Big special teams play not enough to save Seminoles

By Chuck Walsh

Throughout the nine-month build-up to his first game as Florida State’s head coach, Mike Norvell preached special teams and defense.  In his introductory press conference on Dec. 8, 2019, he declared that special teams play would be the backbone of his philosophy.

It played out this past Saturday in a rain-delayed game that marked the start of the season for FSU and Georgia Tech. The Seminoles’ special teams unit blocked two Yellow Jacket field goal attempts (both by All-American candidate Marvin Wilson) and one extra point attempt (by fifth-year senior Janarius Robinson) and the defense earned two interceptions (both by defensive back Asante Samuel, Jr.) in certainly one of the most unusual football games in school history.

The Yellow Jackets outscored the Seminoles 16-3 in the second half and earned a hard-fought 16-13 win at Doak Campbell Stadium.

 Despite three blocked kicks by the Seminoles’ special teams unit, Norvell’s debut as head coach was spoiled by the Yellow Jackets’ come from behind effort.

Georgia Tech (1-0, 1-0 ACC) outgained Florida State (0-1, 0-1 ACC) 438-307 in total yards including a 175-123 margin the second half.  The Yellow Jackets scored the final nine points of the game.

True freshman quarterback Jeff Sims (left) totaled 341 yards of total offense against the Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Photo courtesy Georgia Tech

James Blackman who started his 24th career game was 23-of-43 passing for 198 yards and one touchdown.  Sophomore running back La’Damian Webb rushed for 39 yards in his Florida State debut while redshirt sophomore running back Jashaun Corbin caught eight passes for 55 yards in his debut as a Seminole.

Not only was the game played during a pandemic in front of a mandated 17,538 fans, but it featured two weather delays – one before the game began – for a total of 1 hour and 48 minutes.

Norvell was looking to become just the fifth coach in the storied history of the Florida State program to win his Seminole debut joining Don Veller (1948 vs. Cumberland), Bill Peterson (1960 vs. Richmond), Larry Jones (1971 vs. Southern Miss) and Jimbo Fisher (2010 vs. Samford).  His personal season-opening day record is now 4-1.

“Congratulations to coach (Geoff) Collins,” said Norvell.  “His team earned a hard-fought victory.  It’s very disappointing and I’m hurting for our guys.  We missed out on some opportunities tonight; we struggled defensively.  Obviously, our special teams I thought did some really good things with the blocked kicks; they did a nice job with their coverage and had a couple of opportunities to impact the game.  

“Collectively, as a football team, we are not consistent enough.  We missed out on some opportunities to get them off of the field which allowed them to convert on 50 percent of their third-down and extend some drives.”

The first Seminole touchdown came on a 3-yard pass from Blackman to wide receiver Keyshawn Helton.  The touchdown reception was the fifth of Helton’s career.  The scoring pass from Blackman to Helton was the culmination of a 52-yard drive on which Blackman was a perfect three-for-three for 34 yards including a 27-yard strike to tight end Camren McDonald.  Parker Grothaus added the first extra point of his career to give Florida State the early 7-0 lead.

Florida State’s first score was set up by an interception by Samuel – the second of his career.  His return of 38 yards allowed Blackman to begin operating the Seminole offense near midfield at its own 48.

Samuel secured his second interception of the game midway through the second quarter as he stepped in front of an errant Jeff Sims pass and returned it 31 yards.  It marked the first time that a Florida State defender totaled multiple interceptions in a game since Kyle Meyers earned two against Samford on Sept. 8, 2018.

“Film study and determination to win,” said Samuel of his two-interception night.  “I’ve been watching those same plays on film and when I saw them I just had to react and make a play.”

Despite the Yellow Jackets’ rally, Samuel said it wasn’t because the defensive backs weren’t prepared.

“We could have done better as a defensive backs (unit),” said Samuel.  “It’s really not on the offense or the coaches; we just have to do better, make tackles and make more plays.  I feel like we prepared for every moment that was brought up to us.  We have to execute the play and the situation.  We were prepared for everything that was brought to us; nothing phased us.  We’ve just come to come out victorious.”

Florida State increased its lead to 10-0 following a weather delay of 1 hour and 19 minutes on a 37-yard field goal by Grothaus.  It was the first made field goal of his career on his first career field goal attempt.  The field goal came at the end of an 11-play, 61-yard drive which included two rushing attempts for 23 yards by Blackman and the first catch of the season by All-American candidate Tamorrion Terry.

Terry finished the game with six catches for 52 yards.

The Seminoles’ special teams unit, with a time-honored tradition of blocking kicks, kept the Yellow Jackets off of the scoreboard in the second quarter as Wilson blocked a 22-yard field goal attempt by Jude Kelley.  For Wilson, who played in his 34th career game as a Seminole, the blocked field goal was his first and the first by the Seminoles since Nov 18, 2017 against Delaware State.

“We didn’t get the job done,” said Wilson.  “During the night, I hope everybody on our team will want to watch film.  We have to respond better in our next game when we go on the road in two weeks.  We have to get our first win of the season.  We have to respond and get better.”

A second blocked kick by Wilson later in the second quarter continued the Seminoles’ early defensive dominance.  This time, Wilson sent back a 38-yard attempt by Kelley.  Wilson’s two blocked field goals marked the third time in school history that a Seminole blocked two field goals in a game.  He became the first to accomplish the feat since B.J. Ward blocked two field goal attempts against Duke on Sept. 27, 2003.

“On those two plays, our backs were against the wall,” said Wilson.  They hadn’t scored and we were trying to keep them from scoring.  Somebody had to step up and make a play and I was fortunate enough to step up and make that play.  I wish I would have gotten the last kick to be able to keep the game tied and go into overtime. On the D-line we are going to have to play a lot better; we’ve got to get a whole lot better.”

Georgia Tech scored its first touchdown of the season on a 19-yard end-around run by Jordan Mason to cut Florida State’s lead to 10-7 with 6:13 remaining in the second half.  The Yellow Jackets’ score highlighted a 14-play, 80-yard drive.  Mason rushed for 24 yards on three carries while Sims completed three passes for 32 yards on the scoring drive.

Florida State increased its lead to 13-7 on a 53-yard field goal by Grothuas with 1:04 left to be played in the third quarter.

Georgia Tech tied the game at 13-13 with 13:17 remaining in the fourth quarter on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Sims to Malachi Carter on a pass that was underthrown but still caught for the score.  The Seminoles stellar special teams play continued blocking Kelly’s extra point.  Janarius Robinson came from the left side of the defensive line, broke through the Yellow Jackets’ offensive front and earned the first blocked kick of his career.

Kelley gained a bit of redemption with a 32-yard field goal from the left hash to give Georgia Tech its first lead of the game at 16-13 with 8:56 left to be played.

Georgia Tech’s defense forced a Florida State fumble and then held the Seminoles on downs in their final two offensive drives of the game.

Following a week off, the Seminoles travel to play at Miami at Hard Rock Stadium on Sept. 26 before returning home to take on Jacksonville State on Oct. 3.