The streets of Ybor, Tampa’s historic bar district, were much prettier than Florida State’s win over the USF Bulls Saturday night.
Post-game, the bars were abuzz with Bulls and ‘Noles alike, all of whom seemed to be grabbing a celebratory drink: Seminoles celebrating victory and Bulls celebrating life, and, I’m sad to say, a better than expected showing against the nation’s fourth ranked team.
For you Seminole Gamedayrs unable to make it to Tampa, rest assured, the ‘Noles were represented well, and just because some of us (myself included) didn’t score a ticket to the game, that didn’t mean we couldn’t partake in the warchant Saturday night. I found myself chopping with fellow ‘Noles in a pizzeria, in sports bars, outside cigar lounges, and on the corner of 7th street downtown. The easygoing nature of the Ybor crawl and the gusto of the members of Tomahawk Nation in Tampa almost made me forget that deep into the third quarter the ‘Noles were sitting on a three point lead over a 2-and-2 USF team coming off of a loss to Ball State. Almost.
[Gamedayr Latest >> Dooley Face…It’s officially a “thing”]
But, that was the case. An EJ Manuel touchdown pass to Penn State TE transfer Kevin Haplea with 5:09 left in the third quarter is what finally gave the ‘Noles some breathing room. Fortunately, with the score now 20-10, the ‘Noles didn’t look back, adding another ten points and only giving up seven (after the defensive starters had been pulled in the 4th-quarter) in the final 20 minutes.
Now, despite how scary a three point lead late in a game against USF seems, the Seminoles as a whole didn’t have that bad of a day, once you account for four factors: the furious energy that the Bulls played with, the hangover bound to accompany Florida State’s emotional and hard fought win the previous week over Clemson, the soggy conditions at Raymond James Stadium, and the continued lack of consistency on the part of the Seminole’s special teams.
The disparity in energy levels between the Bulls and the ‘Noles was apparent from the “get go,” with USF marching 62 yards before stalling at the Florida State 15 yard line and having to settle for a field goal on the first possession of the game. That drive eclipsed FSU’s longest drive of the first quarter by 19 yards. With both the offense and defense looking sluggish, it was only by the grace of a Karlos Williams 60 yard kickoff return that the ‘Noles escaped the first quarter with a 7-3 lead.
In addition to that return, the Seminole special teams also had a completed extra point and downed a punt at the South Florida 3-yard line in the first quarter. It was the only solid quarter the unit was able to put together.
The focus and energy issues seemed to evaporate for the Seminoles in the second quarter, particularly for the defense, who gave up only 29 yards on 22 offensive (non-special teams) plays in the second and third quarters combined. The ‘Noles starters only allowed one touchdown, which came after a blocked punt that gave USF the ball at the Florida State 8-yard line. Christian Jones added a touchdown, the defense’s first this season, by taking a Matt Floyd fumble 12 yards to the house as time expired in the third quarter, giving Florida State a 30-10 lead.
The 20 point cushion prompted head Coach Jimbo Fisher to sit the first string defense for the entirety of the fourth quarter, preventing injuries to key starters and building depth by allowing the backups to play meaningful downs and gain experience against a USF offense that, while not Alabama, is certainly better than Savannah State’s.
The offense looked much sharper as well in the second quarter, though the pre-game downpour was clearly playing a factor in both the play calling and efficacy of the offense overall. Jimbo favored short passes and the run in the slippery conditions, electing to go with the ground game 40 times, while choosing to throw only 26. The unit finished the game with 425 total yards and two touchdowns, with one of those scores and 242 yards coming from EJ Manuel’s 19-for-26 passing performance. The remaining 183 yards were of the ground variety.
Florida State’s rushing attack was lead by Chris Thompson’s 74 yards on 16 carries. It’s worth noting that Thompson could have had an additional 21 yards and a score but, with a clear path to the endzone, he elected to take a knee in order to allow the clock to run down.
In reality, the root cause of a seemingly underwhelming performance by the ‘Noles was, again, the special teams play. This unit seems determined to prove my point that “only the Seminoles can beat the Seminoles.”
After a first quarter that showed their potential (converted extra point, 60 yard kick return, punt downed at the three), they regressed to the flustered looking group that couldn’t get out of their own way versus Clemson. The less than stellar performance manifested itself in Dustin Hopkins’ third missed field goal in two games, this time a 48-yarder pushed so far right that it never had a chance. And in a blocked Cason Beatty punt, which gave the Bulls the ball on the Florida State 8-yard line a minute and a half into the third quarter. Three plays later, the blocked punt would lead to the only touchdown given up by the defensive starters. Fortunately, BJ Daniels threw an interception two plays after Hopkins’ missed field goal, giving the slumping kicker a chance to redeem himself as time ran out in the second quarter, this time from 43 yards (the kick was good).
While these errors didn’t sink the ‘Noles season Saturday against the Bulls, they very easily could have against stiffer competition. Looking back at the blocked punt that gifted the Bulls a touchdown, the missed field goal versus USF, Rashad Greene’s muffed punt that spotted Clemson seven points, and the six additional points left on the field by Hopkins in that contest presents an uncertain future.
With the remaining schedule, featuring away games against a surprising Miami squad, and the always dangerous Virginia Tech Hoakies, along with a season finale at Doak against a (I hate to say it) surging Florida Gators team, I’m forced to wonder: are the ‘Noles going to eliminate these needless special teams blunders, or are the Seminoles going to beat the Seminoles?