Game preview: FSU seeking first win of season against Syracuse

Courtesy: Greg Oyster | 247Sports
Courtesy: Greg Oyster | 247Sports(WCTV)
Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 8:48 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - It has been a frustrating start to the 2021 season for Florida State after an offseason filled with optimism and hope that this year could be the beginning of the path towards the next great era of FSU football. Four games in though, and the Seminoles are still winless, marking their worst start in program history since 1974.

The frustration was palpable at Mike Norvell’s weekly press conference on Monday. He spent his final five minutes at the podium addressing a question about the message he is selling recruits after an 0-4 start and if he can sell that the program is improving even if the results on the field aren’t showing it.

“They watch the games too. They see the opportunity for themselves. They see the opportunity and they have a belief in who they are. That’s what I want to be around. It’s easy to maybe go an easier route, something that is established…They’re going to have to defend, ‘Well, why are you going there?’ Because it’s the best dang fit for them. It’s an opportunity where they’re going to get pushed, they’re gonna get developed, they’re gonna have an opportunity to play at one of the greatest places in the country with a wonderful fanbase that cares.”

It has been a while since Florida State has provided a product on the field that has truly enlivened the fanbase, and recent attendance reflects a growing sense of apathy about this program.

Doak Campbell Stadium has a capacity of nearly 80,000 people. Florida State’s season-opener against a top-10 opponent in Notre Dame drew a respectable but not spectacular 68,316 people. As the losses continue to pile up, fan interest continues to wane. Last week’s loss against Louisville saw just 50,964 people in attendance.

Florida State has not registered a winning season since 2017. The last time the program went that long without finishing above .500 was in 1976, which was the late Bobby Bowden’s first year as FSU’s head coach.

This is the same program that is just eight years removed from a national title, and even more recently, being a perennial double-digit-win team. FSU fans simply are not accustomed to the level of instability that has permeated the program they support over the past several years. They are passionate fans, but it is difficult to remain invested when a program continues to underachieve. Norvell knows this, and that is why the frustration is mounting.

“I’m pissed off that we’re 0-4,” he continued. “We can bring up how many years it’s been, I don’t really care. I can’t control that. I can control this team at this moment and right now with the opportunity. So, we’re gonna work our butts off to go get better and we’re going to do it the right way…That’s the team I want because I’ve seen it work.”

The good news is that Florida State currently owns a top-10 recruiting class and numerous prized members of the class have publicly reaffirmed their commitments even as the Seminoles continue to slide.

However, Florida State needs to start showing progress. The idea that certain prospects could be the missing pieces to turning a program around can be a powerful recruiting tool, but the Seminoles need to start showing that they have a realistic chance to attain national prominence again during the time that members of the 2022 recruiting class will be with the program.

The only way to do that is to start winning more games, starting this week when Florida State hosts Syracuse. Norvell believes FSU is close to turning the corner, but even defensive end Jermaine Johnson said following last week’s game that eventually the potential needs to start translating into results.

Florida State has dominated the all-time series against Syracuse, posting an 11-2 record against the Orange. That includes a perfect 6-0 mark in Tallahassee. The last time these two teams met was back in 2019 when Cam Akers scored four touchdowns en route to a 35-17 Florida State win at Doak Campbell Stadium.

Last week the Seminoles nearly overcame a 31-7 deficit against Louisville but ultimately fell short in a 31-23 loss. FSU’s defense will enter this weekend with a bit of momentum after shutting out the Cardinals in the second half of last week’s game and limiting them to just 79 yards of offense.

Dino Babers’ Syracuse squad is seeking its third-straight win after an impressive victory at home last week against Liberty.

Saturday’s game will be televised on the ACC Network at 3:30 p.m. ET.

What to watch for when FSU has the ball

McKenzie Milton had his best game in a Florida State uniform against Louisville last week, completing 24 of 39 passes for 248 yards, along with a touchdown and an interception. Milton had four completions of 20-plus yards last week after generating only two such plays in the previous three weeks combined. However, he still missed a few routine throws, including a couple of third downs that would have extended drives.

Jordan Travis missed last week’s game with a shoulder injury and it is not clear if he will be available against Syracuse. Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham have had a difficult time trying to balance the skillsets of their two very different quarterbacks when Travis has been healthy. Milton is the more efficient passer, but Travis is more dangerous as a runner and throws a better deep ball.

Last week was the most that wide receivers Andrew Parchment and Ontaria Wilson have been involved in the passing game this season. The duo combined for 10 catches, 130 yards and a touchdown. The Seminoles need more from Keyshawn Helton though. He was arguably FSU’s most consistent receiver throughout the offseason, but after recording four catches for 53 yards in Week 1 against Notre Dame, he has just one catch in the three games since then.

Florida State’s bread and butter on offense has been on the ground, led by two of the best running backs in the ACC in Jashaun Corbin and Treshaun Ward. Corbin had a career-high 159 yards on just 11 carries last week and rattled off four runs of 20-plus yards. That included an electric 75-yard touchdown run at the start of the third quarter. Corbin leads the ACC with 9.1 yards per carry. Ward is seventh in the conference with 6.3 yards per rush.

Florida State’s offensive line appears to be improving steadily, but this group still has plenty of issues in run blocking. The Seminoles have nine runs of 20-plus yards this season, but they are averaging a pedestrian 3.01 yards per rush on runs that do not eclipse more than 20 yards.

They’ve been slightly better in pass protection with Dillan Gibbons and Darius Washington both grading out very well in that department.

Florida State’s offensive line will have its hands full against a Syracuse defensive front that has performed like one of the best in the nation so far, albeit against less than stellar competition. Nonetheless, the Orange are second nationally in tackles for loss per game (9.8) and third nationally in sacks per game (4.5). The leader of that group is defensive end Cody Roscoe, who has 5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss, both of which lead the ACC. Three other Syracuse players have at least two sacks this season. The Orange

Syracuse also boasts a trio of solid corners in Darion Chestnut, Adrian Cole and Garrett Williams. Florida State’s wide receiver group has often struggled to separate in coverage this season, and they will have a major test against this secondary on Saturday.

The Orange did a solid job last week of holding Liberty quarterback, Malik Willis, in check. Willis completed 14 of 19 passes for 205 yards and 3 touchdowns, but the Orange limited him to just 49 rushing yards on 17 attempts.

The Syracuse defense ranks second in the ACC in total defense (261.3), second in the ACC against the run (85.3) and third in the ACC against the pass (176.0).

What to watch for when FSU is on defense

The difference between Florida State’s defense in the first half and second half of last week’s game against Louisville was night and day. The Seminoles allowed 31 points, 316 total yards and 8 of 10 third-down conversions in the first half of last week’s game. In the final 30 minutes, they allowed zero points, only 79 yards and held Louisville to just 1 of 8 on third downs.

Florida State’s defensive front matches up very well with Syracuse’s offensive line. Offensive tackle Matthew Bergeron is the only player on the Syracuse offensive line that Pro Football Focus grades as above average at his position. Everyone else rates as a replacement-level player. That bodes well for a Florida State defense that ranks in the top-30 nationally in both sacks per game (3.25) and tackles for loss (7.2).

Like Florida State, Syracuse has a bit of a quarterback conundrum of its own. Tommy DeVito was Syracuse’s Week 1 starter, but the Orange went with Garrett Shrader last week in their win over Liberty. DeVito is a better passer, but Shrader adds an element on the ground that DeVito does not provide. No matter who is playing quarterback, Syracuse has not been an explosive team through the air at all this season. The Orange are 13th in the ACC in passing at 176.3 yards per game and have found the end zone through the air just twice all season.

The Orange do not possess many explosive threats on the perimeter either. Taj Harris is the team’s leading receiver with 171 yards, but his 10.7 yards per reception ranks only 24th in the ACC.

As much as Florida State’s secondary has struggled this season, Syracuse does not pose a lot of matchup problems in the passing game. The Seminoles rank dead last in the ACC in passing defense (282.8), but other than a 59-yard touchdown pass allowed on the first drive of the game, they were much better last week.

Florida State entered last week having allowed a whopping 16 pass plays of 20 yards or more, but it allowed only two last week. It also limited Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham to just 37 passing yards over the final 30 minutes of action. Whether that was an anomaly or a harbinger remains to be seen, but the Louisville passing attack is much more dynamic than the one Syracuse will present on Saturday.

The Orange’s best offensive player is running back Sean Tucker, who leads the ACC with 536 rushing yards on 6.5 yards per carry. His 7 touchdowns rank second in the ACC.

Syracuse’s rushing attack against the Florida State rushing defense should be a great matchup to watch. The Seminoles rank just eighth in the league against the run (132.3) but they have shown flashes of being dominant, like in the second half against Louisville last week when they allowed just 42 rushing yards.

Florida State was missing one of its top interior defensive linemen in Fabien Lovett last week. It is unclear if he will be available for Saturday, but he is an excellent run defender. As is Robert Cooper, who played well in an increased role last week with Lovett out.

How Syracuse handles Johnson on the edge will be critical. Johnson is tied for the NCAA lead with 5.5 sacks in 2021 and third nationally with 8.0 tackles for loss. He had a sack last week, but Louisville mostly did an excellent job of taking him out of the game.

Final Thoughts

Florida State will enter this weekend once again as the more talented team, but that has not helped over the last three weeks.

Syracuse’s rushing attack with Tucker and Shrader will be a difficult matchup, but overall, Florida State matches up well with the Orange. Defensively, the Seminoles can allocate more resources to the run game with Syracuse not having a dynamic passing attack. Florida State corners like Jarvis Brownlee, Meiko Dotson and Travis Jay will just need to stay disciplined in coverage and not allow too many chunk plays over the top.

Florida State could have some trouble moving the ball against Syracuse’s stout defense, but the bet here is that Corbin and Ward can create a couple of explosive plays on the ground to be the difference.

This one could end up being an ugly, low-scoring slugfest, but Florida State will squeak by for its first win of the season.

Prediction: Florida State 16, Syracuse 13

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