TALLAHASSEE — As Syracuse attempted to ice Florida State’s Ryan Fitzgerald on Saturday, Seminoles coach Mike Norvell delivered a five-word message to his kicker:
“I trust what you do.”
For all the flaws FSU has shown through the program’s worst start in almost 50 years, the trust was still there — in Norvell and in his players.
And it finally paid off Saturday when Fitzgerald nailed a 34-yard field goal as time expired to give FSU a 33-30 win over Syracuse.
“We needed to get a win,” Norvell said.
That’s an understatement. Though Norvell’s job has not been in jeopardy, the pressure was mounting around FSU (1-4, 1-2 ACC).
Norvell and the Seminoles needed to do something to win back a scarred fanbase — a tough task ahead, judging by the announced attendance of 56,609 on family weekend. They needed to do something to keep a top-10, program-changing recruiting class from bailing. They needed to do something to keep the locker room from crumbling under a second-year coach who entered Doak Campbell Stadium 3-10. They needed to do something to keep the trust flowing in and around this proud but bruised program.
They needed to get a win.
And they needed the full team to make it happen, starting with quarterback Jordan Travis. Travis has been banged up but played well enough this week to reclaim the starting job from McKenzie Milton (who started the previous three games).
“It was his game to go play and his game to go win,” Norvell said, “And he did that.”
Travis’ numbers were solid: 22 of 32 passing with two touchdowns and an interception. But he was bigger than his stat line.
With the score tied at 30 and 1:03 left, Travis and his offense took over. He scrambled left and looked ahead.
“A hole opened up,” Travis said.
He ran through it, then tiptoed down the sideline for 33 yards. He added a 25-yard rush three plays later to put FSU into a manageable field-goal situation.
But Travis’ heroics were only possible because of his defense. Though the Seminoles weren’t great, they were gritty. Their goal-line stand in the second half showed a toughness and fortitude that has been too hard to find over the last five seasons.
“We haven’t really had a whole lot of those here as of late,” Norvell said.
When Syracuse (3-2, 0-1 ACC) had a chance to win it in the closing minutes, FSU came up with something else that has been hard to come by: a stop. The Orange’s five-play drive fizzled to give Travis a chance to lead the biggest drive of his FSU career.
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It would have been irrelevant if not for Fitzgerald, a redshirt freshman from Coolidge, Ga.
Fitzgerald’s FSU career has been mixed. He drilled a 43-yard field goal in the final minute to force overtime in the opener against Notre Dame. But he also missed a 37-yarder in the extra period of the loss.
“I went from the highest highs to the lowest lows in a matter of 15 minutes,” Fitzgerald said.
Success and failure wedged together was part of the growing pains process for a young kicker in a young program trying to reestablish itself among the nation’s elite. The old saying about learning how to lose before you learn how to win applies to Fitzgerald and his teammates.
The Seminoles rallied from 18 down against Notre Dame but lost. They were up 10 with five minutes left against Jacksonville State but lost. They chipped a deficit to Louisville from 24 points to eight but lost.
Yet in all the defeat —the painful, gut-wrenching defeat — there was fight. Resolve. Trust.
Travis could feel it during the week, when FSU practiced with an intensity that hadn’t been there before. Fitzgerald felt it in himself during halftime. The game was close, so he assumed it could come down to his right foot. He had never kicked an at-the-buzzer winner in his life, so he started visualizing what it would be like.
He thought about it again with one second left on the scoreboard, after Syracuse called timeout to try to ice him. It gave him another moment to see the ball splitting the uprights of his mind.
So when Norvell came over with his five-word message of trust, Fitzgerald believed it. He felt it, too.
“I got this,” Fitzgerald said.
A few seconds later, he got it all right, allowing his teammates and coaches to go to bed victorious for the first time in 294 days.
When they wake up Sunday morning, they will start addressing the many flaws this team has: ball security, missed tackles and a shaky secondary, for starters. But they can do so with a different mentality.
They can do so with the long-awaited knowledge that their trust in each other and their process has finally paid off.
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