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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It really wasn’t A.J. Westbrook’s fault.
Two years ago, Westbrook was a sophomore safety, used mostly on special teams, thrust into a starting role after an injury to star Derwin James.
At the time, no one knew that Louisville’s Lamar Jackson would become the signature player of the 2016 season, rewriting both passing and rushing records on the way to the Heisman Trophy.
The Cardinals, however, knew that Florida State had a new guy in the secondary. And coach Bobby Petrino used his quarterback to test both Westbrook and the rest of FSU’s defensive backs relentlessly.
Not exactly a friendly welcome.
In an outburst that was equal parts fast and devastating, Louisville stunned the second-ranked Seminoles, 63-20, in a game that raised eyebrows across the country.
FSU will make its first return trip to Louisville on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ESPN2), and while the Seminoles have more important things to worry about than what happened two years ago, the ones who were there haven’t exactly forgotten about it, either.
“It is something I always think about, because it was when I first got out there, and felt very embarrassed,” Westbrook said. “Just embarrassed. I always think back to that. Just try to capitalize on the things I can do.”
A lot has changed since then, for both programs.
Westbrook, now a senior, has developed into a fine safety, a full-time starter in a secondary finding its stride under new coordinator Harlon Barnett.
For that matter, the Seminoles have almost an entirely new coaching staff, with defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins the only holdover from that 2016 staff.
And there aren’t many players on FSU’s current roster who logged significant action that day.
It’s a new-look Louisville team, too. Petrino is still there, but Jackson is gone. As are five other NFL draft picks from 2017 and 2018.
Like FSU, the Cardinals are in transition. And, like FSU, the Cardinals are 2-2 on the season and looking for a win that can give the rest of their season a boost.
“There’s some similarities there,” FSU coach Willie Taggart said. “And I think we’re all trying to do our best to correct those things, so our teams can get better.”
While most Seminoles said they intend to treat this game just like any other, it’s still hard to ignore the history.
Not only did the Cardinals top FSU two years ago, but they also came to Doak Campbell Stadium and beat the Seminoles, 31-28, in 2017.
Deondre Francois, Florida State’s starting quarterback in 2016, said it “still weighs on us.”
And Barnett, when told of Louisville’s point total over the last two years, said he expected his players to take this one personally.
“I would think so,” he said. “Yeah, absolutely.
“To say almost a combined 100 points – wow. Yeah, they’ll go up there fired up. We’ll be ready to go.”
Louisville’s transition into the post-Jackson Era has been uneven at best.
Both of the Cardinals’ losses have been lopsided – 51-14 in their opener against Alabama, and 27-3 last week at Virginia – and their only win against FBS competition came in a 20-17 escape over Western Kentucky two weeks ago.
Along the way, Louisville’s offense, so explosive and dynamic over the past few seasons, has tumbled to near the bottom of the country in most major categories.
Louisville ranks 125th out of 130 teams in total offense (284.3 yards per game), 124th in scoring offense (17.0 PPG) and 109th in average time of possession.
Petrino has rotated between two quarterbacks – Malik Cunningham and Jawon Pass – but neither has done much to separate himself from the other. Pass is completing 50.7 percent of his passes and has thrown two touchdowns against five interceptions.
Cunningham has fared a little better (64.7 percent, and a team-high 209 rushing yards), but after earning a start at Virginia last week, he was just 10 of 19 for 113 yards and an interception.
Petrino said earlier this week that he had a plan for how he’d use his quarterbacks against FSU, but wasn’t much in a sharing mood.
“It doesn’t do us any good to tell everybody that,” he said. “But we do need to improve and get better there.”
In a season filled with heavy swings from one week to the next – just think of all the different feelings and expectations surrounding the program from August until now – Florida State’s trip to Louisville will certainly be another.
If it goes well, the Seminoles will have their first winning streak of the season, an above-.500 record and some serious positive momentum heading into next week’s rivalry game at Miami.
It’s another chance to move forward and make that tough start to the season feel further and further away. And to make what happened here two years ago feel further away, too.
“That’s the past,” fifth-year senior Fredrick Jones said. “We can’t do nothing about that.
“But we can set up for our future.”
Taggart ‘hopeful’ that Dickerson can play: While it isn’t yet certain, Taggart is crossing his fingers that junior lineman Landon Dickerson will be available on Saturday. Dickerson hasn’t played since injuring his ankle against Virginia Tech, but he has participated in practice this week. Taggart said Monday that Dickerson’s recovery might be ahead of schedule.
“Landon is getting better,” Taggart said. “Each day, he’s gotten better, gotten more reps. He’s getting better and, hopefully, Saturday he can play.”
Odds and ends …
Week 3 interviews …
Head coach Willie Taggart
LB Dontavious Jackson
LB DeCalon Brooks
Defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett
DE Brian Burns
Offensive coordinator Walt Bell
C Alec Eberle
TE Tre McKitty