After starting 2-0 for the first time in six years, heading into its ACC opener, the challenge was for Florida State Seminoles football to prove that Norvell’s message of rising against adversity and believing in the program was one that could be executed and that happened.
That challenge turned out to be much more than just being favored in an away game while wearing alternate uniforms — shutting down amazing athlete Malik Cunningham, adjusting personnel after injuries to key players in quarterback Jordan Travis, defensive end Jared Verse, defensive tackle Fabien Lovett and offensive lineman Robert Cooper, Tate Rodemaker shaking off his past to rise to the occasion and prove an entire swarth of observers wrong.
Florida State got breaks but did not luck its way into a win, it earned it through grit and effort and by overcoming plenty of obstacles. There was no bad snap from Louisville ruining a chip-shot field, no questionable call to be debated — FSU simply worked and worked and worked and made the plays it needed. Wide receiver Johnny Wilson, whose main struggle so far this year has been finishing catches, put together one of the more impressive receiving performances in recent FSU history. Brendan Gant, who has done whatever asked while in Tallahassee, made crucial plays on special teams coverage. Kevin Knowles, as the Seminoles defense did all night, rose up when absolutely needed and finished the game on Florida State’s terms, picking off Malik Cunningham.
“This program is not for everybody, but for the ones that are in that locker room, it’s for them because they embrace that challenge,” head coach Mike Norvell said after the win.
“Hard work does not guarantee success, but it will put you in the best position to achieve it. And that’s what these guys are doing.”
Rodemaker meeting the challenge in front of him cannot be overstated — with all the pressure and all the vitriol in the world bearing down on him, he stood strong and faced down a Louisville defense that was foaming at the mouth to key on. What stood out is that it was further proof Norvell does not appear to give up on players if they give him a reason to keep believing — most coaches, especially ones who have the ire of some of the more vocal and unrealistic parts of the fanbase, would not have kept tate Rodemaker in the game, but he stuck with him and gave him every opportunity to prove himself.
“I knew we could win with Tate,” he said. “I knew we could win with Tate. I’ve seen it in practice. I’ve seen him work. I’ve seen so much investment in being prepared for the moment. He got put in a challenging situation on the road.
“But, he just went out there and responded in the second half. It is just an incredible example of what this team is built on.”
The win felt quite unlike any other in perhaps the last decade of Florida State — conflicted with a sense of loss given the injuries, but also one that showcased a different level of rising to the occasion. Most of the FSU comebacks and gritty performances over the last few seasons have either been the result of out-talenting an opponent after a series of self-inflicted mistakes. The Seminoles lost talent and outside of some occasional miscues, played relatively clean football — a major difference given the impact penalties had on Louisville late.
For three years, Norvell has preached belief in the system — and until 2022, the players hadn’t had a chance to solidify that belief. Despite all the positive changes in the program, the results on the field were not there and in the end, winning gives the confidence needed to take a step forward.
“That’s the thing that makes Florida State special — the people,” Norvell said. “They’re incredibly talented young men and they’re growing up, and we’re still at the beginning of our journey — mistakes we made, we have a lot to clean up.”
“But, what matters to me is our character, our identity, the foundational elements of this program that we’re so worried about. When guys can’t go on the field, when they’re not available, but they’re still making an impact. That’s what makes it special.”
FSU has dominated one opponent (Duquesne), played with fire against another (LSU) and outplayed a third (Louisville) to get a smorgasbord of experience early in the season. It’s needed — next against Boston College is but a brief breath of air before the Seminoles take on an intimidating gauntlet of ACC opponents — Wake Forest, NC State and Clemson Tigers.
FSU will have its hands full, but with proof of its potential showcased, the mission seems much less daunting.