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Swamp Survived: FSU, once again, showcases grit while overcoming a first-half deficit to remain undefeated

The walls seemed to finally close in, but the Seminoles never gave up the fight and became state champs in back to back years

Peyton Baker/Tomahawk Nation

The luck seemed to have finally run out for the Seminoles.

Down 12-0 inside a deafening Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, all of the get-out-of-jail-free cards that went FSU’s way earlier in the year did not work last night.

Against Duke, a special team's spark changed the course of the game and led the ‘Noles to victory. Instead, a fake punt resulted in a delay of game and killed off one of the first signs of life from FSU.

Against Clemson, a blindside blitz led to a scoop and score, and the season's outcome forever changed. On Saturday, Akeem Dent came scott-free off the edge, and instead of a massive turnover, the ball fluttered into a Gator receiver’s arms for a completion.

It felt like all the bad habits the Seminoles created during the year would finally overcome their talent. Even when they were down at the half to LSU, or down 10-0 to Clemson, or 17-7 to Duke, or 13-0 after losing their starting quarterback (sensing a trend here?), they could find a way out. But now, with a backup quarterback and an offense that had gained 0 yards on four drives, how could they get out of this mess?

Somehow, they did.

The Seminoles went on a 24-3 run for the final 35 minutes of the contest and finished the regular season a perfect 12-0.

“This is a long time coming,” a visibly relieved Mike Norvell said post-game, “We had a heck of a journey, and the good thing about it is we’re not done yet.”

As I said, there were times when everything was about to fall apart. But, when every other team in the country would roll over, the Seminoles find themselves in their most comfortable position.

FSU’s drive before halftime proves this statement true perhaps more than any other piece of evidence.

Tate and the offense found themselves down 12-0 and backed up on their 10-yard line with four minutes to go in the half. Getting a first down at that point in the game felt like a significant win; scoring points felt like a foreign concept. However, the ‘Noles bucked the trend, marched the ball 90 yards down the field, and stole momentum right before the half.

Even with some questionable timeout calls by Mike Norvell that nearly gave UF some additional points, the weight felt lifted, and Florida State punched the ball in the end zone for a second consecutive drive to start the half. The run game, which had been inconsistent for the last month, finally created massive gaps with their favorite counterplay, and Trey Benson did the rest. On the evening, the offense continued to battle and made the plays that needed to be made. Even still, the day belonged to the defense.

Without Jordan Travis, every player would need to step up, and the defense did what they had to do. When the offense sputtered, and Florida dominated time of possession, Adam Fuller’s group could have lost hope and focus. Instead, after the safety, they sacked Max Brown for a 14-yard loss while forcing a three-and-out.

In the second half, they allowed just three points on the board and shut down the Gators when they took the lead in the 4th quarter. After the game, Braden Fiske said his teammates started to smile after FSU re-took the lead.

They knew they had all they needed.

Two drives, seven plays, and one INT later, the Seminoles would be crowned state champs for a second year and survived what felt like their most ominous threat of the season. The players wore shirts that read finish for 13, and they did just that.

Peyton Baker/Tomahawk Nation

The ‘Noles dominated the 4th quarter, winning the scoring margin 10-0 and suffocating the Gators to -15 yards of total offense. FSU displayed what fans begged for the entire year in that final frame. Finally, Jared Verse and Patrick Payton got home by themselves and took over the game. Finally, the offensive line created a push, and the G-T counter exploded the run game. Most of all, they finally woke up.

I have tried to figure out why FSU starts so slowly and plays so well late the entire year — this is my new theory.

Switching sports and playing surfaces for a moment, in the NHL postseason last summer, the Florida Panthers went a perfect 7-0 in overtime games, virtually unheard of. When asked why the Panthers play so well in these moments, Panthers head coach Paul Maurice explained that the game plan is simple and the players can “go play.”

When the game is early, and the pressure of perfection feels the greatest, FSU shrinks. However, everything is simple when the competition tightens, and it’s now or never. Florida State loses that burden and can play freely. The offense executes at a higher level, and the defense pins their ears back with their hair on fire. This is what happened on Saturday. When no one believed in them, and the game swirled down the drain, the Seminoles had the Gators right where they wanted them.

Now, FSU has the chance to secure both an ACC championship and a College Football Playoff appearance right at its fingertips.

First Thought: Something in the air

Jared Verse and Trey Benson transferred to Florida State two years ago, and the new guys on the block decided to room together. A few years later, that duo led the Seminoles to victory.

Starting on the offensive side of the ball, Trey Benson broke the rock for the ‘Noles last night for a reason. Even though Tate executed in moments he was inconsistent at best and needed help from those around him.

Enter No. 3.

Benson rushed for 95 yards and 3 TDs while carrying the ball for his most attempts all season. Benson showed power against an attacking Florida front by breaking early arm tackles and converting to speed as he raced for multiple 20-yard rushes during the day.

Charles Mays/Tomahawk Nation

“I knew the run game was going to come; we just needed to take the crumbs,” Trey Benson calmly said postgame after a dominating effort.

The run game eventually found its groove, and it happened at the most vital point in the game. The Seminoles took the ball back up two with five minutes to go in the 4th quarter. They needed points, but they needed to run the clock at the same time. This meant a heavy hand on the ground and that Trey Benson would have his number called. Three minutes and 66 yards later, the Seminoles found themselves up by nine and escaping Gainesville with a victory after Benson capped off his day with a hat trick. None of this would have happened if not for Trey’s roommate the drive before.

Jared Verse and the defense finally got to play with a lead, and they did not want to give it back. Verse and his running mate Patrick Payton exploded on the Florida offensive line, creating two sacks, three hurries, and a three and out on this series. The Albany transfer finished the day with one sack, multiple hurries, and his first victory in Gainesville. It was a sight for sore eyes to see Verse play this way, but like everyone else on the team, he stepped up when he had to and led the ‘Noles to a comeback win.

Second Thought: A mixed bag

The Florida Gators and IHOP created a promotion that read if the fans can reach a certain decibel level, all the fans will receive free pancakes.

They reached it before kickoff.

With this in mind, any quarterback would struggle in that environment, much less a backup QB on the road.

Tate Rodemaker played inconsistently on Saturday, and his performance felt like a mixed bag.

Early on in the game, it was clear that he was struggling. The Seminoles took multiple delay-of-game penalties, including one inexplicably out of a media timeout. The late Florida pressure gave Tate trouble all game, and his slow information processing led to Florida's safety. However, he battled and clawed to keep Florida State in the game, and once he settled down, he produced brilliant moments. His best throw of the day came on the Seminoles’ longest TD drive as he hit Jaheim Bell in stride on a seam pattern for a first down. In the 4th quarter, he laid it all on the line, escaping a sack and getting close to the sticks before getting walloped by two Florida players. This type of fight riled up his team, and FSU punched the ball in the end zone three plays later.

After the game, Mike Norvell mentioned the up-and-down play of his backup-turned-starter.

Charles Mays/Tomahawk Nation

“There’s some things he’s going to learn from, we had some early mistakes just with the play never feel him go up or down...I thought he made some really big throws; he was what we needed.”

In the end, that is the truth. Tate did not let a bad play become a bad day; besides, the safety he played mostly clean football. In a neutral environment this weekend, I expect him to be settled into the game earlier and continue to show off his lively arm.

Final Thought: Coaching Gaffes

As I’ve said before, I do not proclaim to be an expert in play-calling. This stuff is incredibly nuanced and complicated, explaining why so few people are in these positions. However, a couple of decisions from both coaches blew my mind yesterday.

Starting with Billy Napier, his decisions made zero sense. On Florida’s third drive of the game, they found themselves inside the FSU red zone, facing a 4th and inches, with the offense on the field. At this point, the ‘Noles struggled to stop the run, and the Gators could put a backup QB in a quick 14-0 early. Instead, Napier decided to call timeout and boot the field goal. I’m not an analytics guy, but 5-6 at home against the #5 team in the country. Yeesh.

Later on, Billy Napier wanted to learn from his conservative mistake but did it at the wrong time. After FSU kicked off from their own 20 because of safety, Florida received excellent field position on the Florida State 40-yard line. Up 12-0 with just six minutes on the clock, Florida could have put this one out of reach. However, they decided to run a double reverse toss playback to Max Brown. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your interest, the Seminoles were all over it and sacked Brown for a 14-yard loss. UF went three and out, gave the ball back to the ‘Noles, and scored on the ensuing drive.

Finally, the poor call from Mike Norvell. After FSU went down the field and scored a touchdown: 26 seconds remained on the clock, and Florida looked ready for halftime. However, Mike Norvell wanted another crack and decided to call a timeout to force UF to run more plays. His gamble did not pay off. Montrell Johnson Jr. ripped off his longest run of the day, and if not for a holding call, Florida State may have been down more at the half and lost all momentum. It was a strange time to extend the game. The Seminoles were lucky only to be down five and were dying to get back inside the locker room. Luckily, the call did not burn them, but the headman made an error on that one.