TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Better hold off on those eulogies.
The Florida State football team, criticized all week and ridiculed on ESPN’s College Gameday preview show on Saturday morning, got off to a hot start and then pulled away late for a welcome, 37-19 victory over Northern Illinois at Doak Campbell Stadium.
While coach Willie Taggart will no doubt have plenty on his to-do list for next week’s practices, there was still a lot to like.
The Seminoles (2-2), stifled for much of last week’s tilt at Syracuse, flashed what was undoubtedly the most tantalizing glimpse of Taggart’s “Lethal Simplicity” offense yet: 473 yards on 89 plays and an ample number of big gains that kept the Huskies on their heels.
That includes a 78-yard touchdown pass from Deondre Francois to Tamorrion Terry which snuffed out NIU’s comeback bid early in the fourth quarter.
“I just think our players decided enough is enough,” Taggart said, “and that they were going to hold each other accountable to practicing better and to be better in meetings.”
“And it paid off.”
Did it ever.
Francois completed 23 of 31 passes for a season-high 352 yards and two touchdowns, while FSU’s running back duo of Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick combined for 120 yards and a score.
FSU’s defense, meanwhile, limited the Huskies (1-3) to just 221 total yards and only six yards on the ground.
Throw in what was likely FSU’s best special teams performance of the season – kicker Ricky Aguayo made all three of his field-goal tries, including a 50-yarder – and the Seminoles have a win that could perhaps turn into something of a turning point as they get to the meat of their ACC schedule.
“Offense, defense and special teams, we all feed off everybody’s energy,” senior defensive tackle Fred Jones said. “So when everybody’s up, we know we’ll stop them.”
It was clear from the Seminoles’ first possession that this game would be different than the ones that preceded it.
After receiving the opening kickoff, FSU was sharp and efficient in marching down the field for a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with an eight-yard touchdown pass from Francois to Patrick.
Better make that from Francois to Keith Gavin to Patrick. Francois’ pass was originally intended for Gavin in the middle of the end zone, but the ball deflected off of Gavin’s hands, took a big bounce across the field and landed in the waiting arms of a wide-open Patrick.
Never mind the details, FSU had a touchdown and its first, first-half lead of the season.
“I’m glad Jacques was there to make the play on it,” said Gavin, who finished with career highs in catches (six) and receiving yards (93).
“I didn’t really realize what happened at first. … But I saw it once I got up, and I was happy.”
Gavin and the 65,633 in attendance got even happier a few moments later. Because after the Seminoles’ defense forced a three-and-out on NIU’s ensuing possession, Francois and Co. were at it again with an eight-play, 70-yard scoring drive that made it 14-0.
This time, it was Cam Akers bouncing outside for a seven-yard touchdown, his first of the season.
“Those first two drives showed us what we can do and what we’re capable of,” Francois said. “So now that we’ve got those two drives in, and we know how to start fast, there’s no excuse for us not to start fast every game.”
FSU’s defense no doubt likes the sound of that.
Granted their first healthy lead of the season, coordinator Harlon Barnett’s group responded with a fast, physical and aggressive game that saw a number of heavy hits delivered to the Huskies running backs and receivers.
The Seminoles forced three-and-outs on each of NIUs first three possessions, limited the Huskies to only seven yards in the first quarter and finished the game with four sacks – two from blitzing cornerback Kyle Meyers.
“It was great,” sophomore defensive tackle Marvin Wilson said. “(The offense) came out strong, so that put a little ‘oomph’ in us, just to play harder. It made us play a bit looser, too. Not as tensed up, you’re not thinking as much.”
But whereas most of the first half could hardly have gone better for the Seminoles, the second left Taggart with plenty of talking points for when the team hits the practice fields again.
Because after setting the stage for a would-be blowout, FSU was slowed down by a collection of familiar foes: penalty flags, turnovers and a fierce opposing pass rush.
FSU fumbled five times, lost three of them, and threw one interception that had Taggart scratching his head.
Twice, those turnovers turned into NIU touchdowns, and what would have been third was wiped out when Huskies receiver Jauan Wesley stepped out of bounds before hauling in a pass in the end zone.
And, after being flagged just once in the first half, the Seminoles committed eight infractions in the second, bringing their season penalty total to 36.
“We’vegot to take care of the football better and play a cleaner ball game,” Taggart said. “Against a really football good team, you’re not going to win games playing the way we did today.”
Maybe not, but, in a sense, Saturday’s outcome might have been a perfect outcome for Taggart – a double-digit win, with plenty of room to improve.
The Seminoles will get another chance to take a step forward next week, when they’ll visit a Louisville team reeling after a 27-3 loss at Virginia.
“Wasn’t necessarily the best game, but it was a good win for our guys,” Taggart said. “Our football team got better today, something we needed to do.”