It was a great showing for the Florida State offense but against the No. 3 team in the nation, great was not good enough.
FSU put up 34 points against a Clemson defense that entered Saturday allowing 17 points per game and averaged 7.13 yards per play against the Tigers, who allowed an average of 4.17 yards per play before the game in Tallahassee, 4th in the FBS.
However, the stellar performance was book-ended by a weak start and a weaker finish and that is what will be what is remembered from this loss to Clemson.
The Seminole offense was moving the ball almost at will on its opening drive before a personal foul on true freshman right guard Landon Dickerson led to the drive stalling out and FSU coming up empty despite taking the ball inside the Clemson 30.
Florida State followed that drive up with a pair of three-and-outs, allowing the Tigers to open up a 14-0 lead. This stupendously slow start from FSU was nothing new as, over its last four games including Saturday, the Seminoles have put up a combined three first-quarter points.
There are a number of factors which you can attribute this slow start to. You could look at a gameplan which did not get the ball to the best player on the offense frequently enough as Dalvin Cook had only three first-quarter touches for a combined 10 yards. You could look at missed opportunities or self-inflicted wounds which made the going against an exceedingly talented Clemson defense even more challenging.
Whatever the issue was, FSU was looking at a 14-0 deficit after the opening 15 minutes. However, that’s when the momentum shift occurred.
FSU managed 8 yards per play in an impressive second quarter which saw them outscore the Tigers 14-3. The star of that quarter? Sophomore wide receiver Nyqwan Murray, who made the most of his opportunity with Bobo Wilson out with a right foot injury.
Murray had 46 receiving yards in Florida State’s first seven games of the season. By halftime of the Clemson game, he had racked up 67 receiving yards and a touchdown, the first of his collegiate career.
Meanwhile, Cook finished the opening 30 minutes with an unremarkable 36 yards on eight carries. The third quarter was a completely different story though.
In that quarter, Cook accumulated 121 rushing yards while rushing for touchdowns of 40 and 73 yards in one of the most spectacular single-quarter showings you will ever see. Cook also wrapped up the game with four touchdowns on the ground, giving him a new career high. In spite of all that Cook was able to do in the third quarter, the most notable play he was involved in came in the fourth quarter in a play that could very well have had an impact on the outcome of the game.
I don’t need to explain the play here. I’m sure you all saw the play and yelled, threw things, or said ungrateful and, if you ask Jimbo Fisher, warranted comments towards the officials after the phantom chop block penalty.
The aftershock of momentum created by the penalty cannot be overstated. With FSU leading by two points, it cancelled out a 60-yard carry by Cook, instead putting the Seminoles behind the chains and leading directly to a punt. Many arguments will be made about how the game would have played out had the play stood and although we will never know for sure, the impact from that single play alone is almost immeasurable.
Now, far from it to me to say that the chop block call is the only reason why Florida State came up short. Deondre Francois delivered some absolute strikes in clutch situations while racking up 286 passing yards on 17-35 passing. That being said, Francois also made some head-scratching decisions in his progression, missed open receivers on multiple occasions, and, on a few occasions, ran right into a sack by holding on to the ball too long.
The lingering memory of Francois’ first game against Clemson, though, will be the grit he showed. Throughout the game, Francois was pounded by a Clemson defensive line that is the best FSU has gone up against all year and possibly the best in the country. As has been the case all season long, Francois has been taken down and gotten back up again hit after destructive hit. Francois did briefly leave the game after taking a helmet to the ribs. However, one play later, Francois was back in the action, handing the ball off to Dalvin Cook for a touchdown.
The worst must be saved for last. In an offensive performance that will be regarded as overwhelmingly positive, especially when considering the level of competition, one facet sticks out as a negative: the offensive line play.
It was known that Florida State’s OL, which has been far from perfect this year, would be outclassed by Clemson’s top-notch defensive line. The extent to which that was the case, however, is another story. The Tigers finished with six sacks, two each of which came on the opening and final drive, and had an impact far beyond what the box score shows with Clemson defenders pressuring, rushing, and hitting Francois throughout the night. Yes, it must be acknowledged how talented Clemson’s defensive line is. That being said, FSU trotted out two former three-stars, two former four-stars, and a five-star offensive lineman as its starting five on Saturday but were still completely outmatched.
The worst instance of the offensive line crumbling came at the very end, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of those in attendance. With the Seminoles trailing by three late in the fourth quarter and the ball on the Clemson 34-yard line, back-to-back false starts by offensive linemen made it first and 20. Then, on back-to-back plays on third and fourth down, the FSU OL got abused by the Clemson DL, which sacked Francois on two straight plays to preserve the victory. On the fourth down, the Tigers did this while rushing only three men due to their semi-prevent defense they were running.
Much buzz can be made about the fact that Florida State had a chance to knock off one of the top teams in the nation and very much looked like it belonged on the same stage. However, Fisher downplayed any notion of a moral victory from how well the team performed in the loss and, in the long run, the outcome of the game will be remembered far longer than the circumstances surrounding it. FSU is now 5-3 on the year and must travel to Raleigh next week to take on the NC State Wolfpack.