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RALEIGH, N.C. – Nine months ago, an early-November road trip to North Carolina State, sandwiched between contests against Clemson and Notre Dame, had all the classic signs of a trap game for the Florida State football team.
But there are no trap games for 4-4 teams looking to reach a bowl for the 37th consecutive season, and, as such, the Wolfpack has FSU’s full attention.
The Seminoles (4-4, 2-4 ACC) will meet NC State at 3:30 p.m. in the first of four consecutive games against teams ranked in the College Football Playoff Top 25 to end the regular season.
And, despite being on the wrong end of a 59-10 decision against Clemson last week, the Seminoles are viewing the final month of the season as an opportunity to improve, pick up some quality victories and finish their season the same way every FSU team for the last 36 seasons has – in a bowl game.
“It’s a completely fresh start,” FSU lineman Cole Minshew said. “We’re treating this game just like any other game. Going in with a game plan and attacking it just like any other week. Just trying to prepare and be ready for NC State.”
Florida State enters the game with roster questions, particularly at quarterback, where Deondre Francois’ status is uncertain after sustaining an injury last week.
If Francois can’t go, coach Willie Taggart will turn the reins over to James Blackman for essentially the first time this season.
Blackman has played sparingly this year, but his energy and enthusiasm, as well as a Florida State offense that looks like it could use a boost, have led to some in the FSU fan base clamoring for the sophomore to get a look.
While making a first start of the season on the road at an ACC opponent might be a big ask, both Blackman’s teammates and coaches have his back.
And Blackman did have an encouraging, albeit brief, outing against Clemson, completing 3 of 4 passes for 88 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“There’s a reason he plays at Florida State, and there’s a reason he played last year when his number was called,” offensive coordinator Walt Bell said. “I’m excited to see him play well (against Clemson) and to go out there and do his job.”
Beyond quarterback, there’s intrigue surrounding the Seminoles’ depth chart at large after Taggart said he saw a lack of effort at times against the Tigers.
Further clarifying during his Monday press conference, Taggart compared the problem to a “bad egg” – not an epidemic, but enough to spoil a meal.
Still, players who don’t give the proper effort won’t play, Taggart said. Which means there’s at least the possibility that the Seminoles could look a little different when they take the field Saturday.
Two changes are guaranteed: Starting receiver Nyqwan Murray and reserve linebacker Zaquandre White will miss the first half after being ejected last Saturday.
“Our entire football team needs to understand exactly what we mean about quitting, what we mean about competing and what the standard is here at Florida State when we go out there on the football field and play,” Taggart said. “It’s going to be that way, no ifs, and or buts about it. And we’re going to hold everyone accountable, players and coaches, to live up to that standard.”
The Seminoles on Saturday will face an NC State team that might be as big of a mystery as a team can be in November.
The Wolfpack started 5-0, beat now-ranked Virginia and Boston College and climbed as high as No. 16 in the national rankings. But they have since sputtered on their way to losses to Clemson and Syracuse in back-to-back weeks, having allowed 41 and 51 points, respectively, in those contests.
And the Wolfpack missed an opportunity for a high-profile, non-conference win when its Week 2 home game against then-No. 15 West Virginia was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence.
One thing that’s certain: FSU’s pass defense will be tested for a second consecutive week. NC State’s Ryan Finley ranks seventh nationally with 321.4 yards per game, and he completes nearly 70 percent of his passes.
And because of NC State’s quick-passing offensive scheme, Finley is rarely sacked. Opposing defenses have brought him down just four times this season.
Finley also has the ACC’s leading receiver in 6-foot-3 junior Kelvin Harmon (46 catches, 794 yards, 4 TDs).
“They don’t make a lot of mistakes (on offense),” FSU linebacker Dontavious Jackson said. “Pretty good offensive line, and they know what they want to do. They know what their strengths are and they run their offense around it.”
Speaking of strengths, the statistics suggest a pass-heavy game on both sides, regardless of who is playing quarterback for the Seminoles.
Both FSU and NC State have leaned heavily on their air attacks, and neither have been able to get much going on the ground.
NC State ranks sixth nationally in passing yards per game, and FSU 36th. Each team’s rushing offense, however, is near the bottom of the country.
“It’s a big-time game for us,” Taggart said. “An important game for us.”
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Head coach Willie Taggart
Offensive coordinator Walt Bell
Defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett
WR D.J. Matthews
LB Dontavious Jackson