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Four Downs: FSU football takeaways, analysis

Camm McDonald a reliable option, FSU’s strong ball control offensively, and more

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Boise State v Florida State Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Four takes from the week in Florida State Seminoles football:

1. Camren McDonald establishing himself as a dependable starter at tight end

Seminoles fans have seen an uptick in offensive production from Florida State the past three games since the Miami blowout where they were held to just 10 points. In the last month, FSU has seen steady improvement from essentially every individual starting position on the offense.

Speaking of improvement, a player who has already doubled his production from last season is junior tight end Camren McDonald. After grabbing 6 passes for 43 yards in a reserve role his sophomore year, McDonald has already racked up 13 catches for 139 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2020.

As the third-leading receiver on the team, the Long Beach, California native has caught at least one pass in every game this season, despite the Noles utilizing a run-based offense. Perhaps his biggest reception this year came against North Carolina last week.

With just 25 seconds left before halftime, redshirt sophomore quarterback Jordan Travis completed a key scoring drive when he scrambled to his right, stopped on a dime and delivered what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown to McDonald. The 6-4’, 238-pound tight end wisely broke off his route mid-play and found a soft area in the Tar Heels coverage to make it 31-7.

“I think the big plays from scramble drills come from repetitions at practice. Jordan is really good getting that extra reps in after practice. I am glad it paid off the way it did,” said McDonald.

After UCLA graduate transfer tight end Jordan Wilson was injured in camp, depth was a little thin at the position with true freshmen and walk-ons like Preston Daniel and even former quarterback Wyatt Rector backing McDonald up. Daniel had a big catch on Saturday against UNC as well, but a lack of highly-touted options at tight end made it all the more crucial that McDonald stay healthy and contribute regularly this season.

Always coming across as an insightful, mature interview in media availability, McDonald said “it felt good to do to be able to do it for the Seminole family” when discussing the North Carolina win last Saturday. A lot of the players have done a great job echoing head coach Mike Norvell’s principles and message frequently in interviews, but perhaps none more so than McDonald.

“The reason why the team is growing the way that we do, is because that is the daily focus of the program. Getting better by 1% daily,” said McDonald. “When you see that from an individual perspective and a team perspective that is because it is emphasized.”

When I asked Travis about McDonald on Wednesday, he called the junior tight end “really special” and a “great player.”

“He’s big, he’s fast, he has great routes. He is a great person and a great teammate to have on the field at all times,” said Travis. “It’s a great feeling for sure, just dropping back and knowing you have a big dude who can make plays.”

2. Offensive ball control and clock management proving to be crucial for Florida State

It’s an old adage in the sport of football. Control the clock, run the football, and most importantly, spare your defense some extra time to rest in between possessions. It sounds simple, but it is something Florida State has struggled with in recent seasons.

Not on Saturday night against North Carolina. When the defense was tasked with containing a phenomenal second-half performance from sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, Noles head coach Mike Norvell wisely limited possessions.

Even though FSU was shut out in the second half, they squeezed every second of the clock they could when they did possess the football. Arguably the biggest drive of the game came when they failed to score but ran nearly 7 minutes off the clock midway through the fourth quarter.

A red-hot Howell could only watch from the sidelines when quarterback Jordan Travis and backs Jashaun Corbin and La’Damian Webb took turns plowing ahead for moderate gains. FSU missed a short field goal, but the damage was done when UNC got the ball back still down 10 with only 6 minutes left in the game.

“That fourth quarter drive really ate up a lot of clock. We need to finish with the ball in the end zone. There are some things that we’ve got to do better in our execution, but I thought that was a big drive,” said Norvell. “Definitely was proud of our guys for being able to put together some sustained drives throughout the contest.”

The ball control from the Seminoles was likely a big reason we saw the defensive line continue their best performance of the season by far late into the game. Fresh legs for pass-rushers like seniors Marvin Wilson and Janarius Robinson made it that much tougher for Howell to make the plays North Carolina needed to win the game.

Despite controlling the clock in the second half, FSU impressively showed they could still accomplish a “hurry-up” drive when they scored to end the first half. Being able to transition successfully between speeds that drastically on offense is an underrated skill.

Typically, a program that runs a slower-paced offense struggles to succeed in two-minute situations. Conversely, up-tempo offensive attacks normally are poor at slowing it down when the situation dictates it.

Arkansas offensive coordinator and former Florida State play-caller Kendal Briles has directed a strong offense statistically throughout his career. But last year in a similar situation that Norvell’s squad found themselves in against UNC, the 2019 Noles were nursing a second-half lead and failed miserably to execute and control the clock.

Last season against Virginia, Florida State was on the road and underdogs but leading 24-23 with 6 minutes to play. In a quintessential clock-burning situation, with the sixth all-time leading rusher in school history in Cam Akers in the backfield, Briles called three straight pass plays and only managed to burn 50 seconds before punting it back to Virginia.

Unsurprisingly, an already-gassed defense that had just given up lengthy 11-play and 13-play scoring drives the two possessions before relented another touchdown drive immediately following the Noles’ three-and-out. FSU lost the game 31-24.

Even if by the end of the year Norvell and current offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham’s raw stats offensively end up similar to the Briles-led offense of last season, their execution in key clock management situations is a definite upgrade.

3. Can Florida State defense pull off another strong first half against Louisville?

In a somewhat shocking turn of events, Florida State’s defense outscored North Carolina the first 28 minutes of game-time 7-0 when defensive end Joshua Kaindoh picked off Howell and took it to the house.

FSU completely turned the tables on what anybody expected heading into the game. UNC still ended up with 558 total yards and 27 first downs, but the last time the defense had a start like that Jimbo Fisher was roaming the sidelines half a decade ago.

A frequent feat during the glory days of Bobby Bowden and the dynasty years, Florida State last held an ACC opponent scoreless for the first 28 minutes of a game in 2016.

In what seems like a lifetime ago, junior running back Dalvin Cook passed Warrick Dunn to become FSU’s all-time leading rusher when defensive lineman Demarcus Walker and company shut out Syracuse the first 29 minutes in the first half of a 45-14 win.

Syracuse wasn’t a great team that season by any stretch (4-8 in 2016), and certainly weren’t ranked anywhere near No. 5 in the country like UNC was this past weekend. You would have to go back even further to find the last time a Seminole defense limited an upper-tier offense or even a ranked opponent like the Tar Heels for nearly an entire half.

The most recent first-28-minute shutout over a ranked opponent was the famed 27-2 smackdown in Gainesville over Florida in 2015.

Just like the offenses’ revitalization against Jacksonville State, or the goal-line stand by the defense at the end of the Notre Dame game, holding a potent offense like North Carolina’s scoreless for a lengthy stretch is again another huge bright side despite the gaudy stats UNC accumulated in the second half.

Those who follow the program were cautiously optimistic that these positive developments were signs of the team turning a corner, but pessimists could point out that the Gamecocks are a member of the FCS, or that the Fighting Irish were just going through the motions at the end of the game that was already decided.

However, these silver linings keep piling up one after another in the ever-improving murky sky of a program Norvell inherited in December. It’s looking less and less optimistic but rather just realistic to absorb these stretches of top-notch performances from units on the 2020 team and take them as what they are: great signs from a first-year head coach and his staff already making a significant impact on the quality of the team.

4. In final 5 games sans-Clemson, 4-1 is possible, while 3-2 should be the floor

Even with the win over UNC, Florida State is sitting precariously between posting a respectable year around .500, or dropping a few winnable games (like they already did against Georgia Tech) that could lead to their worst season in over 45 years.

Despite just going through a tumultuous past three years, FSU still hasn’t fell below the five-win mark in a season since before Bobby Bowden was hired way back in 1975 (Darrell Mudra went 3-8).

The good news is Florida State has already faced three of the four strongest opponents on their schedule in Miami, Notre Dame, and North Carolina. Nothing is guaranteed for a rebuilding program like Florida State, but the second half of the schedule sets up fairly well for the Seminoles. For the sake of this discussion, let’s pull out No. 1 Clemson and look at the other five.

The five-game slate begins this Saturday at Louisville (1-4), then in Doak Campbell against Pittsburgh (3-3), then back on the road at No. 23 N.C. State (4-1). The 2020 season concludes versus Virginia (1-3) and then at Duke (1-5).

That’s not exactly Octoberfest or murderer’s row. On the other hand, FSU could very well be underdogs in three of the five games, and the Noles are still getting around five points heading into their matchup with the Cardinals.

But all five games are certainly winnable. A 4-1 record in the five remaining contests other than Clemson could be a boon for recruiting, and would lift the program to the level of renewed enthusiasm among the boosters and fanbase needed to turn things around.

Even pulling out a 3-2 stretch may not sound earth-shattering, but it was good enough to help Bowden in 1976 when he was trying to turn around the program and barely squeaked out three one-possession wins in the final three games.

That’s another thing- it doesn’t matter how the team wins those three or four games. Never is Al Davis’ motto “just win, baby” truer than a rebuilding season where expectations are already low. And a season where the program missed essentially the entire spring.

If FSU can grab a win at Louisville, they’ll stand just victories over Virginia and Duke away from squeaking out a 5-6 record. Florida State is 35-4 all-time combined against the Cavaliers and the Blue Devils.

A shot at 6-6 with a win in a bowl would draw rave reviews for Norvell after the bizarre lead-up heading into 2020 and the hinderances he faced as a first-year head coach without a true offseason.