Another slow start and maddening inconsistency have FSU at 0-4 for first time since 1974: ‘It’s what we’ve earned.’

Florida State fell to 0-4 on the season, and 0-2 against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents,...
Florida State fell to 0-4 on the season, and 0-2 against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, with a 31-23 loss to Louisville on Saturday afternoon(247Noles)
Published: Sep. 26, 2021 at 12:04 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - It was only midway through the second quarter when thousands of seats inside of Doak Campbell Stadium began to empty. Just 50,964 fans were in attendance on Saturday afternoon, emblematic of a fanbase that understandably seems to grow more and more apathetic with each passing week. The atmosphere quickly began to feel even duller as Florida State looked to be heading towards one of its more lopsided losses in program history. Louisville had opened up a 31-7 lead with just under two minutes left in first half.

Florida State’s offense looked anemic and its defenseless was lifeless, but the Seminoles found a pulse heading into halftime. McKenzie Milton led a 5-play, 75-yard drive that saw him looking sharper than he has all year. With Florida State in desperate need of a score, he completed 4-of-5 passes for 80 yards capped off by a 23-yard touchdown strike through a tight window over the middle to Kansas transfer Andrew Parchment.

The defense then got its first stop of the game, forcing a punt after four Louisville plays to create some momentum heading into the locker room.

With Florida State trailing 31-13 after 30 minutes, head coach Mike Norvell stood in front of his team and challenged them.

“I came in at halftime and challenged the guys, continue to push them to just focus on the play that was ahead,” Norvell said after the game. “They did what I expected them to do.”

Florida State’s defense played about as poorly as a unit can possibly play in the first half. Louisville produced a score on its first five drives, four of which were touchdowns, and gashed the FSU defense for 316 yards of offense. The Cardinals ran 52 plays, possessed the ball for 20:08 and converted 8-of-10 third downs.

It was the second consecutive week that Florida State’s defense had allowed 28-plus points and over 300 yards of offense in the first half.

Then a switch flipped. Florida State’s defense came out in the second half and played the best it has played in the last several seasons. After surrendering five consecutive scoring drives to begin the game, Florida State forced punts on seven of the next eight Louisville drives. The other series resulted in a turnover on downs.

“I want that to show up for 60 minutes,” Norvell said. “That’s what I want to see, and these guys are capable, no doubt in my mind.”

When the defense finally began to find its rhythm, however, the offense was not consistent enough to finish drives. FSU compiled 273 yards of offense in the second half, often looking as explosive as they had all season, but it yielded just 10 points in the final two quarters.

Florida State had a chance to go tie the game, trailing by eight points with just under two minutes left. The Seminoles got to midfield, but then Milton was sacked and was intercepted on the next play to seal the deal. He was looking for Parchment, who had a one-on-one deep down the right sideline with Louisville’s best corner, Kei’Trel Clark, but Clark played the ball well and hauled in his third interception of the season.

“I’m gonna put that on me,” said Parchment, who finished with 5 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. “Put that mistake on me. The team brought me here to make those type of plays and I got to come down with that ball, so that’s all on me.”

The result was a comeback that fell short with Louisville holding on, 31-23, dropping Florida State to 0-4 for the first time since 1974 when they started 0-8 under Darrell Mudra.

With this Florida State team, even when one unit begins to find its groove, there is always something that prevents it from reaching its ceiling. Whether that’s drive-killing penalties, poor execution in critical situations, or one unit failing to raise its level of play when the other begins to hit its stride, Florida State just creates too many obstacles for itself to win. Other than for a brief stretch in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame, there has yet to be a time this season when all 22 players have meshed and put together a complete performance.

All season long a common theme from every time Norvell has spoken has been the failure to apply fundamentals being taught in practice to put together a full 60-minute performance on game days.

In the first half, Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham did whatever he wanted. It looked like a carbon copy of the game between these two teams at Louisville last year when the Cardinals put up 569 yards of offense and won 48-16. Cunningham scored four total touchdowns in the first half of Saturday’s game.

Slow starts continue to be a glaring issue. Saturday was the fourth time in four games this season that Florida State allowed its opponent to score first.

“I honestly can’t tell you,” FSU cornerback Jarvis Brownlee said when asked about why Florida State continues to start games slowly. “I honestly feel like it’s a team thing. You know, everybody got to be on one court. That starts from off the field. We just got to work on coming out fast, not letting people score on us…and then we realize ‘oh we got to flip the script, change the switch.’”

FSU’s offense finally started to click late in the second quarter. McKenzie Milton, who had struggled mightily to push the ball downfield the previous two weeks, started to produce some chunk plays in the passing game.

But Florida State’s defense couldn’t help them out for almost the entire first half. The Seminoles were missing a key player on the interior of its defensive line in Fabien Lovett, who stood on the sideline in street clothes all afternoon. His presence was sorely missed early in the game. Lovett is arguably FSU’s best run-defender along the defensive line and is adept at collapsing the interior of the pocket when quarterbacks drop back. With Lovett out, Cunningham had a much easier time finding rushing lanes and extending plays with his feet to find receivers downfield.

FSU’s much-maligned secondary continued to struggle initially too. On Cunningham’s first touchdown of the game, he sold a play-action fake, had all day to throw and fired a laser down the middle of the field over the top of the defense for a 59-yard score to Tyler Harrell.

“The first touchdown was absolutely – just a blown coverage,” Norvell said. “Not much reason for it. I don’t – supposed to have a deep safety. We didn’t execute very well. We gave up an early play and then as that went, I mean we couldn’t get off the field on third downs. That’s something that we have to be able to do.”

The Seminoles’ defensive backs settled down though and allowed only one more 20-yard completion the rest of the game, after allowing 16 such plays coming into Saturday. The defensive line finally started to get penetration in the second half, linebackers and defensive backs were flying to the ball and Cunningham looked like a much more ordinary quarterback than the one that shredded the Seminoles in the first two quarters.

Louisville had only 79 total yards in the second half and converted just 1-of-8 third downs. It averaged 2.7 yards per play. Of the Cardinals’ eight second-half drives, only one lasted more than five plays. It was a dominant second-half turnaround by Florida State’s defense.

“We knew what the game plan was,” Brownlee. “We knew Louisville, you know, Cunningham, he was going to come in here, read option, try to run the ball a lot because that’s mainly what their offense is…It was a lot of miscommunication, I want to say, a lot of mistakes we made in the first half. I think that’s why we came out so hard and so tough like that in the second half because we knew the mistakes we was making wasn’t catching us off guard. This is stuff that we saw on film.”

But as the Florida State defense continued to compile key stops and give its offense a chance to win the game, the Seminoles couldn’t capitalize.

After Jashaun Corbin burst for a 75-yard touchdown on Florida State’s second play from scrimmage in the second half, the Seminoles offense stalled. They moved the ball reasonably well but continued to hurt themselves with a combination of pre-snap penalties, poor execution up front and an inability to convert third downs. Florida State was just 2-of-9 on third downs in the second half.

“It comes down to third downs,” Milton said. “You know, situations you’ve got to convert. Simple as that.”

Corbin had a career-high 159 yards on just 11 carries. It seemed like every time Florida State’s offensive line could give him a lane to the second level, he churned out a huge run. That just didn’t happen often enough. Corbin had a combined 132 on three carries but had just 27 yards on his other eight attempts.

Florida State was hopeful it could get two starters on the offensive line back. While starting center Maurice Smith was out again, starting right tackle Robert Scott did return to the lineup. Rather than bolstering Florida State’s offensive line, Scott was a liability in pass protection all afternoon, allowing three of the six sacks on Milton in the game.

“Yeah, I think (the offensive line) did a good job today,” Milton said. “I think there might have been times where I created the pressure…but I thought they did a good job in the run game and pass game, keeping me upright.”

The sack Milton took before he threw the interception at the end of the game was on him. The offensive line gave him good protection up front but he held the ball too long and eventually went down with the Seminoles having no timeouts remaining. Milton completed 24-of-39 passes for a season-high of 248 yards.

Scott was beat badly several times on the edge, but the rest of Florida State’s offensive line mostly protected Milton well, and the team averaged a productive 5.7 yards per rush. There was definitely some growth as a whole.

Another positive is that Florida State finally had the same five offensive linemen play the entire game. However, chemistry in the trenches is not built in one game. It takes time for guys up front to gel and be a reliable foundation for an offense. Florida State’s offensive still has a long way to go, even when it is fully healthy.

“Rob really pushed hard to be available for this game,” Norvell said. “There’s some things that we got to continue to do as we’re growing up up front. Those guys are battling. We’re struggling a little bit in our depth right now, but we just got to continue to push there.”

Like the Notre Dame game, Florida State made a valiant effort to make things interesting in the second half. Saturday was a game that in years past they might have rolled over after being faced with a 24-point deficit. 0-4 is 0-4 though, and it’s a position Florida State has rarely seen itself in throughout its history.

“At the end of the day, we play to win the game,” Milton said. “We don’t go through practicing Sunday through Friday to come up short, and we feel that pain every time. Past four games, we feel that pain, so there’s no moral victories here. We play to win the game.”

The Notre Dame game offered a glimmer of hope that Norvell was ahead of schedule in Florida State’s rebuild and that brighter days were coming sooner rather than later. The last three weeks though have rendered that sentiment moot. The Seminoles are a long way from being a nationally prominent program again.

While there were some encouraging elements to Florida State’s second-half comeback, the bottom line is that there are still too many self-inflicted errors sprinkled throughout 60 minutes of game time to win.

One unit putting together a strong half is not enough to climb out of an early deep hole. Both sides of the ball for Florida State have yet to consistently play at a high level simultaneously for long stretches during a game. That’s why the Seminoles find themselves in a position they haven’t been in for 47 years.

“The things that are still showing up and showed up there in the first half especially were just in the moment and a lack of translation to the field. Then for whatever reason there in the second half, we did. We played how we were capable of…We see flashes of it…We’ve just yet to put it together for 60 minutes and that’s our job…The record, it’s where we are. It’s what we’ve earned.”

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