0-4 for the first time since 1974 when they started 0-8 under Darrell Mudra.

Florida State leads the all-time series 16-5, which includes a 10-3 record when the teams meet at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Seminoles won the last matchup at Doak back in 2019, 35-24, but the Cardinals had the upper hand when the two teams met last season, winning 48-16.

Saturday will be a matchup between two coaches who are still quite new to their respective programs. Mike Norvell is in his second season leading Florida State, which is just 3-9 since he took over the job. Meanwhile, Scott Satterfield is in his third year with Louisville after a highly successful five-year stint at Appalachian State, where he went 47-16. The Cardinals were 8-5 in his first season in 2019 before sliding to 4-7 last year.

Florida State is currently a 1.5-point underdog. The game will be televised on ESPN2 at 3:30 p.m. Here are some key matchups and storylines to watch for on Saturday, plus a prediction.

1. Florida State is still searching for answers on which quarterback can most effectively run its offense. Jordan Travis started in Week 1 against Notre Dame before his helmet was knocked off and the Seminoles were forced to turn to McKenzie Milton. Milton sparked a fourth-quarter comeback and took the snaps for the rest of the game.

Against Jacksonville State, Milton made his first start since his gruesome leg injury on Nov. 23, 2018, and took the majority of the reps. For one series, Florida State had both quarterbacks on the field simultaneously for several consecutive plays, but the gimmick did not yield any production.

Last week, Milton started again and rotated drives with Travis for FSU’s first four series. Travis was the primary quarterback from the fourth drive on, and he led two touchdown drives before exiting in the third quarter with a right shoulder injury.

Travis was limited in practice all week and it is unclear if he will be available this Saturday. Milton was listed as the starting quarterback on this week’s depth chart again, and if Travis is out, Norvell said redshirt freshman Chubba Purdy will be the backup option.

Travis and Milton’s strengths and weaknesses are well-defined at this point. Travis is a much more dynamic athlete but is not quite as refined from the pocket as Milton, who excels more at going through his progressions and throwing with precision on underneath and intermediate routes. Travis throws a significantly better deep ball though, and although there is a higher degree of variance with Travis in the game, the Florida State offense has the ability to be much more explosive with him taking snaps.

Milton’s longest completion of the season is only 22 yards and it came on his first pass three weeks ago. He has produced only one other completion of 20 yards and is averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt.

On the contrary, Travis has produced four such completions, two of which have gone for over 60 yards. He has done that on 26 fewer attempts than Milton. However, Travis has completed only 14 of his 28 throws this season, which is well below Milton’s 63 percent completion rate.

One of the other issues with Travis has been his tendency to hold onto the ball too long. He’s been sacked seven times already to Milton’s one. Travis has to do a better job at being more decisive with the ball in his hands to avoid absorbing big hits. That caused him to miss some time last year, and it may cost him this week too.

Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham have a difficult job on their plate this year with two quarterbacks who have drastically different skillsets. They have not found the optimal balance with both yet, and it is a challenge they’ll likely have to juggle all year.

2. There’s no question that Florida State has been much more effective running the ball than throwing through its first three games. The Seminoles are fifth in the ACC in rushing at 185.7 yards per game.

On paper, they match up well against a Louisville team that has allowed 162 rushing yards per game, which ranks just 12th in the ACC. However, when looking deeper, those two figures above are a bit misleading.

Florida State’s yards per rush average of 4.9 comes with a significant outlier in Jashaun Corbin’s 89-yard carry against Notre Dame. Take that run away, and Florida State ranks just 10th in the ACC at 4.1 yards per carry. The FSU offense has produced only two other runs of 20-plus yards this season. That does not bode well against a Louisville defense that has allowed just one such run in its first three contests.

Louisville’s defensive stats, in general, are a bit misleading. Yes, the Cardinals are 12th in the ACC in total defense and last in opponent yards per play, but they are the only team in the country that has played two teams that rank in the top-10 nationally in total offense (Ole Miss, UCF). Louisville held its other opponent, Eastern Kentucky, to just 235 yards of offense and three points.

3. It will be interesting to see if Norvell and Dillingham continue to stick with splitting carries among three running backs this weekend. Corbin leads the team with 37 carries, while Treshaun Ward has 25 and Lawrance Toafili has 18.

Corbin and Ward have combined to average 7.2 yards per carry this season. But the staff still seems committed to getting Toafili touches even though he is averaging a pedestrian 3.2 yards per rush. It is a small sample size, but it has been surprising to see how ineffective he has been after averaging 9.6 yards per rush last season. He showed great potential as a true freshman in 2020, but at what point does FSU decide to give more touches to Corbin and Ward if Toafili continues to not produce?

Ward especially seems to be warranting more touches. He has clearly been Florida State’s most productive all-around back this season. He is currently Pro Football Focus’ eighth-highest graded running back this year. He’s been productive at getting downhill between the tackles and has the shiftiness to make defenders miss in space. He also showed last week he can be a weapon as a pass-catcher, and he’s graded as one of the best pass-protecting running backs in the country too.

4. One more note on the running backs. There was a clear emphasis in last week’s game to get them more involved in the passing game. That’s been a staple of Norvell’s offense throughout his coaching career, but other than a 60-yard touchdown pass against Notre Dame to Ja’Khi Douglas, the running backs weren’t particularly involved as receivers until the Wake Forest game.

Corbin, Ward and Toafili combined for 6 catches, 86 yards and a touchdown last week. In the previous two games, that group had just five catches for 11 yards, and Ward was not targeted. Ward of course had a nifty 17-yard catch and run followed by an 8-yard touchdown reception later.

UCF did not utilize their running backs in the passing game very often against Louisville last week, but Ole Miss running back Jerrion Ealy had 3 catches for 51 yards against the Cardinals defense in Week 1.

This is an area that could help the Seminoles jumpstart their passing game. Their offensive line overall has improved in pass protection, but it is still not an elite group. Florida State’s wide receivers also have mostly struggled to create separation downfield. One way to mitigate those two factors is to move the running backs around the field and devise different ways to get them the ball in space. Corbin has shown some elite speed in the open field this year, while Ward proved he can be dangerous as a receiver last week too. Toafili showed he can be that type of player last year too, even if the same ability has yet to materialize in 2021. We’ll see if Norvell continues to get them involved through the air this week.

5. Arguably Florida State’s most vulnerable area so far this season has been its penchant to allow chunk plays in the passing game. The Seminoles have already allowed 16 pass plays of 20-plus yards, while Louisville’s offense has produced 12 such plays.

Among 1,273 qualified FBS defensive backs this season, three of FSU’s corners have rated among the worst in the country at allowing explosive plays. Jarvis Brownlee has allowed five completions of 20 yards or more, most notably the game-winning 59-yard score against Jacksonville State. Travis Jay, despite all of his athleticism, has allowed three of those and Jarrian Jones has allowed two. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a staggering 97.9 NFL passer rating when targeting Jones, per Tru Media via PFF.

Norvell acknowledged in practice this week that FSU must be better at corner and that several younger guys are pushing for playing time. The most notable of that group is true freshman Kevin Knowles, who has already seen the field quite a bit and has acquitted himself well. Per PFF, he is fourth nationally in coverage snaps per reception allowed (56.0).

South Carolina transfer Jammie Robinson has also played well, posting a 76.9 coverage grade that leads the team. He’s more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive back type of player, but it’s possible he could be relied on in coverage more if others continue to struggle.

Omarion Cooper and Shyheim Brown are two other true freshmen that the staff really likes. Don’t be surprised if they get more snaps this week.

Of the three power five teams on FSU’s schedule to this point, Louisville probably has the weakest group of receivers, especially with Tutu Atwell moving on to the NFL. However, the Cardinals still have some weapons led by a quality tight end in Marshon Ford and a couple of young, dynamic receivers in Jordan Watkins and Braden Smith.

6. Here is another storyline to watch in the Florida State secondary this week. Starting safety Sidney Williams will miss the first half of the Louisville game due to a targeting penalty he committed in the second half against Wake Forest last week.

With Williams out, Brendan Gant will likely start in the buck spot, but he has struggled this season. There is a good chance we could see Brown assume significant playing time, based on Norvell’s comments earlier this week about needing better play in the secondary.

Williams has been a bit lost in coverage at times to start this season, but that is normal for an inexperienced player. Where he has added value is both as a run stopper and as a pass rusher. Against a very athletic quarterback like Louisville’s Malik Cunningham, his void could be felt in the first half of Saturday’s game.

7. Speaking of Cunningham, he is easily the best dual-threat quarterback that Florida State will have faced yet this year. There are very few quarterbacks in the country that are a greater threat on the ground than he is. Last week against UCF, he tallied 99 rushing yards on just 13 carries.

Florida State limited him to just 40 rushing yards when the two teams met last season, but he torched the Seminoles through the air, throwing for 278 yards on just 24 attempts (11.6 yards per attempt). Cunningham has not been as efficient throwing the ball this year so far, as he’s still adjusting to life without Atwell, but he is still a problematic matchup for FSU’s struggling secondary.

Florida State struggled mightily with dual-threat quarterbacks like Cunningham last season. Jeff Sims (Georgia Tech), D’Eriq King (Miami), Kenny Pickett (Pitt) and Cunningham combined for 1,194 yards and 6 touchdowns against the Seminoles in 2020.

Florida State might be better equipped to slow down a quarterback like Cunningham this season because of its improvement in the front seven. FSU’s defensive tackle trio of Robert Cooper, Fabien Lovett and Dennis Briggs, Jr. have all played pretty well. Cooper and Lovett have been very solid against the run, while Briggs has been effective as a pass rusher with his quickness on the interior. Jermaine Johnson has also played like one of the best defensive ends in the country.

Also, for all of the big plays in the passing game the secondary has allowed, Brownlee, Jones and Renardo Green have all posted PFF grades above 70.0 against the run, which is a starter-caliber level.

Saturday will be the Seminoles’ first true test to see if they are better equipped to defend dual-threat quarterbacks.

8. Johnson could be in line for another big day against a decent but not spectacular Louisville offensive line. The matchup between him and Louisville offensive tackles Renato Brown and Trevor Reid should be one that favors Florida State. Brown has played pretty well on the right side but Reid has struggled a bit this year.

Johnson continues to be a terrific addition for Norvell out of the transfer portal this offseason. The former Georgia Bulldog is leading the nation with 7.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks in an increased role this season with Florida State.

Another defensive end who has emerged over the past couple of weeks is Derrick McLendon. He’s posted 1.5 tackles for loss in each of the last two games off the bench. He’ll need to play well again against a dangerous backfield duo in Cunningham and Jalen Mitchell.

Louisville ranks just ninth in the ACC in rushing and is clearly still finding its way without Javian Hawkins, its best running back from last season.

The Cardinals have generated only three runs of 20 or more yards this season, while Florida State has allowed just one such rush. Mitchell averaged 6.7 yards per carry last season though so there is still some big-play potential with him and Cunningham in the backfield.

9. Florida State’s offensive line depth will be something to watch again this week. Starting center Maurice Smith and right tackle Robert Scott missed the last two games with undisclosed injuries. Scott did practice this week and it looks like he could be available.

Louisville’s defensive line is not a particularly imposing group with only 14 tackles for loss and 5 sacks on the season, but it is difficult for any offensive line to have success with so much shuffling throughout the unit.

Scott’s reinsertion back into the lineup would be huge for FSU, which was very thin up front last week with him and Smith out, along with top interior reserve Dontae Lucas leaving the program. Guard Thomas Shrader has also been unavailable all season due to injury, so the Seminoles are walking on thin ice with their offensive line group.

Offensive line coach Alex Atkins said earlier this week that he can’t recall another time in his career that he’s seen this many players be sidelined with injuries.

Last week, redshirt freshman Zane Herring made his FSU debut at right guard after backup center Baveon Johnson briefly left the game with an injury. Left tackle Darius Washington moved to center in Johnson’s absence. It was interesting to hear Atkins say that of all the players who have taken reps at center, Washington has been the most consistent at snapping the ball. That has been an area of concern for both Smith and Johnson at times going all the way back to spring ball.

It’s been difficult for Florida State to build any continuity along the offensive line with so many moving parts through the first few weeks.

10. Florida State ranks last in the ACC in time of possession (25:43), while Louisville ranks first in the conference in that category (33:17). Florida State is going to have to sustain drives more consistently against Louisville to give its defense more time to rest. Cunningham is not the type of quarterback that a defense wants to be chasing all over the field for 35 minutes of game time.

Part of the reason for FSU’s failure to maintain possession is that it has yet to score first in each of its three games this season. The Seminoles have an offense that needs to rely on its run game, but that is difficult to sustain when constantly facing early deficits. Florida State does not have the personnel to play from behind and keep pace in high-scoring affairs with its passing game. If the Seminoles can start quickly against Louisville, they can rely on their ground game a bit more and accumulate more time of possession to give their defense some rest.

The other major contributor to Florida State’s poor time of possession numbers has been its inability to convert on third downs. Its 36.1 percent conversion rate is the worst in the ACC.

Through the first couple of weeks, one of the main roots of the issue was the lack of productivity on first downs. Against Notre Dame, FSU averaged just 3.3 yards per play on first down, which resulted in an average third-down distance of 8.1 yards. That’s not a formula for any offense to convert third downs at a high rate.

The Seminoles have improved on first downs over the last two weeks, averaging 4.9 yards on such plays against Jacksonville State and 8.5 yards against Wake Forest. Last week, FSU’s average distance on third downs was a much more manageable 4.2 yards, but it still converted only 1-of-6 chances. The Seminoles allowed two third-down sacks and had -3 rushing yards on two attempts. The execution has to be better.

Final Thoughts

This Louisville team doesn’t quite have the same level of athleticism at the skill positions as the one that crushed Florida State at home last year.

This game was one of the lowest points of FSU’s first season under Norvell, and with much of the same core returning, the Seminoles probably had this one circled on the calendar.

A key for Florida State will be remaining healthy on the offensive line in order to avoid further dipping into the depth chart and establishing some continuity. It will have a much better chance to run the ball effectively if that happens. That will especially be critical if Travis is unavailable. Travis gives the Seminoles another option to produce chunk plays on the ground, but Milton does not offer the same kind of dual-threat ability.

If Florida State needs to continue moving pieces on the offensive line without Travis, then Louisville can load the box and force Milton and an underwhelming group of receivers to beat them downfield. FSU hasn’t shown the ability to do that with Milton running the offense yet.

Cunningham’s supporting cast is weaker than it was last year, but he is the kind of quarterback that has given Florida State plenty of trouble recently. The Cardinals are also battle-tested, having faced two potent offenses already. Florida State is desperate right now, hoping to avoid dropping to 0-4 for the first time in nearly 50 years, but the Seminoles just don’t have the same type of athletes on offense that Louisville has faced.

Florida State should be able to slow down Louisville’s ground game, but Cunningham will make enough plays on his own to lead Louisville to a victory on the road.

Prediction: Louisville 31, Florida State 24

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