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The Climb Goes On: Florida State continues to strive for perfection as championship race heats up

While not always pretty, Florida State answered when they needed Saturday afternoon to stay undefeated

NCAA Football: Florida State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After walloping Wake Forest last week, the Florida State Seminoles looked to continue elevating its execution and consistency going on the road against a reeling Pittsburgh team.

It did not happen.

The ‘Noles did not score points until four minutes left in the second quarter, the defense lacked discipline in moments, and they kept Pitt in this game much longer than anyone wanted or expected while emerging with a 24-7 victory, 9-0 record and spot in the ACC Championship.

Welcome to the 2023 Florida State experience.

“It really took all three phases,” Mike Norvell said last night following the win. “There were obviously plays and some moments that we would like to have back, but I was really pleased with the response of our team.”

After the Clemson thriller, pundits nationwide had two schools of thought on Mike Norvell’s team: One side believed that FSU should be ranked #1 in the country with the two best wins to date, and the other feeling the Seminoles should feel lucky not to be 2-2 and unranked.

Nine weeks later, I still have no idea what to believe.

One can argue that FSU did what they needed to do — put up 500 yards of total offense without their best receivers, only gave up seven points and got the win. On the flip side, Florida State was six inches away from being down 14-0, let a quarterback that threw four interceptions the week before throw for 16 yards a completion, and did not score for the first time until late in the second quarter. Truthfully, now it does not matter what I think. We now need to view every result through the College Football Playoff committee’s lens, with the current outlook being that Florida State has no wiggle room in its record as it seeks a spot in the dance.

9-0 is all that matters at the end of the day, but the pressure of perfection will only get stronger with each passing week.

So yes, survive and advance, win and move on, control your own destiny all still ring true after this one. Florida State did what they needed, answered the call, and wore down an inferior opponent the way good teams do.

But the expectations have been raised. Games like you could excuse earlier in the year stick out more in the month of November — especially with championship hopes within reach.

First Thought: Follow the Leader

Anyone questioning Jordan Travis and his play becomes more ridiculous each week. Down four receivers and struggling to run the ball, No. 13 once again needed to put on the cape. He threw for over 350 yards for the second straight week, fought through a considerable limp, and spread the ball around to eight different receivers. It is now three weeks in a row where the play of the quarterback willed the team to victory.

He continued to “play at an elite level,” as Mike Norvell loves to say about him. Even down his favorite pass catchers, the outcome never felt doubted because of the play of the quarterback. Every game that he plays, Florida State always has the puncher’s chance. Travis continued his stellar play at the line of scrimmage, but his ball placement went to another level yesterday. The throw of the day to Ja’Khi Douglas over the shoulder looked like any top professional quarterback, perfectly placed on the outside shoulder for the speedy receiver’s longest catch. Pittsburgh’s game plan all day was to come after the sixth-year starter, not let him escape the pocket, and make difficult throws. He took what the defense gave him and did what Norvell asked. JT carried his depleted team to victory and kept all the team’s dreams alive.

Second Thought: Benson and the boys

As the players have gotten into rhythm in the last month and a half, the coaching staff also seems to find their groove. Mike Norvell and the offense called a perfect 37 runs to 37 passes. Even on a day when the offense averaged less than four yards a carry, the Seminole playcaller never went away from running the ball. The results were a mixed bag. It clearly helped down an aggressive Pitt front as the game wore on and used a 55-yard sprint from Trey Benson to put the game on ice.

FSU controlled the clock for ten minutes longer than the Panthers, helping them seal the game off when they went up double digits. However, they could not get a first down on back-to-back run plays from 3rd and 3 at the beginning of the game, resulting in the Seminole's fifth straight failure on a fourth down. Mike Norvell gave all four healthy running backs a chance at game action, and none felt close to taking the game over. Florida State needed to stay on schedule and keep from being one-dimensional down their top two pass catchers, and they did that. The issue was the run calls they made. Norvell continued to call long developing run plays against a blitzing Panther defense that led to Pitt finishing the day with eleven tackles for loss. As the months get cooler, running the ball will become necessary, and FSU needs to find its consistency.

Third thought: Bombs Away

Jarrian Jones said last week that when Florida State busts in coverage, it can be “bombs away” for an opposing offense. The Seminole defense made explosive plays and gave them up as usual. Pitt finished the day with nine big plays, including an 82-yard home run that almost went into the end zone if not for Fentrell Cypress’ heroic effort.

However, Adam Fuller’s group exploded in moments, forcing three turnovers and three sacks on the day. Mike Norvell commended their monumental moments.

“Defense made big plays, very impactful throughout the contest. Unbelievable on third downs, did not give up a third down.”

Their ability to not let Pitt gain momentum and follow up bad drives with good ones kept the Seminoles in the game and allowed the offense to gain their footing. The mixed bag on defense came through on PFF, with no player with more than four snaps producing a pass-rush grade of over 70. The miscommunication on defense and poor eyes led to the explosives by the Pitt offense, but when FSU dug their cleats in, they looked like the unit from last October. I am not alarmed by some of the defensive behavior because they proved in the previous four weeks that these were exceptions, not the group's rule. However, like all season long, consistency is lacking in this unit, and they are running out of time to figure it out.