GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There’s a fresh future ahead for the Florida State football team, one that will likely begin in the coming days when the Seminoles welcome their new head coach.
Before that, though, FSU had one more chapter to write in its 2019 regular season. And it served as a stark reminder of why the Seminoles are changing directions in the first place.
Florida State matched an early Florida touchdown with one of its own, but otherwise couldn’t keep pace with the No. 8 Gators in a 40-17 defeat in front of 89,409 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“They beat us tonight. I’ve got to give credit for them,” said Florida State interim head coach Odell Haggins, who lost for the first time in five games in that capacity. “We didn’t go out and perform the way we wanted to perform – doing the little things right.”
Cam Akers ran for 102 yards and a touchdown, while Tamorrion Terry added seven catches for 131 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Otherwise, the night belonged to Florida (10-2), which beat FSU (6-6) in Gainesville for the first time since 2009.
UF scored on seven of its first eight possessions and converted 52.6 percent on third and fourth downs. Gators quarterback Kyle Trask threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns and was neither intercepted nor sacked by an FSU defense that was beset by even more injuries.
Already without Joshua Kaindoh, Jaiden Lars-Woodbey and Marvin Wilson, the Seminoles lost leading tackler Hamsah Nasirildeen to an apparent leg injury early on Saturday.
“We’ve had injuries all year,” Haggins said. “But these kids fought through adversity all year.”
They faced a little bit more later in the game when Nasirildeen’s fellow safety, Cyrus Fagan, was disqualified due to a targeting penalty – one of 13 infractions called against FSU.
As a result, the Gators went after FSU’s shorthanded defense and picked up 390 of its 467 total yards through the air. Florida State had a slight window in which to make things interesting early in the third quarter, but two third-down conversions (one via penalty) and a fourth-down conversion put the Gators on top by 27 and FSU never threatened much after that.
Haggins said that improving the pass defense – which can come in a variety of ways – will be a top priority before the Seminoles take the field again.
Yes, the secondary needs to tighten up. But the Seminoles could also turn up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, too. Florida entered the game ranked 75th nationally in sacks allowed, but FSU didn’t manage a single sack on Saturday.
“Some things we’ve got to work on as a defense, and keep working,” Haggins said. “You lose a guy like Marvin, top five in the nation (at) pressure, that hurts. But next man up. We’ve got to get better at that before this bowl.”
Added defensive end Janarius Robinson: “We’ve got to get after the quarterback, and we’ve got to lock down the back end. We’ve just got to do a better job of doing that.”
After FSU answered Florida’s opening score with a touchdown drive of its own – one in which offensive coordinator Kendal Briles seemed to draw from same rarely-seen pages of his proverbial playbook – the game showed hints of being the type of back-and-forth, dramatic affair that made this rivalry one of the nation’s best in the 1990s.
That Gators, however, kept on scoring while the Seminoles found themselves inches – or fingertips – short.
Blackman nearly hit Terry for what would’ve been a 75-yard touchdown on the Seminoles’ first play of their second drive. But the pass was just beyond Terry’s reach and the offense punted moments later.
On the offense’s next time out, trailing 20-7, Blackman again had Terry deep, but apparent miscommunication led Terry and fellow receiver Keith Gavin to occupy the same space. The ball hit Terry’s hand but he couldn’t make the catch.
Five plays later, Florida led 27-7. The Gators then added a long field goal that made it 30-7 at halftime.
“I feel like we came out ready to go, ready to win, knowing we had the confidence to win this game,” Blackman said. “Because honestly we knew the plays were going to be there. We just needed to hit them. And those plays weren’t hit.”
Blackman, though, was hit way far too often. The Gators sacked FSU quarterbacks eight times, which includes a stretch of three consecutive sacks during the fourth quarter.
Between sacks and penalties, the Seminoles cost themselves 153 yards. They finished with 250 yards of total offense.
“Penalties and things like that, that hurt us,” Blackman said. “Getting behind the sticks, that hurt us. Taking sacks, that hurt us. Missing deep plays, missing shots, that hurt us. … You’ve just got to execute when it’s time to execute and make the play when it’s there.”
And so Florida celebrated its first home win over FSU since 2009, and clinched back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since that same year.
Back then, the Gators were the kings of college football and the Seminoles looked like a rudderless ship at the end of the Bobby Bowden era.
But the balance of power in the state of Florida can shift in a hurry. Just a year later, FSU was putting the finishing touches on a lopsided win over the Gators that helped spark nearly a decade of dominance and sent UF spiraling toward mediocrity.
That the pendulum has swung back toward Florida for a spell shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But the Seminoles left Gainesville Saturday night determined to make sure that it doesn’t stay there for long.
A difficult chapter in a difficult season has come to a close. The future is now officially on its way.
“We’re going to keep loving them and keep pushing them,” Haggins said. “Letting them know the Florida State pride, that’s what it’s all about.”