RALEIGH, N.C. – A new starting quarterback and a new play-caller gave Florida State’s offense a welcome and obvious boost.
Neither were enough to overcome North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley.
A fifth-year senior and perhaps the most NFL-ready quarterback prospect in the ACC, Finley threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns as NC State raced out to a quick lead and held off a brief FSU rally for a 47-28 victory at Carter-Finley Stadium.
After the game, coach Willie Taggart said he was pleased with his team’s effort, energy and engagement on the sideline – all of which were a step forward from last week’s loss to Clemson.
The next, biggest step, though, is for all of those things to translate to the scoreboard.
“I love this football team,” Taggart said. “I love our guys. They’re trying to do the things we ask them to do. …
“Our guys know how to play football. We’ve got to teach them to win.”
With offensive coordinator Walt Bell calling plays for the first time this season, sophomore James Blackman threw for a career-high 421 yards and four touchdowns in his 2018 starting debut.
And the Seminoles’ offense, despite not getting much help from its rushing attack, picked up a healthy 6.5 yards per play that was more than a full yard better than NC State’s 5.4.
Taggart said he handed play-calling duties to Bell in an effort to better serve the entire team – not just the offense.
And, “for the most part,” Taggart said, “I thought (Bell) did a good job.”
But aided by overwhelming advantages in average starting field position (plus-19 yards) and time of possession (37:30-22:30), NC State made sure it didn’t matter much.
Blessed with short fields for much of the afternoon, the Wolfpack scored on nine of their first 11 drives, including four straight to start the second half.
That turned what had been a relatively manageable halftime deficit – 27-14 – into a more lopsided affair throughout the second half.
NC State punted just twice, did not commit a turnover and enjoyed a combined 43.7-percent conversion rate on third and fourth downs.
“We have to play better ball on defense, Taggart said. “The plays are there to be made. They need to make a play on the ball.”
The Seminoles, meanwhile, hurt themselves with 13 penalties and two giveaways – a fumble that halted a promising early drive and an interception early in the second half as they were attempting a comeback.
Dating back to last week’s game against Clemson, the Seminoles have been flagged 28 times and are minus-three in turnover margin.
“Silly penalties and turnovers, you can’t have those things,” Taggart said. “Those things make you lose.”
With so many infractions, some were bound to come at big moments.
There were special teams penalties that led to poor field position. There were offensive penalties that wiped out big gains. And there were defensive penalties that extended NC State drives.
At one point, FSU defenders were called for pass interference in the end zone on back-to-back plays.
Some of those penalties were obvious. Others – such as a late-hit call on freshman Jaden Woodbey, when neither he nor the NC State ball-carrier seemed to have heard a whistle – had the Seminoles fuming.
“Penalties are draining,” Burns said. “I mean, you get a big play … you get the play called back. It just brings the whole team down.”
A bright spot for much of the season, receiver Tamorrion Terry continued to provide a silver lining with 142 yards and two touchdowns on just five catches. The redshirt freshman almost singlehandedly got FSU on the board in the second quarter, hooking up with Blackman for gains of 40 and 35 yards on back-to-back deep balls down the right sideline.
Seven of Terry’s 22 catches this season have gone for touchdowns.
Sophomore D.J. Matthews added 10 catches for 133 yards, including a late 31-yard touchdown that provided the final margin.
“I wish everyone played like (Terry),” Taggart said. “He made plays out there for us. It was good to see that.”
As for Blackman, Taggart said that he was pleased with the sophomore’s performance and was happy with the way he spread the ball around. Beyond that, though, Taggart wouldn’t make any declarations on whether Blackman or Deondre Francois would start next week at Notre Dame.
“I was encouraged by the way James threw the ball,” Taggart said. “He did a great job.”
With a 4-5 record and three games to play, FSU finds itself without much margin for error in its quest to make a 37th consecutive bowl game. The Seminoles visit No. 3 Notre Dame next week (7:30 p.m., NBC) and then will finish the regular season with home dates against Boston College and Florida.
It’s a difficult stretch, but one that Blackman expects the Seminoles to navigate – regardless of his role moving forward.
“You’ve got to come find a way,” he said. “It’s always about finding a way.”