TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In some ways, No. 19 Florida State’s 24-3 loss to No. 20 Virginia Tech on Monday night made all the sense in the world.
Teams that commit five turnovers, go 1 for 4 in the red zone and surrender 14 tackles for loss, as the Seminoles did, usually end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
But in other ways, what happened here at Doak Campbell Stadium defies explanation.
Because after nine months of optimism and renewed energy, spurred by talk of “Lethal Simplicity” and a return to the glory days, who would have predicted this result?
Not just a loss, but a loss like this?
No one wearing garnet and gold, it turns out.
That includes coach Willie Taggart, whose long-awaited debut was spoiled by the sharper, more opportunistic Hokies.
“It was not what any of us expected,” Taggart said. “The guys have been practicing really well, and I thought that they would come out and play well.
“We did not play a good game at all.”
Looking at the box score, it was hard to argue.
FSU’s offense moved the ball – the Seminoles actually outgained Virginia Tech, 327-319 – but sputtered in key situations.
Four drives reached inside Virginia Tech’s 20-yard line, but only one ended with points – a 22-yard field goal at that.
FSU struck for six plays of at least 20 yards, but often followed those big gains with procedural penalties or, worse, missed blocking assignments.
As a result, the Seminoles often found themselves playing behind the sticks and facing an uphill climb against veteran coordinator Bud Foster’s defense.
No surprise, then, that the Hokies sacked Deondre Francois five times, stopped 14 plays in the backfield and limited FSU’s vaunted rushing attack to just 3.4 yards per carry.
And even that number was inflated by a late, 85-yard scamper from Cam Akers.
That play and the sequence that followed might have best summed up the game.
Bottled up for most of the evening, Akers finally broke free down the left sideline for a run that woke up the 75,237 fans in attendance and gave the Seminoles a chance at a dramatic rally.
Akers’ run ended at the 6-yard line, and, with first-and-goal, a two-touchdown deficit and nearly 12 minutes still on the clock, the Seminoles all of a sudden had a chance to flip the script and put pressure on the Hokies.
Instead, FSU went backward again – a run for no gain on first down, a loss of four yards on second down and, finally, a fumbled handoff on third down that all but ensured the final outcome.
Virginia Tech took care of that for good a few moments later, when Josh Jackson connected with Eric Kumah for a 49-yard touchdown pass that provided the final margin.
“It seemed there was something different each time,” Francois said of FSU’s red-zone troubles. “Little mistakes here and there, missed assignments, bad execution by me.
“It seemed like we just took turns making mistakes.”
That was the last of several missed opportunities for FSU, any one of which might have made things look different had they gone the other way.
Midway through the second quarter, Nyqwan Murray appeared to break free for a 31-yard touchdown that would have made it 10-7. But officials ruled him down at the 1-yard line and, despite replays that suggested Murray actually scored, the play was never reviewed.
Still, with first-and-goal inside the 1-yard line, Taggart expected his offense to finish the drive. Instead, the Seminoles were flagged for a false start, then sputtered and had to settle for a field goal.
“We’re just not winning one-on-one battles,” Taggart said. “There’s no synergy up front on the O-line. One guy misses a block, the next guy misses a block. We never did get anything going.”
On FSU’s previous drive, long passes from Francois to Khalan Laborn and Keith Gavin had the Seminoles humming and the Hokies on their heels for the first time.
Just as quickly, though, the drive stalled after the Seminoles lost five yards on first-and-10 at the Virginia Tech 15-yard line.
“It comes down to the fact that we had too many self-inflicted wounds,” center Alec Eberle said. “A fumble. A pre-snap penalty … just missed communications, missed assignments. I think that’s what hurt us.”
Florida State’s defense, meanwhile, seemed to be a bit of a bright spot, although few felt like admitting as much during post-game interviews.
After a rocky start in which Virginia Tech marched 75 yards in 10 plays for an opening touchdown, coordinator Harlon Barnett’s group settled in and largely held the Hokies in check.
The Seminoles forced either a punt or a turnover on downs on nine straight possessions, a stretch that began late in the first quarter and lasted until midway through the fourth.
FSU posted three sacks and seven tackles for loss of its own and, in a painful twist, could have recovered four Virginia Tech fumbles. The Hokies recovered all four.
“We’ve got to come up with those balls,” said junior defensive end Brian Burns, who had 1.5 sacks.
The Hokies did their part.
Not only did they grab five turnovers – three interceptions and two fumbles – but they also seized control of the game late in the second quarter with a devastating play on special teams.
Trailing by only a touchdown and seemingly headed for a manageable halftime deficit, the Seminoles lined up to punt from their end zone with about four minutes left in the second quarter.
Virginia Tech’s Chris Cunningham surged in from the edge and got a hand on the ball, and Kumah hauled it in for an easy score.
Consider it a painful nod to Frank Beamer, the former longtime Hokies coach whose trademark commitment to special teams earned the nickname, “Beamerball.”
Beamer was in attendance Monday night, serving as an honorary captain alongside FSU’s Bobby Bowden.
“We did exactly what we preached not to do,” Taggart said. “Turned the ball over and penalties and then get a punt blocked. It’s hard to beat a good team when you play sloppy that way.”
Near the end of his interview session, Burns was asked a question that’s likely on the minds of many Florida State fans, especially after watching last year’s team stumble to a 2-5 start and set in motion the events that brought Taggart to FSU in the first place.
Is this year’s team better equipped to handle adversity than its predecessor?
Burns didn’t hesitate with his answer:
“Yeah,” he said. Then again, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”
Burns and his teammates won’t have to wait long to prove themselves, at least to a degree.
They’ll host FCS Samford in just five days – Saturday at 7:20 p.m.
“We don’t like losing,” Taggart said. “… We’ve got to get back to work and get that momentum back on our side. And the only way you do that is to go back to work and go win a ballgame.”