TALLAHASSEE — The new Seminoles looked too much like the old Seminoles.
That’s the quick summary of No. 23 Florida State’s 31-21 loss to No. 22 Wake Forest on Saturday. After four games of undeniable progress, FSU (4-1, 2-1 ACC) stumbled through four quarters of unsatisfying regression at Doak Campbell Stadium.
The first explanation starts with the circumstances. The Demon Deacons (4-1, 1-1) are an experienced team, the reigning Atlantic Division champions and have grown used to big-time games. This was FSU’s first top-25 matchup since Willie Taggart’s dud of a debut in 2018. Wake looked like the program that has been on this stage recently. FSU did not.
Seminoles coach Mike Norvell said his team pressed early. It showed, starting with one of his players dropping the opening kickoff.
“Success, everybody wants more...” Norvell said. “They want it so bad. But you’ve got to stay true to the things that you do, how you prepare.”
Translated from coach-speak, that means FSU strayed from what made it successful in its 4-0 start.
Like getting off the field. A team that entered Saturday third in the ACC on third-down defense played like a team that ranked 78th or worse in that category every year from 2019-21.
Wake Forest converted on 13 of its 21 third-/fourth-down attempts. A touchdown on fourth and 1. Thirty-five yards on third and 2. A touchdown on third and 4. A touchdown on third and 8.
And three conversions on the Demon Deacons’ 18-play field goal drive that drained the clock and gave FSU a two-score deficit with 2:55 left.
Give plenty of credit to Wake Forest’s offense. Quarterback Sam Hartman is a star, and a receiving corps led by A.T. Perry (eight catches, 91 yards, one touchdown) is the ACC’s best. The slow run-pass option is entertaining and hard to stop. But FSU hurt itself through whiffed tackles, missed assignments and a pass rush that took the first half off.
“We lost our focus in times of adversity,” Norvell said.
The other main concern was the return of offensive line problems that began plaguing the program at the end of the Jimbo Fisher era. Though FSU was only sacked once, that number doesn’t tell the full story. The more revealing statistic is this one from ESPN: Quarterback Jordan Travis was pressured on 11 of his 17 first-half drop-backs, the highest percentage for any half in his Seminoles career. Considering how bad FSU’s offensive lines were during his first three years, hitting a new low Saturday is jarring and a step back after months of growth.
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Injuries and a lack of depth were factors and not all Norvell’s fault. He hasn’t built the roster up enough to withstand injuries to three top contributors (tackle Robert Scott should be back soon).
But they don’t explain FSU’s two costly holding penalties in the second half. The first pushed the Seminoles out of field-goal range, and the second negated a first down that would have advanced the Seminoles to the Wake Forest 15. FSU failed to score on either drive.
“I just thought, just felt we were a little shaken at times with the overall performance,” Norvell said.
The same is true for the entire team. The Seminoles committed 11 penalties, including a delay-of-game call that pushed a last-minute field-goal attempt back to 55 yards. It missed, dooming FSU to its 15th loss in its last 17 games against ranked teams. Worse, it felt eerily similar to the end of the 2019 Wake Forest game, when Taggart called timeout — icing his own kicker on a 50-yard attempt in the rain — as the play clock dwindled.
The good news, if there is some, is that FSU somehow battled back to make the game competitive, even after allowing Wake Forest to score 28 consecutive points in one disastrous stretch. Travis threw three touchdown passes (two to Tampa native Mycah Pittman and one to Arizona State transfer Johnny Wilson). The defense woke up with three big second-half sacks. At 4-1, FSU is better than fans could have reasonably expected in July, and the lone loss was a close game against a veteran, nationally ranked team.
But, as Norvell said, everybody wants more. His ‘Noles simply aren’t ready to deliver yet.
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