TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – On a night when Florida State honored the life and legacy of Burt Reynolds, the Seminoles paid perfect tribute to “The Bandit.”
The Seminoles had a few run-ins with “Smokey,” then, just as trouble seemed to close in from all sides, they turned a corner, dropped the hammer on that black Trans-Am and cruised to a great escape for Willie Taggart’s first career victory at FSU.
After trailing by as many as 13 points, and by five late in the fourth quarter, the Seminoles took their first lead with a five-yard touchdown pass from Deondre Francois to Tre’ McKitty with 4:03 to play.
A few moments later, Levonta Taylor added some style with a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown that sealed a 36-26 win and allowed the 72,239 fans in attendance to exhale on their way out of the stadium.
Florida State (1-1) improved to 24-0 against FCS/Division I-AA opponents and will look to even its ACC record next week at Syracuse (noon, ESPN).
“Good win for the Noles,” Taggart said. “I’m excited our guys found a way to win the ballgame. It wasn’t pretty, but it was good to see our guys find a way to come back and get a win.”
Taggart acknowledged the obvious: A late, come-from-behind victory against a team from a lower division – even a good team, at that – isn’t what most fans had in mind when they entered the stadium.
The Seminoles had too many penalties (nine for 69 yards), converted four of 14 third downs and, despite clamping down in the second half, surrendered 525 yards of total offense.
But for a program still early in its transition under a new coaching staff, “Pretty” can wait for another day. (Ask Nebraska, a loser in its debut under a promising new coach, if it would take an ugly win right now.)
“It’s hard to win a football game,” Taggart said. “It’s not easy at all. And I don’t care what kind of win you get, if you get a ‘W,’ you should be excited.”
Samford, ranked No. 9 in the Football Championship Subdivision Top 25, had 10 days to prepare for the Seminoles after opening its season last Thursday. And it showed on the Bulldogs’ first play from scrimmage – a 54-yard touchdown pass from Devlin Hodges to Kelvin McKnight dubbed “Spear.”
“(McKnight) has been wanting to run this double-move all year, and so we called it “Spear” for the Florida State Seminoles,” Samford coach Chris Hatcher said. “We practiced it all week and ran it on the first play and it worked pretty good.”
The Bulldogs missed the point-after attempt, but tacked on another touchdown that made it 13-0 and, for the next three-plus quarters, kept the Seminoles at arm’s length and dangerously close to their first ever loss against an FCS opponent.
Every time the Seminoles threatened to overcome their slow start, the Bulldogs had an answer.
When Tamorrion Terry scored FSU’s first touchdown of the season – on a beautiful, 27-yard pass from Francois down the left sideline – Samford tacked on a field goal that pushed FSU’s deficit back to two scores.
When Francois later kept the ball on a read-option play and waltzed easily into the end zone, the Bulldogs countered with another Hodges-to-McKnight connection, this one from 27 yards for a score.
“Words can’t even explain how frustrated we were,” McKitty said. “But we got it together.”
Terry’s second TD of the night made it 23-21 at halftime, and, despite signs that the teams might trade scores for the rest of the night, it stayed there until midway through the fourth quarter, when Samford added one more field goal that pushed their lead five points.
It would be the Bulldogs’ last scoring play of the night.
“I was impressed with our defense. Especially in the second half,” Taggart said. “I thought we made some adjustments that we needed to.”
Beyond that, though, the Seminoles had plenty to critique about their performance.
There were penalty flags that wiped out big gains, there was a pedestrian 3.8 average yards per carry for FSU’s rushing attack, and there were two missed field goals.
All told, there were a lot of the same things that led to defeat against Virginia Tech five days ago.
“It wasn’t a clean game at all,” Taggart said. “… We know, by far, that wasn’t our best in that game. We’ve got to play cleaner. We’ve got to play smarter.”
This time, though, FSU found its resolve and, as a result, found a welcome victory.
Staring at a five-point deficit and, in some respects, with their young season on the line, the Seminoles embarked on an 11-play, 82-yard drive that ended in McKitty’s go-ahead touchdown.
Along the way, FSU converted two third downs, overcame a bad snap that scored as a fumble and bounced back from a shovel pass that lost seven yards on first-and-goal.
When Francois’ third-and-goal pass found McKitty in the middle of the end zone, there was no hiding the relief.
“It was very satisfying,” Francois said. “That was a play that we worked on. ‘Coach T’ called it at the right moment, Tre’ ran a great route, the line blocked great. I didn’t even get touched the play. And we executed. That’s what we need to do.”
Francois threw for three touchdowns and ran for another while completing 31 of 46 passes for 320 yards.
He found a worthy counterpart in Samford’s Devlin Hodges, who threw for 475 yards and two scores.
But Hodges, who could become the FCS’ all-time leading passer this season, was also picked off four times – two from Kyle Meyers, one from A.J. Westbrook and one from Taylor.
“You can tell that (Hodges) has a great understanding of their offense, and he’s really accurate throwing the football,” Taggart said. “… And we knew going in that he would challenge us. I thought we would get to him more.”
Indeed, Florida State finished without a sack and had only three tackles for loss.
Increasing those numbers will no doubt be added to Taggart’s to-do list this week, but, for now at least, that same 24-hour rule that applied when FSU lost to Virginia Tech will be put to better use.
Enjoy a victory – even one that came harder than he would have liked – then get back to work on Monday.
“For us to play as bad as we did and find a way, I was impressed with our guys that they didn’t quit and they found a way to win a game,” Taggart said. “I thought it was a hell of a comeback. And for them to do that says a lot about them.”
Laborn suffers dislocated knee
Taggart confirmed that redshirt freshman running back Khalan Laborn suffered a dislocated knee when returning a kick in the first quarter. He did not offer a timeline for Laborn’s return.
“I hate it for Khalan,” Taggart said. “He worked really hard to help our football team.”