TALLAHASSEE — The first seven minutes of Mike Norvell’s Florida State debut Saturday showed the kind of team his Seminoles can eventually become.
The final 53 minutes proved just how far his Seminoles still need to climb to get there.
FSU jumped out to a two-score lead before reverting back to the Willie Taggart era in a 16-13 loss to Georgia Tech at Doak Campbell Stadium.
“It’s not the way that we wanted to begin,” Norvell said.
Obviously not, especially considering how well they started — by shining in some of the areas Norvell began stressing in his introductory news conference.
A commitment to special teams? Marvin Wilson blocked a pair of field goals in Norvell’s first half. That’s two more than FSU (0-1, 0-1 ACC) blocked during Taggart’s entire two-year tenure.
A focus on takeaways? NFL prospect Asante Samuel had a pair of picks in the first half.
A creative offense built for playmakers? Every snap on FSU’s opening drive gained at least 3 yards. Receiver Keyshawn Helton started wide left on one play, motioned right before the snap and slipped through for a 3-yard touchdown catch.
The 'Noles grew their lead to 10-0 after a 75-minute rain delay before regressing to the disastrous days of Taggart.
Quarterback James Blackman hit 6 of his first 7 passes, then missed on 18 of his final 36. A Norvell offense that was one of the most explosive in the country at Memphis had only three plays of at least 20 yards Saturday.
“Some missed passes,” Norvell said. “Some dropped balls.”
Add in a porous line and inexcusable penalties, too, but we’ll get to those.
Some of the offense’s issues were expected, given the odd offseason that wiped out most of spring practice. The bigger surprise was a defense that could be dominant but instead looked mediocre.
Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims — the longtime FSU commit who flipped in December — sliced through FSU’s defense in the first game of his college career.
The Jacksonville native totaled 341 yards (277 passing, 64 rushing) and converted a trio of third downs by himself on one second-half scoring drive. His fade to Malachi Carter tied the game with 13:17 left and was his only touchdown in a 24-of-35 night.
“We didn’t get the job done,” Wilson said.
FSU ultimately couldn’t overcome two Taggart trademarks: an awful offensive line and head-scratching penalties.
The 'Noles had a pair of false-start penalties to doom one promising drive. When it ended with an interception, they gave Georgia Tech (1-0, 1-0) an even shorter field with a personal foul.
The Yellow Jackets' three sacks and six tackles for a loss don’t adequately sum up the line’s performance. FSU’s top two backs had few creases to run through; La’Damian Webb and Jashaun Corbin combined for 57 yards on 19 carries.
Blackman’s pocket collapsed at the end. He was sacked on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter and fumbled on the second to set up Georgia Tech’s go-ahead field goal with 8:56 left.
Late in the fourth quarter, a false start penalty pushed FSU back on fourth and 3. When the line leaked again, Blackman had to scramble under pressure before coming up short. Just like Norvell’s debut.
“We’re still growing,” Norvell said. “We’re in the infant stage of where we’re going as an offense.”
He’s right. It’s dangerous to read too much into any season-opener, let alone the premiere of a new coach whose plans and playbook were wrecked by the coronavirus shutdown.
But that doesn’t change the result, or the flashbacks that had Taggart trending on Twitter in the aftermath.
Taggart blew fourth-quarter leads in three of his first four losses last season. The worst was the opener against Boise State, when he squandered a double-digit lead at home against a true freshman quarterback in his first game.
Just like Norvell did Saturday.
Matt Baker’s Takeaways
• The game environment in the COVID-19 era wasn’t as weird as I expected. It obviously didn’t have the buzz of a primetime game against Clemson or Notre Dame, with only 17,538 fans. It felt more like a spring game which, all things considered, isn’t bad. And spectators were spread out more than they appeared to be on TV.
• Because Willie Taggart failed to sign a quarterback in either of his two classes, I thought four-star quarterback Jeff Sims would be one of FSU’s most important recruits in years. We saw why. Sims, a Jacksonville native who flipped from the Seminoles to Georgia Tech, looked the part of a future star, starting in the first game of his Yellow Jackets career.
• Asante Samuel proved why he’s a high-end NFL prospect. As if his two interceptions weren’t enough, he nearly had a third and broke up a deep ball in the second half, too.