Sunday, November 18, 2018
FSU Seminoles

No. 19 Florida State falls to No. 20 Virginia Tech in Willie Taggart’s first game

TALLAHASSEE — For all of the talk about what was different with No. 19 Florida State — a new coach, a new offense, a new buzz — Monday night looked an awful lot like last year's season-long letdown.

A slow start. Costly special teams mistakes. A good-not-great defense. An out-of-sorts offense.

They all made Willie Taggart's debut — a 24-3 loss to No. 20 Virginia Tech — seem like a flashback of the Seminoles' 2017 fall from national title contenders to the Independence Bowl.

"Tough loss," Taggart said of FSU's worst home defeat since a 30-point rout by the Gators in 2008. "Not what any of us expected."

But maybe he should have expected it, considering how FSU looked in last year's 7-6 lost season.

The slow start is nothing new to the Seminoles (0-1, 0-1 ACC), who regularly sleepwalked through the first half under Jimbo Fisher. The problems that contributed to FSU's 17-3 hole were familiar, too.

The Seminoles entered the red zone three times in the first half and four times overall. They came away with three points. FSU had similar problems last year, when its touchdown rate in the red zone ranked 48th nationally.

"It's not the offense," quarterback Deondre Francois said. "It was us."

FSU only had one field goal because Ricky Aguayo missed his first attempt, from 32 yards. That wasn't even the Seminoles' worst special-teams play of the first half. That honor came late in the second quarter when the Hokies' Chris Cunningham blocked a punt inside the 5 for teammate Eric Kumah to return for a touchdown.

Special teams weren't a season-long issue for FSU last fall, but they were a problem in the Seminoles' opener against eventual national champion Alabama. Blunders in the third phase of the game cost FSU 13 points in that deflating defeat; they cost FSU at least 10 points Monday.

The defense never lived up to its hype last season, and it remained vulnerable at times against the Hokies (1-0, 1-0), starting with the 10-play, 75-yard drive it surrendered immediately. The dagger was the 10-yard touchdown receiver Damon Hazelton caught over former five-star recruit Levonta Taylor, who also allowed a big third-down catch in the first half.

Although FSU's defense rebounded well, it couldn't recover any of Virginia Tech's four fumbles or steal momentum through an interception. The closest it came was in the second half when tackle Demarcus Christmas and linebacker Dontavious Jackson combined for a goal-line stand.

FSU went three and out on the ensuing drive.

That missed opportunity summed up the rest of the night for an underachieving offense, led by a leaky line. With a trio of five-star running backs, the Seminoles have one of the most talented backfields in the nation. They combined for 122 yards, but 85 of them came on one carry.

Cam Akers, the dynamic talent who broke Dalvin Cook's FSU freshman rushing record last season? He had nine carries for seven yards in the first half.

Those problems largely fall back on an offensive line that remains a wreck. A Hokies defense that was decimated by offseason attrition amassed 14 tackles for a loss, plus six other empty runs.

"You've got to win those one-on-one battles," Taggart said. "We didn't do that a lot of the time."

Right tackle Landon Dickerson had one of the lowest moments when  Francois tripped over his leg for a sack. Then again, maybe that saved Francois from the kind of devastating hits he took in 2016. It's no wonder he felt sore after the game and needed help getting out of his chair after post-game interviews.

FSU had a chance to make it a one-score game midway through the fourth quarter, thanks to Akers' electric 85-yard rush that woke up the soaked crowd of 75,237 at Doak Campbell Stadium.

The next two plays were bad: A stuffed Akers run and a screen pass that lost 4 yards.

The third one was disastrous: Wild Cam quarterback Akers and Amir Rasul fumbled an exchange that the Hokies recovered. That, too, bore a resemblance to 2017, when a botched zone-read handoff helped seal a loss to Louisville.

So perhaps the Seminoles lived up to Taggart's "Do something" mantra Monday night in his debut.

They did something — almost exactly what they did last year.

They might want to try doing something else.

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