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FSU vs. Notre Dame: Defensive breakdown, analysis

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NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State fought hard in a 41-38 overtime loss to Notre Dame in its opening game, with mistakes sprinkled in with a scrappy performance that reflected the difference a year can make for a football team.

“Our football team, they’re going to grow from this,” Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell said following the game. “I hate coming up short, but I think they showed their identity, their fight, and heart.”

Daring Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan to beat his team through the air (which, to Coan’s credit, he did and more by throwing for four touchdowns), the Seminoles’ previously much-maligned defense was a force to be reckoned with against the run. On top of that, a pass rush that was nonexistent in 2020 sprang to life via transfers Jermaine Johnson II and Keir Thomas, as well as Quashon Fuller who had a night of his own. Tackles for loss, sprinting to the ball, playing hard — all the good ol’ fundamentals you want from a team that previously shied away from doing any of that. There was the development that you wanted to see — in Fuller, in linebacker Kalen DeLoach, in the trenches overall.

But there were moments of growing pains, too — defensive back Travis Jay, namely, was in good position on two touchdown throws but failed to make the play, losing sight of the ball. There was a breakdown in coverage that allowed the game’s opening touchdown to occur, giving the Irish the easiest drive they’d have all night. There were so many pluses to the night, but still so much to improve on.

MVP

Jermaine Johnson, easily. The Georgia transfer showcased why he was the prize of FSU’s offseason additions, making his presence felt early and often in the backfield, registering two sacks and multiple tackles for loss.

“We prided ourselves on our approach,” he said after the game. “It’s a mindset.”

It was a mindset showcased from first snap to last, one that permeated throughout the team that last year at times looked like it just wanted games to end.

Questions moving forward

  • Will FSU be able to solidify its secondary? Coan hit four touchdowns through the air, a 51 percent success rate over the course of 22 plays, and for most of the night did what he wanted to do. If tight end Michael Mayer didn’t drop two crucial balls, this game might not have made it to overtime.
  • Who can solidify the Seminoles linebacking core? Throughout the night, the group fell short of the consistent execution needed from them, though linebacker Kalen DeLoach did showcase why he was named one of the more improved players over the course of fall camp.
  • Will FSU’s pass rush remain this consistent? On top of Johnson’s performance, there were strong showings by Keir Thomas and Quashon Fuller. The lack of pressure was a death knell to FSU’s defensive hopes in 2020. If things have been corrected on that front, that’s a huge step forward in 2021.