Three thoughts on FSU’s upset victory over North Carolina

Florida State surprised the country on Saturday night as the Seminoles knocked off previously undefeated No. 5 North Carolina, 31-28. On the first drive of the game, FSU blocked a punt to set up a touchdown run by Jordan Travis and the team carried that momentum into a 24-0 first-half lead. The Tar Heels rebounded but the ‘Noles were able to hold on late to secure the victory.

This was an encouraging performance across the board, from the coaches to the players executing and showing plenty of fight. This is certainly a moment that the program can use as a building block moving forward as they prepare for the second half of the 2020 season.

Here are three thoughts on the upset victory.

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1. For the first time this season, Florida State’s defensive line showed up

For the first four games this season, I’ve been extremely disappointed in the defensive line and their lack of production. I haven’t held back in articles or on our weekly podcasts for Hear The Spear. Consistently, I’ve called out Marvin Wilson, Robert Cooper, Cory Durden, Janarius Robinson, and Joshua Kaindoh for failing to live up to all the hype they received over the offseason. I’m glad to be eating my words today because man did this unit show up in a big way on Saturday.

For the first time this season, Florida State was able to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback while also getting a push up front against the run. North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell took plenty of hits throughout the night and it was clear that he was uncomfortable behind his offensive line as the game went on. It was a night and day difference from what we had seen up to this point. Rather than getting blown off the ball, the defensive line was being aggressive and physical at the point of attack.

The team came into this contest with just three total sacks in four games. Against the Tar Heels, the Seminoles forced four sacks and 8 tackles for loss. Time and time again, the defense tightened up when it was needed as North Carolina converted on just 2/11 of its third downs and 0/3 on fourth down.

Wilson made his presence felt in the middle with multiple stops at the line of scrimmage. Cooper had a big push on fourth and one to stop UNC deep in Seminole territory. Kaindoh had a pick-six (what?) and showed great energy. Robinson entered the game with zero sacks or tackles for loss, he walked out of this win with two sacks and three TFLs. It wasn’t only the veterans. Dennis Briggs Jr returned to action following opting out prior to the season and made three tackles. Redshirt freshman defensive end Derrick McLendon had a tackle for loss and was physical all night. Not to mention, this performance came without Fabien Lovett or Tru Thompson in the lineup.

The emergence of the defensive front in this game injected an infectious confidence into the rest of the unit. Jaiden Lars-Woodbey played his best game of the season, finishing second on the team with eight total tackles and a pass break-up. It was promising to see him play well and enjoy doing it as Lars-Woodbey displayed some intensity after big plays. Asante Samuel Jr continued to lock down an entire side of the field. Jarvis Brownlee made an impact on the game with his speed on blitzes as he sacked Howell out of his cornerback position.

What else can you say about the linebackers? Outside of getting burned on a few tight end routes, Stephen Dix Jr showed why he’s a better option right now than Leonard Warner, leading the team with nine tackles. Emmett Rice was flying around all game which led to his eight tackles and one tackle for loss. The only worrying thing for me was it didn’t seem like Amari Gainer played much against North Carolina. Adam Fuller did lean on the 4-2-5 for most of the game but you’d think they want him on the field regardless unless he was dealing with some sort of injury. He’s one of the stars on this defense and you’ve got to keep him involved as much as possible.

If the Seminoles continue to show these multiple looks on defense and play fast and physical as we saw against North Carolina, there’s plenty to be excited about moving forward. But can they do it again? That’s my next challenge for this unit.

2. Jordan Travis is the perfect leader for this team

Travis did just enough on Saturday night to help guide Florida State to an upset victory but most impressively, was how he did it. Without the luxury of star Tamorrion Terry in the lineup, the redshirt sophomore was still able to connect with four different receivers on 30+ yard passes and found Cam McDonald for a touchdown. More importantly, he was sacked just once and kept countless plays alive with his legs that probably should’ve gone for negative yards.

As expected, Travis was once again productive on the ground despite getting banged up. He finished the game with 16 carries for 107 yards and two touchdowns. Late in the third quarter, he took a tough hit and was in some noticeable discomfort. Travis’ left arm was hanging limp at his side and no one would’ve faulted him if he didn’t return to the game. Instead, he stepped back onto the field in the fourth quarter and had his biggest run of the night while dealing with an injury, a 19-yard scamper on third down that moved FSU into field goal range.

It was a gritty effort that displayed the amount of toughness that Travis truly has in him. Another play that stood out was the amount of effort that he showed on La’Damian Webb’s 54-yard run to get up in front of the running back and attempt to throw a block for him. Those are the little things that win your teammates over, make them believe in you, and get them to play harder.

At a time when this program has shown that it can be a little fragile mentally, Travis has been the steady rock since his insertion into the starting lineup.

3. Mike Norvell and his coaching staff have their first signature win

Entering this game, Florida State had yet to defeat an FBS opponent or win a conference game under new head coach Mike Norvell. Those boxes have now been more than checked off as Norvell and his staff earned their first signature victory in Tallahassee. This was the program’s first win against a top-5 team since 2014 (Notre Dame) and it came at the time it was needed the most.

Not only does this help the current guys on the roster buy-in even more and believe in what the staff wants to do, it could also impact recruiting. There was a definite cause for concern that the decommitment of legacy linebacker Branden Jennings Jr could lead to more guys leaving the class or scaring potential targets away. Now, FSU can point to a game like this as a selling point that the staff is beginning to right the ship.

There’s no doubt that this is a process that is going to take time. However, this may be the moment we look back on years from now where it all began to come together.

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